Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Question & Answer With Shoshana (Bershad) - Genealogy & Judaism

A Simple Jew asks:

You recently commented, "Genealogical research is not just for myself, or for my children, but for connecting spiritually with my ancestors and perpetuating their memory---and hopefully living up to that heritage." How did learning that you are a descendant of Rebbe Raphael of Bershad help you grow in your Yiddishkeit?

Shoshana (Bershad) answers:

Genealogical research has been a part of my life for a long time, but, for years, I concentrated my efforts on my husband’s family, because his ancestors have lived in the U.S. for generations, whereas my grandparents immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I thought there wouldn’t be much to find. Over the past few years, however, many databases have become available for online research, and I recently decided to explore them for more information on my own ancestors and extended family. I searched through U.S. Census pages, JewishGen databases and discussion groups, Ellis Island ship manifests, naturalization records, World War I and II draft registration cards, Social Security death indexes, NY Times marriage, birth, and death announcements, and cemetery records. Long ago, my mother had provided an outline of family names and relationships, but through my research, I was able to fill in many more details: not just my relatives’ dates of birth and death, but also their Yiddish names, dates and ports of immigration, birthplaces, relatives in the old country and the U.S., mother tongues, street addresses, household members, marital status, names and ages of children, places of employment, occupations, and final resting places. My family history also includes eulogies, letters, poems, essays, anecdotes, and other material that reflects their personalities and their deeds. Tracing the lives of my relatives through the records has made them very real to me, and I feel close to all of them, despite our physical and chronological separation. I have shared my family history with my sister and other relatives, and it will be passed along to our children, so that future generations will also know their heritage.

Some months ago, I looked through a packet of letters I’d inherited with my mother’s personal effects. Among them was an old letter from her cousin, asking my mother whether she knew that their grandfather, who was from Bershad in the Ukraine, was a descendant of a famous rebbe she referred to as “Raful der Bershader,” who was a tzaddik. She noted that if their grandfather was a descendant, then they, too, as his grandchildren, were descendants. The cousin mentioned that she had found some of his wise sayings in libraries. It occurred to me that, if this ancestor was so famous, I might be able to find some information about him on the internet, so I began my search. And, indeed, I found a number of quotations and stories attributed to Rebbe Raphael of Bershad, as well as some legends about him. I learned that his teacher, Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz, had been a follower of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, and that R’ Raphael’s teachings were closely intertwined with those of his mentor. After the death of R’ Pinchas, R’ Raphael became his successor, surrounded by a group of disciples. In every aspect of his life, R’ Raphael was simple, pious, humble, loving, peaceful, joyous, and totally devoted to truth, yet he was always striving for self-improvement.

While searching on the internet, I came across the blog of A Simple Jew, and I began reading it every day to learn more about the Chassidic world of my ancestors. I thought that the more I learned about the modern-day Chassids, the better I would understand the way of life of my ancestors in the Ukraine. As a Jew raised in the Conservative tradition and leading a rather secular life (although my home, ironically, is in the midst of a Chassidic neighborhood), I knew little about the beliefs and practices of the Chassidim, but I found the discussions fascinating. Since so many contributors mix transliterated Hebrew words into their comments, I started writing a glossary of Hebrew expressions and their meanings. I also began reading articles about Jewish history and philosophy on other web sites and at the Hebrew University library.

At about this time, I found on the web a photo of Rebbe Raphael’s tombstone at Tarashcha, in the region near Kiev. I tried to translate the inscription myself, but since my knowledge of Hebrew is rudimentary, I eventually decided to ask JewishGen members for help. The translation reads (in part): “Here lies a humble and pious man, superlative and famous, our great teacher and rabbi Raphael of Bershad, son of our teacher and rabbi, Yaakov Yakili. He spoke the truthful word of the Torah, and dishonesty was never found on his lips. He walked in peace and righteousness.”

