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Sun, Sep. 14th, 2014, 09:06 pm
Coleman 1 = Coleman 2

A while back, I wrote about my cousin Coleman Wertheim, and how I had two sets of non-contradictory non-overlapping records. I just found a chain of records that proves to my satisfaction that they are indeed the same person.

To review: My great-grandfather Leo had an elder brother Hyman (sometimes Herman), one of whose children was born Kalman Wertheim on 29 Oct 1890, and adapted his name to Coleman. I have a paper trail for him until the 1910 Census; and I have a record of his death in 1975 on Staten Island. (The SSDI record links him based on his date of birth.)

Coleman 2 has a consistent paper trail from 1915 to 1948. He was an auto dealer and chauffer.

Here's the trail, starting with Coleman 2:

1920 US Census, from Ancestry.com at http://interactive.ancestry.com/6061/4313901-01029/85940933?, gives him residing at 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 1 Feb 1920, p. 9, has the notice of incorporation for Ace Motor Sales Company, one of whose founders is Coleman Wertheim, 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 5 Apr 1921, p. 1, "Convict Dr. Kranzer in Stolen Car Deal", is an article about the conviction of Dr. Leo Kranzer, age 30, residing at 65 Tomkins Ave., for grand larceny. "The complainant against him was his cousin, Coleman Wertheim, of 570 East Second St., who conducts the Ace Motor Sales Company, of 279 Flatbush Avenue."

Dr. Leo Kranzer was the son of Nellie Wertheim Kranzer, the sister of Leo and Hyman, and thus a first cousin to both Coleman (1) and my grandmother Rosalie Wertheim. He was the attending physician on the death certificate of Pearl Wertheim, the grandmother of all these cousins. And indeed, according to the 1920 Census, he lived at 65 Tomkins Ave. (See http://interactive.ancestry.com/6061/4313502-00725/32241995?)

So at this point, I am asserting that I have met the Genealogical Proof Standard: Coleman 1 is indeed the same person as Coleman 2.

(In fairness, I should note that although Dr. Kranzer was found guilty, the jury urged mercy because they felt he had been tricked into breaking the law, and he was given a suspended sentence.)

Sun, Sep. 14th, 2014, 07:49 pm
Theodicy and the Daf

A friend once pointed out that there are three main approaches that the Bible takes to the problem of theodicy, what Rabbi Harold Kushner titled the problem of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People".

The Deuteronomic approach asserts that life is fair: If you follow God's mitzvot, you will be rewarded; if you stray, you will be punished.

The Jobian (not Jovian) approach is that God has a Plan, and we don't know what it is, but we should have faith that when bad things happen, it is for an ultimately good reason.

The Kohelet philosophy is that things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not always fairly and not always because there's a Plan.

The appeal of the Deuteronomic approach is that we like to feel that things are fair. And so much of the teshuvah literature is based on this: if something bad has happened to you, you should reflect on your deeds and figure out what you did wrong; conversely, you know that you have sinned and you have punishment coming to you, and so you'd better pray for God's forgiveness.

While I admit that this philosophy has some utility in prompting us to examine our deeds, it is dangerous because (a) it can lead people to disregard the needs of the unfortunate, because "they must have deserved it"; (b) it can lead people whose lives are going well to neglect their spiritual growth; (c) it can lead good people who are having difficult times to abandon God.

The appeal of the Jobian approach is that we like to feel that things are fair, even when they don't look like they are. By asserting the existence of a sekkrit Plan, we can explain away seeming incongruities between doing good and doing well. But not everyone has the "faith of Job", and telling a suffering person that their suffering is needed for God's ultimate Plan seems rather patronizing. (As the character Aristophile puts it in Good Omens: "This wouldn't be the ineffable plan, would it?")

Much of the Talmud's dealings with the problems of theodicy follow these two approaches. So I found myself gratified to encounter two passages in the Daf Yomi last week that show that even in rabbinic thought, the Kohelet approach is considered a valid alternative:

Rava said: Life, children, and food do not hang on one's merit, but rather on one's luck. (Mazel in this context probably refers to astrological influences, but I think it's not unfair to treat it as "luck".)

Rava then brings his proof by example: For Rabba and Rav Chisda were both righteous sages; one would pray and rain would fall, and the other would pray and rain would fall. (The fact that God would listen to their prayers demonstrates their righteousness.)

But: Rav Chisdah lived to age 92, and Rabbah to age 40. Rav Chisdah's household had sixty wedding feasts; Rabbah's household had sixty funerals. Rav Chisdah's household had bread made from high-quality flour even for the dogs, and no one needed to ask for some; Rabbah's household had coarse flour even for the people, and there was not enough of it to be found. (Moed Katan 28a)

And then a few days later this bizarre aggadic narrative:

When Rav Yosef reached the verse 'But there are those who are swept away without justice' (Prov. 12:23) while he was studying, he would cry. He said: Who is it who goes (i.e., dies) before his time? Is such a thing possible?

