Review: "Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy" by Yael Ziegler

Koren/Maggid sent me a review copy of Yael Ziegler's new book, "Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy." This is one of their new series of modern commentaries called "Studies in Tanach", in conjunction with Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Overall, this is a well-written book, which draws on both traditional exegesis and modern literary scholarship. In fact, one of Ziegler's points is that these two approaches are often complementary, and come to the same conclusions based on noticing the same initial unusual text features, just using different language to connect the source and the conclusion. (I think that Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, in his book "Mikra and Meaning", also published by Koren/Maggid, makes the same point more concisely and effectively, but it's a good point to reiterate.)

There are three main themes in this book. First is the narrative of Ruth serving as a "tikkun", a repair, for the descent of the nation throughout the book of Judges. Second is a focus on identity versus anonymity, and the importance of when people are known by name and when they are identified merely as a type. Third is comparing passages in Ruth with parallel passages elsewhere in Tanach, both on a narrative level and in terms of word choice.

Ziegler is effective in all three of these areas. She expresses her ideas crisply. She clearly has deep familiarity with a broad base of sources on which to draw, and a keen sense of when an unexpected word choice or subtle parallel to another biblical text can unlock an entirely new way of understanding a deceptively straighforward text.

There are a few weaknesses in this book.

While it functions as a commentary on the Book of Ruth, and each chapter (really, each essay) begins by citing the relevant verses (in Ziegler's own excellent translation), it is not clear to the reader whether these excerpts combine to form the complete text of Ruth. (Also, the text of Ruth is short enough that each essay's primary source text could and should have been included in the Hebrew as well.) Because Ziegler sometimes has several essays on the same (or overlapping) passages, exploring them from different angles, we find ourselves sometimes jumping ahead, sometimes doubling back. I found that confusing, especially in the section on Chapter Two.

Relatedly, because the book started as a series of essays in the Yeshivat Har Etzion online beit midrash, it suffers a little bit from redundency -- again, mostly in the section on Chapter Two. I wish there had been some more intense editing here, both in terms of combining related essays and, frankly, distilling some of the supporting material. When each essay had to stand on its own as a separate email thread, the reiteration of key arguments in full was necessary; in a book, it becomes dulling. At nearly 500 pages, this book outweighs the source material in the Book of Ruth by a factor of fifty; at some point, the sheer mass of it overwhelms Ziegler's otherwise skillful writing.

Ziegler has some deeply insightful things to say, and I will never be able to read "Ruth" as a simple narrative in isolation again. There are several passages in the book which I have bookmarked as sources for potential divrei Torah when Shavuot comes around. It is worth struggling through the slowness in the middle to learn from a scholar with her finger on widely disparate sources and an ear for the subtleties of language that make the Book of Ruth much richer than we realize when we listen to it only once a year.

Genealogy: Wishful thinking

My great-great-grandmother was born Pessl Fallek in the town of Mielec in Galitziya around 1840. (I don't have a reliable source for her date of birth.) According to her death certificate, her father's name was Leo; according to her gravestone, it was Yehuda. In Nov. 1875, she gave birth to a son (my great-grandfather); his name was Leo in English, Leib in Yiddish, Juda on his marriage certificate, Leibish on his gravestone. Pessl came to New York in 1896 with Leo and died in Brooklyn in 1923.

There was a man named Eliasz David Fallek born in the town of Mielec. According to his death certificate [no image], he was born 1 Sep 1836 and his father's name began with an L (the rest, according to the researcher who found it but was unable to make a copy, was illegible) and his mother was Sara Cohen. According to records in JRI-Poland, he lived in Mielec and had several children. Several New York records give his occupation as Rabbi; he came to New York around 1902 and died in the Bronx in 1922. His gravestone [available at JewishData.org for those with a membership there] gives his father's name as "Aryeh Leib."

Pessl married Moshe Yitzchak Werdesheim. Eliasz's daughter Blime married Isaac Werdesheim. I do not yet have documention about how these two Werdesheims were releated, but the odds are very high (from other sources) that they were either uncle and nephew or first cousins once removed.

I really want Pessl and Eliasz to have been siblings. If it weren't for their gravestones, I'd have a moderately strong case. The question is whether the inconsistency in the fathers' names is significant. It's quite possible that in both cases the father was known to the later generation only as "Leibish". Note that the death certificates are consistent. But when it came time for the matzevah, perhaps the children wanted something more formal -- and since "Leib" is the second half of two common Hebrew/Yiddish name pairs -- Aryeh Leib and Yehuda Leib -- perhaps they each chose based only on "Leibish"... and chose inconsistently.

