Following the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s best-selling Roots: The Saga of an American Family, it became trendy, almost obsessive in some cases, to investigate one’s family roots – or perhaps more accurately one’s pedigree – in the hope of discovering descent from a great historical figure.
Yet roots – or genealogy if you will – has always been part of Jewish tradition. The Bible, with long lists of “begats,” provides ample evidence of that. In ultra-Orthodox circles, matchmakers seeking to arrange weddings have long been particular about pedigree, which if sufficiently illustrious, serves as a key point of persuasion.
Even if one is not directly descended from a distinguished personality, being distantly related is in itself sometimes noteworthy.
For instance, although President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often do not see eye-to-eye and have not been on the friendliest terms for quite some time, one thing they do have in common is that they are both distantly related to the Gaon of Vilna, although neither is a direct descendant.
One man who is a direct descendant of the Gaon of Vilna is genealogist Chaim Freedman of Petah Tikva, who made aliya from Australia in 1977. Freedman has been interested in Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (revered as the Vilna Gaon – the Genius of Vilna) since he was a boy in his native Melbourne.
Freedman, an eighth-generation direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, has spent decades researching genealogy and says that the number of known descendants of the Vilna Gaon and his siblings is in the range of 30,000. To coincide with the 200th anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon in 1997, Freedman published his laborious research in his 704-page book Eliyahu’s Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and his Family. The book was published by New Haven headquartered Avotaynu, a leading publisher of books, journals and newsletters geared to people researching Jewish genealogy, Jewish family trees and Jewish roots. There are some 20,000 names and numerous concise biographies in the book. Since publication, Freedman has compiled around 10,000 additional names.
“The fall of the Iron Curtain opened up many sources that enabled me to both add people as well as delete some links which were only theoretical in my book,” he tells The Jerusalem Post.
FREEDMAN’S INTEREST in genealogy began in early childhood during family gatherings at the home of his grandparents Zalman and Chana Raizel Kaye/Komesaroff.
They and their siblings would reminisce about relatives and the years they spent in Russia before migrating to Australia.
After the death of his grandparents, Freedman collected family photos and documents from Russia and with the help of his mother, constructed his first family tree.
He subsequently contacted relatives abroad and expanded the tree.
A great-uncle and memoirs of other family members ignited in him a deep interest in Jewish agricultural colonies and the way of life in what is now southeastern Ukraine. Freedman developed an extensive website that evolved into an ongoing project that he regards more as history than genealogy. He observes that genealogy enables one to understand history at the micro level through people’s experiences – in particular through the lives of relatives.
Freedman’s research into the family of the Vilna Gaon began as a sideline to tracing the backgrounds of his immediate family. Very little material was accessible from Australia, he recalls, but once he moved to Israel in 1977, he gained access to the country’s libraries and archives. For Freedman and others interested in genealogy, the advent of email and Internet vastly expanded communication and access to sources.
From his research of personal rabbinical ancestry Freedman became interested in rabbinic genealogy in general. This was initially inspired and aided by fellow Australian genealogist, the late Shmuel Gorr, who contributed material on great rabbis to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Gorr also specialized in name changes and alternatives that derived from translation, abbreviation or simply misreading one or more letters in a name. For instance, the Cyrillic G becomes an H in the Latin alphabet so that Gurewitz and Hurewitz are essentially the same name. To complicate matters even further, each can be spelled in multiple ways.
Abbreviations complicate genealogical research. In the case of the generation of Freedman’s grandparents, some of the Komesaroff family changed their name to Kaye. It made them less foreign and enabled them to better integrate into Australian society. Translated names also create obstacles for genealogists. Israelis called Shehori, for example, may originally have been called Schwartz, while members of the same family who migrated to an English-speaking country might be named Black.
Although genealogists still use handwritten birth, marriage and death records in their research, as well as paper documents from synagogues and burial societies, much of this material has been digitalized, which makes it more accessible. Modern technology has been a great a boon to genealogists, says Freedman, noting that in addition to email and the Internet, his research has been greatly aided by genetic testing.
Because he is internationally recognized as an expert researcher, Freedman briefly worked as a professional genealogist, but he found that immersing himself in other people’s searches was too demanding and deprived him of time required for investigating his own pet projects, so he gave it up in order to focus on his personal genealogical interests.
He has written widely in genealogical publications and is a member of JFRA (Jewish Family Research Association) in Israel, as well as genealogy societies in Australia and Britain. He also participates in close to a dozen online genealogy forums.
LIKE FREEDMAN, British-born Ingrid Rockberger has been keenly interested in genealogy since childhood.
Rockberger, who made aliya with her family in 1981, was part of the organizing committee that helped put together the 35th international conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies, which took place in Jerusalem this past July, with a registration exceeding 1,000 people from more than 25 countries.
A member of the Israeli Genealogy Society for more than 15 years, Rockberger is currently a board member of the Israel Genealogy Research Association and chair of its Ra’anana branch. The IGRA is one of several genealogy societies in Israel.
Like Freedman, Rockberger was bitten by the genealogical bug upon hearing family stories from one of her grandmothers. “I find the subject absolutely fascinating and I have been learning so much about Jewish history and geography since I have been involved,” she says. “It is also wonderful to be part of the worldwide Jewish genealogy community and participate in many research and database projects.
“I have connected to second and third cousins around the world whose grandparents were siblings of my grandparents. They are second-generation Holocaust survivors and it meant so much to all of us to find family members.”
The Holocaust is an important part of Jewish genealogical research, and in Rockberger’s case it is more than a personal family issue. Her group has been assisting Yad Vashem in collecting Pages of Testimony. “As the Holocaust generation is literally dying out, I think it is vitally important to help document and memorialize those who perished,” she says. She quotes from the last letter from Holocaust victim David Berger written in Vilna in 1941, in which he wrote “I would like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.”
Rockberger shares Freedman’s enthusiasm for DNA testing, especially after having experienced its benefits in her own family. She had been in touch with the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland and in the exchange of correspondence was asked if she might be related to one of their translators, a man by the name of Jan Rochverger, who was then 95 years old. Jan’s granddaughter came to Israel and Ingrid Rockberger gave her a DNA kit; Rockberger’s husband Michael also underwent a DNA test. When the results of both tests were compared they were a perfect match. The Rockbergers subsequently traveled to Poland to visit their newfound relative, now 99, and “a charming man.”
More recently, Rockberger was thrilled with the International Genealogy Conference, not only because of the massive attendance and wide variety of fascinating lecture topics, but because it enabled participants to connect personally with genealogists from all over the world. Many email colleagues have now become face-to-face friends.
Rockberger is online every day, working on some genealogical matter. “Once you start, you get hooked,” she says.
The majority of Jewish genealogical research around the world is focused on Europe – primarily Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. But the next big step in Jewish genealogical research will be Spain and Portugal, particularly since those countries offered citizenship to anyone who can prove descent from Jews expelled from those countries at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries. Both the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors to Israel say that there have been a lot of inquiries.
With the inaugural session of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection with Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities slated for October 13, a new chapter of delving into the rich depths of Jewish history may be beginning.