Yes, responds the gemara, citing what happened with Rav Bevai bar Abaye, who was familiar with the angel of death. One time, the angel said to his emissary: go, bring me Miriam who braids women's hair. The emissary went and brought him Miriam the nanny. The angel said to him, I said Miriam who braids women's hair! The emissary said to him: In that case, return her to life. The angel said to him: Since you brought her, she shall be counted among the dead.

Rav Bevai asked the emissary: But how could you take her if it wasn't her time to die? The emissary explained: She was holding a shovel in her hand, and she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She accidentally put it on her foot and burned herself and she had bad luck, and I took her. So again we see the concept that a person's luck (mazal) can be bad, and they can die before their time for no reason at all.

Rav Bevai asked the angel: You have permission to do this?</b> You're allowed to take people who have bad luck before it is their appointed time? And the angel replied by quoting the verse with which this sugya began: He said to him, and is it not written, 'But there are those who are swept away without justice?'" (Chagiga 4b-5a)

As we work our way through Elul, listening to the blasts of the shofar each morning and repairing the breaches in our moral bulwarks, I find this a comforting perspective. Sometimes God's justice is visible; sometimes we express faith in a Plan, but most of the time life seems random because most of the time it is.

That doesn't excuse us from the task of trying to be the best people we can be.

It just means that we should do that not because we expect a reward, but because being the best people we can be despite the vicissitudes of life is God's plan for us.

Sat, Jun. 28th, 2014, 10:04 pm
Dvar Torah: Chukat

This week's parsha confronts death. First, we encounter death in the abstract, as we learn the ritual of the parah adumah, by which one who has become tamei due to contact with any corpse may be returned to a state of taharah. Then we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, as the forty years of wandering begin to draw to a close. It is from the beginning of this parsha that we learn the principle of shiva, and it is from its middle that we learn the priniciple of sheloshim.

It is therefore a fitting parsha to consider in this week of yahrzeits. My father's yahrzeit was two days ago; his mother's is two days from now; and today is his grandmother's.

When we consider the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, we also realize that they are representative of the entire generation that left Egypt. Their time has come. And yet up to this point, Moshe's fate is not yet determined. Will he die in the midbar, or will lead the people as they enter Eretz Yisrael? It is in this parsha, as well, that Moshe makes his fatal mistake.

The problem is that no two mefarshim seem to agree on what Moshe's mistake actually was. In a sense, this is as deep a mystery as the parah adumah.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot writes that Moshe's striking the rock was a failure to adapt to the reality of the new generation. With Miriam's passing, the well that miraculously followed us in the midbar has gone as well. Moshe is faced once again, as he was 38 years earlier, with a people grumbling from thirst; but this time Hashem has given Moshe different instructions. For reasons that perhaps only God understands, the new generation of the midbar needs to see Moshe speak to the rock, not strike it. In this instance, that is the specific behaviour that will optimally glorify God in their eyes. Yet Moshe falls back to the same solution that worked for the generation of the Exodus. In Rabbi Helfgot's reading, Moshe thus demonstrates that it is time for a new leader to take the people forward.

Three years ago, while I was sitting shiva for my father, I heard Rebbitzen Sylvia Kogan give a different perspective. She pointed out that when Miriam died, the Torah does not record that the people mourned her, instead, in the very next verse, they immediately complained to Moshe about the loss of the water that had benefited them on account of Miriam's zechut. Then, when God tells Moshe to speak to the rock, Moshe loses it. No one seems to care about his grief, and he lashes out. Perhaps he even knew the consequences of what he was doing, but he could no longer bring himself to care. Later in the parsha, when Aharon dies, this time the people mourn for thirty days, because they have learned that it is necessary to share the grief of the family when they have lost a loved one.

Generations pass, and new generations arise. We carry forward our memories, our mesorah, and our ahavat Hashem. My great-grandmother, Chaya Grune bat Josef Tuvia ha-Levi, passed away on this date 95 years ago; her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, Reizel bat Yehuda Leib, passed away on the second of Tammuz 11 years ago; Reizel's son, Avi Mori Gershon Eliyah ben Avraham ha-Levi passed away on the 28th of Sivan 3 years ago. May their memories continue to be a blessing.

L'havdil bein hachayim uvein hametim; as we look back, we also look forward. Im yirzah Hashem, later this week, I will dance at the wedding of my cousin, Chaya Grune's great-great-granddaughter, the first of the next generation to get married. The mysterious ritual of the parah adumah reminds us that God not only gives us the strength to grapple with the awful reality of death, but God then guides us back, to embrace the awesome reality of life.

Wed, Jun. 25th, 2014, 07:45 am
Genealogy How-To: Steve Morse, the Italian Genealogical Group, and FamilySearch

Recently, I've tutored several cousins on how to use the combination of three websites -- Steve Morse's "One Step Searches", the Italian Genealogical Group's index to NYC vital records, and the LDS Church's FamilySearch PhotoDuplication Service -- to obtain (for free!) copies of our ancestors' birth, marriage, and death records. These records have been invaluable to me in piecing together fragments of my family's lost history.