One of the volunteer translators was a kindred spirit who had worked on the genealogy of her own family; she told me “we are in this together!” and she became my collaborator, my guide, and my dear friend. Both ASJ and A Yid recommended that I purchase the Imrei Pinchas HaShalem, a compilation of the works of R’ Pinchas of Koretz which also contains biographical information on R’ Raphael. I hesitated because I didn’t know enough Hebrew to read it on my own, but I realized that it was a tangible part of my heritage, so I bought two sets: one for myself and one for my sister. By an amazing coincidence, I discovered that my translator friend also had this beautiful work on her own bookshelf, and she offered to translate passages for me! In addition, since she speaks Yiddish as well as Hebrew, my friend contacted Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabai, the rabbi who restored the graves of R’ Raphael and R’ Pinchas (as well as those of the Degel and of the Baal Shem Tov), and Rabbi Elimelech Elazar Frankel, who published the Imrei Pinchas, and asked them our questions about various aspects of their work.

Rabbi Frankel also knew of another descendant of R’ Raphael who lives in Israel, and he introduced us to one another. My new-found cousin and I believe that our great-grandfathers were brothers or cousins, and we’ve been sharing documents, photos, and the life stories of our grandparents. Her grandmother moved, with her family, from Bershad to Rumania and then to France, where she died in the Holocaust. This cousin has visited Bershad and shared her photos with me. Through her contact with Rabbi Frankel, she has provided information on R’ Raphael’s children and grandchildren. I also contacted another known descendant of R’ Raphael, who was born in the U.S. but now lives in Israel; her parents were from a small shtetl near Tarashcha. Then, I decided to get in touch with some of my living relatives. I contacted two 2nd cousins whom I have never met, and the three of us have traded stories and shared old photos of our grandparents’ families. These cousins have both inherited family trees (if they are able to send me copies, my friend will translate the Yiddish names, and perhaps we will be able to complete the links between the generations!). I also shared my experiences and information with my sister and her family. She has embarked on a project of scanning and labeling the photos in our old family albums so that we can share the digital files. During a recent visit, we sorted through a box of old letters together, unraveling some small family mysteries. In addition, I talked with several elderly relatives, who told me about themselves, their own branches of the family, and their memories of my mother and grandparents. I heard sad stories and amusing anecdotes. It was wonderful to reconnect with relatives I hadn’t spoken to since I was a child, and I know they found it a heart-warming experience as well. The invisible bonds between members of a family are constant and eternal.

My translator friend, who is Chassidic, has opened up her heart to me. We began working as a team, sharing genealogical information and exploring ideas together; gradually, we also shared photos, web links, clippings, and memories. We discuss cultural issues, such as recipes for kugel and styles of women’s clothing and head coverings, and serious topics, like the Holocaust, faith, and miracles. During the recent holidays, she taught me about holiday rituals such as Tashlich, Kaparos, and beating the hoshanos on Hoshana Raba. I could imagine my ancestors in Bershad performing the same rites. My friend’s example of obedience to the mitzvot and always striving to learn more and do better is an inspiration to me. She is willing to answer any question; she is not shocked or made uncomfortable by my unorthodox attitudes and questions, but she patiently explains Chassidic tenets and practices, and the reasons for them. She once told me that our souls stood side by side, like sisters, at Mount Sinai, and that Rebbe Raphael is waiting to welcome me home. Her warm, nurturing acceptance of me is helping me bring forth the questions and thoughts that I have suppressed for many years.

I feel that my life is changing and I am coming home to Judaism as I gain a deeper understanding of my spiritual roots. But this is a process, and I am still near the starting point. I feel that by rediscovering Rebbe Raphael and telling my children, and others, about his humble piety and his wise teachings, I am reconnecting with him and, at the same time, perpetuating his memory and bringing honor to him. And by writing the stories of my relatives, I am also keeping them alive in memory for the generations to come. In so doing, I hope I am becoming a better person and growing closer to G-d. Perhaps, someday, I will again stand side by side with my beloved parents, my revered rebbe, and my dear friend.

Imrei Pinchas contains a eulogy for R’ Raphael. My friend has translated one of the verses as follows:

“Look down from your (heavenly) dwelling
Shield us with your soul
Do not forget us and we will not forget you
A remembrance forever, we will remember your name
At the end of days G-d will remember you
To stand you up to your destiny
Put us as a seal upon your heart.”


Partially restored gravesite of Rebbe Raphael of Bershad
Tarashcha, Ukraine - 1997
(Photograph by Michael R. Tobin)

Restored grave of Rebbe Raphael of Bershad inside ohel
Tarashcha, Ukraine - 2004
(Photograph courtesy of Breslev.org)

12 Comments:

At October 31, 2006 at 4:23:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

Shoshana (Bershad): Very inspiring. I didn't realize before that you knew so little about Chasidus earlier. I'm sure your sincere renewed interest in Chasidus Yiddishkayt gives much nachas (pleasure) to you holy ancestros. Zay matzliach in you inner search!

