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