So for those who are getting started, here's the workflow. It's really very simple and surprisingly effective:

I start off at stevemorse.org -- Steve is a brilliant man and a mensch, and he has a whole bunch of pages on his web site that are user interfaces onto various genealogical databases that are out there. In particular, I make extensive use of his links to the New York City birth, marriage, and death records, which the Italian Genealogical Group in New York volunteered to index. So the search form is at Steve's website, but the results are coming from the IGG database.

Each row of the results contains two critical numbers: The film number in the LDS archives, and the record number on the film. So, for example, my great-great-grandfather's death certificate is listed as :

Greene Todres 60 y Dec 23 1901 37861 (1901) Manhattan 1840 - 1841 1323000

Next, I go to FamilySearch.org, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). The LDS church has a deep interest in genealogy, for reasons I won't go into here, and they have an incredible wealth of records on microfilm. You'll need to register for a free account on their site, and then search for "PhotoDuplication Service". You are permitted to submit up to five document requests per month; I keep a prioritized list of requests that I plan to make and every month I send off the next five on my list.

So when you fill out the PhotoDuplication request form, you'll take the film number from the last column of the Steve Morse/IGG data -- but be nice to them and add in commas. So Todres's certificate is on film 1,323,000. And at the end of the form, they ask for the document number within the roll, so this one is 37,861 (1901). The other fields are self-explanatory.

Once you submit the form, it goes into a work queue at the main LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Volunteers there will retrieve the given film, scroll to the given frame, make a scan of the document, and email it to you.

I have made some amazing discoveries this way.

They don't have the resources to do a search through the film, which is why you need to provide the frame number. But for older NYC records, this system works amazingly well.

Sun, Jun. 1st, 2014, 08:13 pm
Book Review: "Laws of Pesach" and "Laws of Prayer" by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Koren/Maggid sent me a review copy of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Laws of Pesach", the second volume in their English translation of his series Peninei Halacha, "Pearls of the Law". I was so impressed that I bought my own copy of the first volume, "Laws of Prayer", and this review will discuss both books.

The series is a practical overview of the laws pertaining to a particular subject. Each chapter deals with one particular area in moderate to heavy detail. For example, the "Laws of Pesach" volume has a (long) chapter on Bedikat Chametz, and a separate chapter on Bitul and Biur Chametz.

One things that shines through the text is Rabbi Melamed's ahavat Yisrael. He provides the range of halachic opinions on an issue, indicating where each position comes from, and then emphasizes that all of the positions that he brings have validity, and while he sometimes recommends certain positions he is always clear that if one has a reason --- family tradition, practical considerations, or simply that it will be more meaningful to the reader --- that one should follow a different position.

In other words, this is not a "race to the most machmir" book. I believe that there is a grave risk in books by some other authors and other publishers who take a consistently machmir position: the reader may decide that observing the mitzvot is too onerous. Rabbi Melamed, on the other hand, is clearly aware of what it takes to be a Torah-observant Jew in the real world. He discusses practical situations such as a soldier on duty or one whose schedule forces him to daven on the bus to work. Or, for that matter, simply one whose practice falls somewhere other than the most machmir position on the spectrum.

In addition to the nuts-and-bolts discussion of practical halacha, Rabbi Melamed also explains the origins of the halachot and minhagim. Sometimes these are strictly halachic discussions, such when he explains whether one should try to eat less than a kezayit of karpas. Sometimes they are kabbalistic explanations. What is wonderous to me is that I, as someone who generally has little appreciation for kabbalah, found his kabbalistic explanations to be beautiful and meaningful.

The translators have done an extraordinary job. I do not have the original, so I can't comment on the faithfulness of the translation, but I assume it is true to the original. What is extraordinary is that this does not read like a translation; the English prose soars when it needs to, and is clear and precise when that is what is called for.

The combination of these traits means that these books succeed on many levels. They instruct us in practical details of the halacha, sometimes reminding us of things that we've been taking for granted, and sometimes correcting erroneous habits that we have developed through inattention or mistaken understandings. They inspire us with a new, deeper understanding of the foundations of the mitzvot and how the mitzvot help us live lives connected to God. They remind us that those whose practices differ from ours are neither fanatics nor heretics (as the old joke goes), but pious Jews who are also following divrei Elokim chayyim.

To clarify, not every question is covered in these books. This is not a series of comprehensive seifim, and it is not a substitute for asking one's rabbi for piskei halacha. That is not Rabbi Melamed's goal. Rather, these books cover the most common situations that everyone needs to know about, and they develop an understanding of the halachic and hashkafic framework within which we live.

A technical comment: I'm pleased to see that in the second volume, the notes were moved from the end of each chapter to the bottom of the page. Since these notes go into more depth about the body text, rather than simply present sources, it's great to have them on the same page.

And a personal comment: For the last few years, I have been seeking a book that would help me revitalize my tefillot, which have been tending more towards keva than kavannah. Having now read Rabbi Melamed's "Laws of Prayer", I am once again experiencing in my tefillot meaningful moments of reaching out to our Creator. For that alone, I am grateful.