 
At October 31, 2006 at 4:36:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very insightful and interesting. Thanks for sharing.

 
At October 31, 2006 at 6:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

A Yid: Thank you! You have been one of my teachers, too.

Neil Harris: Thanks for the warm reception!

 
At October 31, 2006 at 9:23:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

For all who are interested, look what I found through a search engine of the Hebrew University archive:

===============
Record Number 002069513
Main Entry ‫ ציקרניק, ישעיה וולף ‬
Title ‫ מעשיות ומאמרים יקרים : אשר לא נדפסו מעולם מהבעש"ט ומנכדיו האחים הרה"ק ר’ משה חיים אפרים מסדילקוב ואחיו הר’ ברוך ממעזבוז / מאת המלקט והמאסף ישעיה וואלף ציקערניק. ‬
Imprint ‫ זיטאמיר : י"ו ציקערניק, ב’כ’ח’א’ ד’א’ו’ר’י’י’ת’א’ [תרס"ג] 1902. ‬
Location All copies
==============

You can search the archive here

 
At October 31, 2006 at 10:25:00 PM EST, Blogger Mottel said...

Shoshana, a most interesting post . . . may G-d help you even further in your path through life.

 
At November 1, 2006 at 12:08:00 AM EST, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

A Yid: Thanks for the book reference. My "new" cousin in Israel has found several very old books that have genealogical information about R' Raphael. Many of these are out of print or only found in a few academic libraries or in Israel. I think this one, concerning the Degel, will be of special interest to ASJ.

Mottel: I really appreciate your good wishes. Thank you.

 
At November 1, 2006 at 1:17:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what do you think about this blog?
thethirdoftammuz.blogspot.com

 
At November 1, 2006 at 4:50:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: Thanks for the information!

 
At January 4, 2007 at 6:47:00 PM EST, Anonymous Boruch Fishman said...

Dear Shoshanna:

Very interesting. My family came from Bershad, and I have always felt that the honesty of your nacestor left a painful impressin on my soul as it filtered down through over 130 years. I heard one story of how he was asked to testify about a Jew, and struggled all night with G-d as to what he should do, and in the morning his soul left his body.
We have a vague tradition of yichus in our family going back to my great-great grandmother Chia Josephson, who presumably was from Bershad. Somehow I had gotten the impression that it related to Rav Nachman of Breslav. I then learned that relatives of the B'esht and Rav Nachum lived in Bershad, as well as descendants of the Malech. I also had found a book about Rabbi Raphael by the Rizenor Rebbe, in the New York Publick Library. I made copies of the first few pages, and have never gotten a complete copy of the book. Do you know what book that is? I recall it said that Rav Pinchus said that he would only be an eruv (guaranteer) about Raphael that he was a Tsaddik gamur!

 
At January 5, 2007 at 12:18:00 PM EST, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

Boruch Fishman: I am very glad to meet another descendant of Bershaders!

I did not know that relatives of the Baal Shem Tov, R' Nachum of Breslov, and R' Avrahom the Malach lived in Bershad--that is important information to me! Do you have more information on their names or when they lived? Were any of them related to R' Raphael also? I am trying to find out more about R' Raphael's descendants.

The book you mention may be "The House of Rizhin," by Rabbi Menachem Brayer (http://www.artscroll.com/Books/RIZH.html). The sample pages on the Artscroll web site show that the book describes many of the great leaders in the world of early Chassidism and gives information on the Rizhiner Rebbe's descendants. I have not actually seen this book, but I will try to find it.

Today (15 Teves) is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Raphael of Bershad! How fitting that we are remembering him today!

I know the beautiful story about R' Raphael that you refer to. I have collected many versions of it; here is one of the best:

“Once in a town in Ukraine, a Jewish man was accused of committing a capital crime. The judges who were hearing the case reviewed all the evidence for and against the man, but in spite of careful investigation, they couldn't decide the case. They decided that if two well-known tzadikim (holy people) who lived in the area would swear under oath that he was innocent, they would acquit him of the crime.