I eagerly await the remaining volumes in the series.

Thu, Mar. 27th, 2014, 02:46 pm
Meta-Genealogy: What I wish the software did better

So I've been doing this genealogy thing now for about 18 months now, and there are a few things that I wish worked differently. I'd love to hear feedback from others who may have suggestions about other tools that I should look into.

First: I've come to the conclusion that the common data model is backwards. We assert "facts" about people, and then we're supposed to back those up with sources. But I think we'd have better results if we started by cataloging and transcribing sources, and then asserting "facts" from them. That's probably too hard for most people to wrap their brains around, but it would solve two problems: First, it's too easy to enter a "fact" with the best of intentions of getting around to the tedious step of adding the source info later, and never getting back to it. Second, and more pressing, sometimes what you start with is a (virtual) pile of source documents, and your task is to organize them into a network of relationships. Managing those is difficult at best.

Second: I want a fast plain-text fuzzy search. "Hmm, this naturalization record has the address 62 Common St., that sounds familiar." Right now, I'm actually doing most of my work in Emacs. It doesn't represent everything nicely, but it's fast and it represents anything that I can type.

Third: I want to have a "trust chain." That is, for every "fact" that I assert, I want to be able to assign it a probability score: 100% means I'm certain it's true (I was at my own wedding and know my own name); 0% means I have no idea if it's true or not, but I encountered the assertion somewhere, -100% means I'm certain that the assertion is incorrect but I'm including it to show that I've encountered it, evaluated it, and rejected it.

(For example, an otherwise wonderful tree of my mother's father's family that a cousin spent decades researching introduced a spurious twin sister three generations back by accidentally combining two records for different people. I've contacted the cousin and he agrees that it was a mistake -- but dozens of people have downstream copies of his tree. So I want to indicate on my tree that that individual doesn't exist, not just have her omitted from my tree which could be considered ambiguous.)

And then I want to be able to assign a "trust factor" for other researchers whose trees are loosely liked to mine. I want to get notified when they make changes -- and I want the trust factors multiplied. So my otherwise very reliable cousin would have a trust factor of 90%, while someone I barely know might only have a trust factor of 50%. Then if my reliable cousin has marked a "fact" as 50% reliable, while the unknown quantity marked a "fact" as 90% reliable, they'd both show up as 45% reliable in my summary of things to look at and consider importing. (Of course, when I import that "fact", I'd get to assign it my own level of trust.)

Fourth: I want to be able to divide my tree into segments, and grant different people different permissions depending on what part of the family they belong to. I'm doing some great collaboration with my Werdesheim cousins, but they don't need full access to my Bissinger data. 'Nuff said.

Fifth: I want a lot more flexibility in how I visualize my data. I want to be able to apply filters and templates of my own design in generating reports. I want a real API into my data so I can write scripts to extract things.

Thoughts?

Wed, Mar. 26th, 2014, 07:31 am
Genealogy: Major progress on the Werdesheim family

Over the last two months, the team of descendants working on the Werdesheims of Mielec has made some amazing progress. We took a long hard look at the list of "loose end" records, and managed to fit about half of them into one of our six main branches. We've made contact with more "lost" branches -- in fact, we now have contact with at least one descendant of each of the six main branches and we are all comparing notes and research.

From a record-keeping perspective, the biggest find was that Ben-Zion Werdesheim, the patriarch of what I had labeled "Branch 6", came to New York with his second wife, took the Americanized version of his name "Benjamin Wertheimer", and had five more children here. (We had not previously known anything about him except that he had 5 children in Mielec, 2 of whom moved to New York.) Not only did that help us make contact with his descendants, it also gave us our first break in the "1840 wall." Read more...Collapse )

Sun, Mar. 23rd, 2014, 07:19 am
Review: "Derash Yehonatan" by Rabbi Shalom Hammer

Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of Derash Yehonatan: Around the Year with Rav Yehonatan Eybeshitz by Rabbi Shalom Hammer.

The Author's Preface begins with these words of introduction:

Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz, Dayan of Prague, and later rabbi of the the 'Three Communities' ... was an outstanding eighteenth-century talmudist, halakhist and kabbalist.... I discovered Rav Yehonatan's works a few years after I began my professional career as a teacher and rebbe... While parts of the commentary were difficult for me to understand because of their kabbalistic nature, typical of many of Rav Yehonatans books, I was enthralled by their richness, linking all of the varied disciplines of the Torah.... Discovering Rav Yehonatan's mastery in addressing a midrash, linking it to a portion of the Talmud, connecting it to a teaching of the Zohar, and then concluding with codified laws in the Shulchan Arukh was an awe-inpiring experience.

Why, then, does Rabbi Hammer's book both please me and frustrate me so?

Rabbi Hammer has structured his book around the Jewish calendar; each chapter takes as its theme one holy day and consists of a series of brief essays, bringing down a teaching of Rabbi Eyebeshitz that relates to that theme. Many of these essays taught me something I did not know before, or suggested a new perspective on a text that is overly familiar.

The book is well-written and, I think, is intended to be read one chapter at a time, just before or during each of the relevant days. It will take a place on my shelf of resources for when I am asked to deliver a dvar Torah.

One thing that I found off-putting, though, was that the structure of the essays was not what the Author's Preface seemed to promise. Instead, they seemed to follow the modern style of rabbinic essay: an establishing sentence that identifies a source text, then an extended quote from that source, then a question raised by that quote, then a series of brief observations that address the question, all wrapped up in a few pages and then on to the next. (I believe that this structure comes from a generation that came of age learning from the essays of Nechama Liebowitz zt''l.)

Rabbi Hammer has recast Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings in his own voice; these essays give the setup and then continue "Rav Yehonatan attempts to explain...", "Rav Yehonatan answers these questions..." Some essays are followed by a postscript labeled "Author's Note"; but that makes me even more unclear what the difference is between Rabbi Hammer re-writing Rabbi Eyebeshitz in the third person and Rabbi Hammer adding additional thoughts in these postscripts. (I would have preferred the Author's Notes to be typographically distinct -- perhaps in italics, or a narrower margin -- which might have helped me to keep Rabbi Hammer's voice, as himself, distinct in my mind from Rabbi Hammer's voice, teaching what Rabbi Eyebeshitz wrote.)

The approach that Rabbi Hammer has used certainly gives him the opportunity to make Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings more accessible to a general audience, and that is a good thing. By breaking Rabbi Eyebeshitz's commentaries down into shorter pieces, and by selecting those aspects that are not esoteric, Rabbi Hammer has produced a book from which anyone can learn. This comes at a cost, though: it is also a book that in some ways is indistinguishable from any of the other myriad collections of commentaries.

I kept wanting to break through the page and get at least one taste of pure Eyebeshitz, at full length, in faithful translation with explanatory footnotes. Perhaps that could have been an appendix. The Author's Preface, which I quoted above, made me eager to taste of the brilliant "linking" and the elaborate all-inclusive structure that Rabbi Hammer describes; instead, I felt like I was being given a series of disconnected glimpses.

Derash Yehonatan is a good book. I just wish it had been a great one.

Tue, Mar. 11th, 2014, 08:23 am
A little something for the day

I made a puzzle: http://greenehouse.com/a/puzzles/cute.pdf

I hope you enjoy it.

Mon, Feb. 24th, 2014, 09:20 pm
Book Review: "The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat" by Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Koren Publications / Maggid Press recently sent me a review copy of The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat, by Rabbi Mordechai Willig. This is the second volume in "The REITS Practical Halakhah Series".

Each chapter in this book -- some brief, some longer, as the material requires -- discusses the various positions surrounding one particular aspect of the subject. For example, there are several chapters about whether a kli sheini cooks its contents, depending on whether they are solid, water, or other liquids. Each chapter is backed up by extensive source material in Hebrew in the back of the book. Many of the issues are as old as the Mishna, but some are as new as modern technology can make them. (Is there a problem if your hot-water urn has a glass sight-tube? Can you reheat food on Shabbat if the food was originally cooked in a microwave oven, which is not halachically fire?)

The genius of this book is that Rabbi Willig explores the underlying halcahic constructs that inform the piskei halacha that the sources bring. This of course is how the Talmud works: given opposing sets of halachic decisions by some number of rabbis, the author tries to deduce, from the shape of those decisions, how each decisor views the halachic and physical realities involved. It is a joy to see Rabbi Willig propose test cases and tease apart the underlying structures.

In many cases he does not even provide a definitive answer, since there is room for different rabbis to interpret the halacha differently, and one should be asking one's rav, not a book.

In other words, this is not a "quick reference" book that gives quick (and safe) answers for the lay Jew. That ground has been masterfully covered by the Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilchata. Instead, what Rabbi Willig has provided us is much more profound: an insight into how the different schools of thought understand the nature of Shabbat, the nature of food and food preparation, the nature of halachic divisions into the permitted and the prohibited, and how these spheres intersect.

It is clear that this book is adapted from shiurim that Rabbi Willig has given at REITS. In fact, my main frustration with the book is that it's not always clear when a cited source is going to be quoted in full in the back of the book; I feel like the material is intended to be followed the way it would be in a shiur, with a source packet in hand and with the reader's attention being directed first to the original source, then to the maggid shiur's explanation of it, then to the next source, and so on.

I soon figured out that the right way to read this book is to read a chapter, then read the sources, then came back and read the chapter again. Each chapter does end with an clear and brief summary of the issues considered in the chapter and what the major opinions are on them. That helps, but not as much as integrating the source material with the main text would have.

And I'm afraid I must disagree with the series title: This is not a book about practical halakha. While I am glad to see that Koren/Maggid/REITS/YU sees a need for a more centrist alternative to the more reflexively machmir books that are out there, this does not address that audience. A pashut yid looking for a practical guide to the laws of cooking and warming food on Shabbat will not find their questions answered here.