“The two holy Jews who were asked to swear in court were Reb Moshe [Tzvi ben Shimon, b. 1775, d. 1838] of Savran [about 25 miles southeast of Bershad] and Reb Raphael of Bershad [b. ~1751, d. 15 Tevet 5587 (1/14/1827) at the age of 76 years]. But they were in a terrible dilemma: swearing a false oath is strictly prohibited in Jewish law, and is a grave sin. On the other hand, the saving of a life takes precedence over every other mitzva in the Torah. Isn't it said, "He who saves a life is as if he saved the entire world"?

“Reb Moshe of Savran deliberated long and hard over the question, and he finally reached the conclusion that saving the life of the man and the future of his wife and children took precedence over the basic tenet of truthful testimony. And even if he were wrong in his conclusion, he was willing to suffer whatever punishment awaited him in the Next World, as long as his fellow Jew escaped death.

“For Reb Raphael the decision was not just difficult, it was utterly torturous. Reb Raphael was a loyal disciple of Reb Pinchas of Korets who taught that truth was the entire basis of the Divine Service. He had devoted his life to this principle and had never allowed even the slightest hint of falsehood to enter his thought or his conduct, even to the point of not wearing dyed clothing, thus disguising the color of the fabric.

“His other, most dominant, characteristic was his total love of his fellow Jews, his willingness to sacrifice his every possession or comfort in order that his fellow Jews be spared any suffering. How could he possibly resolve this terrible conflict?

“Reb Raphael sat in his study immersed in the most confounding, painful and tortured thought. On one hand, there was a possibility of saving the man, his wife and his children -- and the wife and family of the accused gave him not a moment of peace. But on the other hand, he couldn't bring himself to do a thing from which he had distanced himself in an entire lifetime of spiritual struggle.

“The basis of his whole philosophy was that falsehood was the source of all impurity in the world, and truth, the wellsprings of all that was holy. Now, at this time in his life, was he to repudiate all that he believed in? A vision of the man, his wife and children at the mercy of a cruel justice stood before his eyes, while his belief in the primacy of truth consumed his thoughts like a blazing fire.

“Finally, he could stand it no longer. Reb Raphael broke out in a piteous wail that came from deep within him, and he could not stop weeping. "Master of the Universe, You alone know how I have striven with every fiber of my being for the sake of truth. You know I have been willing to make every sacrifice, and now, in my old age You have brought this terrible trial to me. I beg You to take away my soul, and not let me fail this test!"

“He wept and wept until his soul departed from his body.

“Early the following morning his Chasidim rushed to his house to give him the alarming news -- the accused man had confessed his guilt. The two tzadikim were excused from testifying before the court. But when they entered the room of Reb Raphael, they found that the tzadik had departed this world.”

[From L'Chaim (Hasidic online newsletter published and © by Lubavitch Youth Organization, Brooklyn, NY), November 17, 1995]

 
At January 9, 2007 at 8:48:00 PM EST, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

Boruch Fishman:

I have found another book that is even more likely to be the one you saw in the New York Public Library:

Pe'et la-yesharim: helek alef Torah or
Israel ben Shalom, of Ruzhin; Raphael, of Bershad;
Israel Hayyim Friedman
Publisher: Jerusalem: Defus ha-Rash ha-Levi Tsukerman, [1920 or 1921]
OCLC: 19162555

Please let me know if that sounds like the right book. I am trying to obtain a copy.

 
At October 21, 2009 at 10:50:00 PM EDT, Blogger Naomi said...

I just now discovered this thread of my lost relatives. My great-Grandfather, Moshe-Mordechi Bodnar, was a great-grandson of rabbi Raphael from Bershad. He escaped the Tzar military draft, crossed the border into Romania, the shetel of Mihalleni-- in his last years he lived in Jerusale, and is buried on Mount Olives. I just also posted on the other blog, because I would like to know how we might be related. My uncle who died last month in Israel said that my great Saba Bodnar was also the great-grandson of R. Pinchas from Koritz- but I am not sure about that.
my e-mail: psychprof1@yahoo.com
Shoshana, please wrote me.
Naomi Wagner
(on my husband's side- related to rabbi Yeshayahu Ish-Horowitz, sheni mluhot ha-britand other great Zadikim.

 

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