To stress: That is not Rabbi Willing's fault, and it is not a fault in this book; it is a mismatch between what this book is and how it is being positioned in the marketplace of ideas.

But for those with an interest in the halachic process and in gaining a deeper understanding of how the halachic mind grapples with questions that we take for granted week in and week out, this is an excellent book worthy of space on your shelves and in your thoughts.

Fri, Jan. 31st, 2014, 03:34 pm
Two Yahrzeits: My great-grandfathers

Today was the yahrzeit of my maternal grandfather's father, Max Bissinger.

Tomorrow is the yahrzeit of my paternal grandather's father, Barnett Greene.

It is interesting to compare their lives. Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Jan. 27th, 2014, 05:16 pm
Memories of my Oma

Today (i.e., tonight and tomorrow) is the 21st Jahrzeit of my Oma, Frieda (Friedmann) Bissinger. I wanted to capture some memories that I have of her; I suppose that this technically qualifies as a genealogy post, in that I'm recording family history. But today I'm not going to talk about her origins in Germany, or the story of her escape in August 1939 to England, or how she came to America. I'm not going to trace her family line back N generations. Nor am I going to talk about those last hard months of her life.

Today is a day for reflecting on the love in my relationship with my Oma. Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Jan. 20th, 2014, 09:05 pm
One Mystery Hunt thought for now

Hunt was awesome -- the best in my memory. Delightful theme, but more importantly the puzzles had been really well edited and testsolved and factchecked, and it showed.

At wrapup, the editorial director explained their overall philosophy, which included "Make the Hunt more enjoyable by smaller teams." She then added "I'm not sure how well that worked out."

It worked out amazingly well.

Read more...Collapse )

Thu, Jan. 16th, 2014, 01:44 pm
Genealogy: Some happier tidbits for a change

It's important to remember that genealogy is not just about finding out when people died. The "family history" part is about understanding their lives. So this week, I want to blog some of the more smile-inducing things I've found lately in various newspaper archives. Read more...Collapse )

Sat, Jan. 11th, 2014, 07:13 pm
Genealogy: The sad story of Chane Einhorn

I was recently experimenting with the advanced search options on the amazing (if idiosyncratic) site fultonhistory.com and stumbled on a sad newspaper article that mentioned my great-grandfather Solomon Allweiss. (Trigger warning: possible suicide.)Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Jan. 6th, 2014, 11:05 am
Genealogy: The sad, short tale of Joseph Green (1903-1904)

When I was surveying the Dinaburg section of the Mt. Neboh Cemetery, I found a grave in the children's row that I had missed my first time there:



Read more...Collapse )

Sun, Jan. 5th, 2014, 08:52 am
Tani's Dvar Torah: Bo

This is the dvar Torah that I helped Tani research and write and that he delivered at yesterday's hashkama minyan kiddush: Read more...Collapse )

Wed, Jan. 1st, 2014, 09:09 pm
Dvar Torah: Shmot

I noticed this a few weeks ago, and wanted to capture it even though it's not fully formed. Read more...Collapse )

Wed, Dec. 25th, 2013, 09:39 am
Genealogy: How many Coleman Wertheims were there?

I've been circling back to the question of "How many Coleman Wertheims were there?Read more...Collapse )

Tue, Dec. 17th, 2013, 08:50 am
Genealogy: Birdie Greene – A successful re-evaluation of the evidence

For the version of this post with the pictures, please see the PDFRead more...Collapse )

Mon, Nov. 25th, 2013, 12:55 pm
Genealogy: Werdesheim: Branch 4

One area of ongoing research is figuring out how all the Werdesheim branches fit together. We're working on the assumption that anyone from Galicia who spelled their name that way in the 19th century is a member of a single family.Read more...Collapse )

Sun, Nov. 24th, 2013, 08:21 pm
Genealogy: More Green progress

A lot of stuff to catch up on (Werdesheims, finding Sarah Levy's grave and then her will, surveying the Dinaburg section of Mt. Neboh) but first I want to jot down this weekend's exciting progress.LongCollapse )

Sun, Sep. 1st, 2013, 07:21 am
Genealogy: What about Herman/Hersh/Hyman Wertheim?

I've been struggling since the beginning with Herschel Wertheim, my great-uncle. He was the older brother of my father's mother's father, Leo. I keep finding plausible records that turn out to be for the wrong person.

So I'm starting over, and documenting each step along the way, so that (as with a logic puzzle) when I discover a contradiction, I know how to unwind to a known safe checkpoint. Cut for lengthCollapse )

Tue, Aug. 27th, 2013, 10:48 pm
Genealogy: Who Is Max Green?

I got this month's set of scans from FamilySearch, and may have made some good progress. There are a few contraindications, but I'm going to set everything out here so I know what I knew and when I knew it. Cut for lengthCollapse )

Tue, Aug. 20th, 2013, 06:25 pm
Genealogy: Greene, Incorporated

A few odd findings from recent weeks, that I want to document so I don't forget them. Cut for length and picturesCollapse )

Thu, Aug. 15th, 2013, 08:44 pm
Genealogy: A Visit to the Boston City Archives

This morning I went to the Boston City Archives to do a little research. I met the archivist, Marta Crilly, at the IAJGS conference last week, and I emailed her a dossier over the weekend detailing what I already knew about Barnett and Ida Green's years in Boston (1887-1891) and what I was hoping to find.





I don't have a lot of time to blog this now, but the short version is: I found Barnett in the Boston tax archives for 1889, 1890, and 1891, at the addresses where I already had him listed in the Boston city directory and in birth records. I could not find him for 1892, which means that they'd already left for New York by May 1 (which is not surprising).

Here, for example, is his listing at 21-23 Fleet Street in the 1890 tax books:



Interestingly, he was not found in the listing for 7 Cherry St. for 1888. Perhaps they were still considered "transients" at that point, and not subject to the poll tax, or perhaps even the Boston tax assessors made mistakes. For a moment, I thought I had found something interesting: There was a Barnat Wolfe listed at that address, with the profession "cutter", but his age was about 20 years too high and I found him in the 1890 book, so he can't be the same person.

I did get a nice perspective though on how close "20 Moon, rear" and "21-23 Fleet" were. In fact, they may not have actually moved when their address changed:



My cart when I was done:



So in the end, I had mostly confirmation of what I already knew, and a few negative results on other lines of inquiry. (For example, no sign of Max in Boston.) Still, I enjoyed exploring the archives and hope to get back there with more questions in the future!

Mon, Jun. 17th, 2013, 10:39 am
Genealogy: Wang

I was reviewing my records to see where I still have gaps, and I noticed that I don't have direct documentation of the wedding of my great-grandparents Leo Wertheim and Anna Allweiss. I can bracket it, because in 1900 she was living with her parents, and by 1905 they were married; according to the 1910 census they were married about 1903. Their first-born was in 1906.

But then I turned to a notation that I've ignored for a while. On Anna's father's passenger list at Ellis Island, in the column "Whether going to join a relative and, if so, what relative, their name and address" is the notation "brother i.l. Louis Wang 67 Columbia St." I naively assumed that Wang was a Chinese name, and that as a tailor, Salomon was fixed up via some sort of immigration broker to work in a Chinese-owned laundry.

Never let cultural assumptions fool you.

I went to the Mielec town records that are available online, and determined that in fact there were several entries for the Wang family, along with Wanger, Wangheimer, etc.

Then I found a blog post by Patty Allweiss. Patty is trying to tie together various branches of the Allweiss family, working on the reasonable assumption that we all come from the same original root stock. Back in January, Patty wrote about the newest discovered "branch":

A New York state marriage license dated 28 Aug 1891 shows Ester Alweiss, age 20, birthplace Galicia (parents are Moses Alweiss and Ruchel) married Leib Wang, age 23, also born in Galicia.

I was able to independently confirm this via FamilySearch and Steve Morse/ItalianGen (which, as usual, have things almost right: They have "Alweifs" for "Alweiss" -- that's probably an ess-zet).

Well, Salomon's parents were Moses and Sarah; I know that Salomon had half-siblings from Moses and Frieda; so between the common parent name "Moses" and the notation on the July 1897 passenger list that "Louis Wang" was Salomon's brother-in-law in New York, I feel comfortable adding to my tree: (1) that Moses Allweiss had a third wife, Ruchel (or Rachel); (2) that they had a daughter Ester; (3) that she came over before 1891 and married a man named Leib (Louis) Wang. Then Ancestry.com suggested that Leib and Ester were in Fallsburg NY for the 1915 census, and there is another Wang family on the same census page. So there's a lot of possibilities there, which I don't have time to follow up on now. (In fact, the main reason for blogging this now is to record the provenance of the new entries on my tree and to record what I am certain of, what I merely suspect, and what I want to research further when I have time.)

This also brings back the whole question of the "elopement" story. Clearly, Salomon and Sarah were not completely cut off from all family contact.... but what can we learn from this?

Wed, Jun. 5th, 2013, 10:42 pm
My dvar torah from last shabbat: Parshat Shelach Lecha

Shabbat Shalom. My dvar Torah today is l’zecher avi mori [in memory of my father, my teacher], Gershon Eliyah ben Avraham ha-Levi v’Raizel, whose second yahrzeit occurs this coming Thursday.

I also want to remember his mother, Raizel bat Yehuda Leib v’Chana, whose tenth yahrzeit will occur the following Monday; and, although I never met her, I would like to remember his grandmother Chana Grune bat Yosef ha-Levy v’Fanny, whose yahrzeit will be next Shabbat.

In today’s parsha, the meraglim [spies] return from touring Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel], and among their reports, they say:

הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא
The land which we have passed through to tour it, is a land that devours its inhabitants


My attention was caught by the phrase “a land that devours its inhabitants” What do they mean by this?

The meforshim [commentators] all say it means that the residents were dying.

Seforno explains this as a form of natural selection: This was because the giants were strong, “v’ha-shaar metim bah mipnei ro'a ha-avir.” (“and the others died there because of the harsh climate”)

Abarbanel explains that the meraglim were spying out the land during the summer months, when people usually die in greater numbers because of disease.

Rashi summarizes a midrash which is brought in full by the Torah Temimah from Sotah 35a:

ארץ אוכלת יושביה היא דרש רבא אמר הקב"ה אני חשבתיה לטובה והם חשבו לרעה אני חשבתיה לטובה דכל היכא דמטו מת חשיבא דידהו כי היכי דניטרדו ולא לשאלו אבתרייהו ואיכא דאמרי איוב נח נפשיה ואטרידו כולי עלמא בהספידא הם חשבו לרעה ארץ אוכלת יושביה היא
It is a land that devours its inhabitants. Raba explained: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I intended this for good but they thought of it for evil. I intended this for good, because wherever [the spies] came, the chief [of the inhabitants] died, so that they [the residents] would be occupied [with his burial] and not inquire about them [the spies].... But they thought of it for evil [as they said]: It is a land that devours its inhabitants.


So this verse seems to say that the meraglim reported that Eretz Yisrael is a land with a high mortality rate, which was an unjust slander of the land.

But I suggest that there’s a bigger sin here.

We already know from Vayikra, parashat Acharei Mot, that Eretz Yisrael has the following response to being inhabited by a nation of sinners:

וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם, בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי, אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.
... that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.


The metaphor that we use with Eretz Yisrael is not one of devouring its unworthy inhabitants, but of spitting them out. By focusing on the deaths of the inhabitants, the meraglim completely missed the fact that this land is not like other lands; they blinded themselves to its kedushah [holiness] and its uniqueness.

And I would take it one step further. Up until now, the rebellious nature of the people has been kept in check. With the chet hameraglim [sin of the spies], we reach what would seem to be the climax: this generation has condemned itself to die before reaching Eretz Yisrael.

But in next week’s parsha, with nothing left to lose, Korach and his followers explicitly challenge Moshe’s leadership. And Moshe says “If Hashem creates a new thing, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, ... then you shall know that these men have spurned Hashem.” I find it significant that Moshe explicitly points out that the ground swallowing them would be a new thing.

If so, then the meraglim’s claim in our parsha of Eretz Yisrael devouring its inhabitants is, first, factually incorrect even if we take it to refer to burials; second, spiritually backwards and oblivious to the idea that Eretz Yisrael spits out those unworthy of it; and third, the introduction into this world of the idea for the very punishment that those who rebel against God are about to bring upon themselves.

The meraglim saw only the bad, not the good that Hashem was doing for them. They saw only the land, not the kedushah [sanctity] that pervades it. They saw only the here and now, and not Hashem’s promise for future generations.

My father and grandmother were proud Jews. They understood that what we see as setbacks are often the hidden hand of God working to our benefit, creating new opportunities. They understood the need for sacred space; each was instrumental in the founding and building of synagogues, mikdashim me'atim. And they both believed with complete faith that Hashem has a plan for Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel], and that each of us has a responsibility to advance the divine agenda.

They continue to be role models for me, and I pray that their memories be a blessing and inspire me and my children for many years to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, Jun. 2nd, 2013, 10:09 am
Genealogy: "I seek dead people"

On Friday, I managed to find two hours to spend tracking down some of the family gravesites in Queens. It was an amazing experience. Very long, lots of picturesCollapse )

Tue, May. 21st, 2013, 09:18 pm
Genealogy: Another name change (ERLANGER)

Just a quick note, because I need to document this.

I've been looking into the ERLANGER family of Ichenhausen, and using the data from jgbs.org to reconstruct the tree. I had five men who looked (based on their dates of birth) like they should be brothers, but I couldn't find birth records for them.

Finally I hit on the idea of just looking for people born at about the right time with the right set of first names. And sure enough, I found three records that had the right first name and birth year, all with the last name MEZGER [sic] and the parents Gerson and Sara.

To cross-check, I found death records from Gerson and Sara Erlanger in 1847 and 1843, respectively.

If I assume that sometime between 1820 and 1840 the family changed their name from Butcher to People-From-Erlangen, then I have a complete family picture. No one before 1840 used Erlanger, no one after 1820 used Mezger or Metzger, and I have a consistent set of names and dates across the boundary if I assume that single change. (I may yet find records from those two decades that helps me narrow it down further.)

I consider that sufficient evidence to enter it with confidence into my database. (But I'm writing this quick note to document my process.)

[Edited to add: There were a few siblings still missing, but when I searched Ichenhausen for anyone with the parents Gerson and Sara, I got the remaining siblings, with last names like MOSES and MAYYER, which are clearly errors for MEZGER. I consider that final confirmation that my hypothesis is correct. There's also another family, Gabriel and Esther METZGER, who at least didn't butcher the spelling of the name, but which I have no evidence is at all connected.]

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