But in the back of my mind, I hear Israel Pickholtz's admonition: "If it might be wrong, it doesn't belong." If I'm honest with myself, this is just wishful thinking on my part. I need something more definitive to link these two together.

Genealogy: Einhorn update

First, I was able to make contact with the descendents of Max Einhorn, who were as pleasantly surprised to hear from me as I was to find them. Looks like some good stuff ahead there.

Second, I went back to JRI-Poland and did a search for "Surname like EINHORN and Given Name like NOACH" and found a birth record from Sokolow Malopolski for Sina Einhorn, b. 1861 to Noach and Taube. That matches the variants of Tovah that I've seen for the mother of Sarah, Chana, and Max, so I'm adding her to my tree.

I'm not familiar with the name "Sina", but I don't think that she's the same person as Sarah (b. 1864), because Sarah's birth year stayed very consistent across all her records. (ETA: Also, Sarah's granddaughter was given the middle name Zena, which I just realized is the same name as Sina.)

Genealogy: Found another one!

Found another one!

I was doing a pass through newspaper archives this weekend, and found another article about Annie Einhorn. Annie was the sister of my great-great grandmother Sarah (Einhorn) Allweiss, who died under tragic circumstances weeks after arriving in New York.

Over at the Library of Congress's website "Chronicling America" was the most extensive -- and painful -- article on her death that I've found yet. (And over a century before things "go viral", her story was in newspapers literally around the world.)

That prompted me to revisit her death certificate. Father's name, Noah, mother Regina -- although on Sarah's second marriage, she gave her mother's name as Tillie Prise. I decided to go over to FamilySearch and see once more if I could find any other siblings in New York; in particular, I tried a variant strategy on looking in the marriage records.

In particular, I looked for NYC marriages for someone named Einhorn whose father's first name began with N and whose mother's first name began with R (no results) or T (one result).

That one result was for Max Einhoren, son of Nathin Einhoren and Toba Preis, marrying Fanny Cohn, daughter of Barny Cohn andTohbe Ferziger, on 20 Dec 1898. That's a pretty good match.

So I tentatively entered those new names into my Ancestry.com tree, and waited for the waving green leaf to appear. Sure enough, there were likely census matches in 1905, 1910, etc. These gave me the names of children: Nathan (b. 1904), Rose (b. 1908), and Harold (b. 1913). The family moved to Chicago. (I still haven't fleshed out all the intermediate steps, nor have I started working on the children's lives yet. I want to capture this moment while the details are fresh in my memory.)

I went to jewishdata.com and searched for Einhorn graves in Chicago. I recalled having seen some earlier, but until now I had no reason to pursue a Chicago connection. Sure enough, there are graves there for Max and Fannie. Max's stone gives his Hebrew name as Michel b. Noach ha-Kohen -- and I knew from Sarah's gravestone that her father was Noach ha-Kohen. Fannie's stone gives her Hebrew name as Frumet b. Dov Ber -- a good match for Barney.

This evidence seems strong and I'm convinced that Max was my great-great-grand-uncle. The next step is to start working on descendancy research and see if I can find any cousins on that branch.

Fanny (Rabinowitz) Levine, my great-great-grandmother

In my previous entry, I wrote about the discovery of my gr-gr-grandmother's birth name. Since I don't have much else about her, I thought I should quickly summarize what I do know.

She appears in the 1905 NY census and the 1910 US census living with my great-grandparents, Barnett and Ida Green.

In 1905, Fannie is misidentified as the "mother" of the head-of-household. Her age is given as 68 (implies born 1837) and her arrival in the US was 5 years prior. The family lives at 15-17 Lewis St.

In 1910, Fanny is identified as "mother-in-law" of the head-of-household. Her age is given as 75 (implies born 1835); she is listed as married (not widowed) and the length of her present marriage is given as 50 years; she has had 9 children of whom 5 survive. (We know the identities of 2 of those children: Ida and Jennie.) No information is listed about Fannie's year of arrival. The family lives at 607 Water St.

I have not been able to find a passenger list entry for her. I have not been able to find a death certificate. She does not appear in the 1915 census record for Barnett and Ida. In searching the NYC marriage records, the only one in the FamilySearch.org index that lists Fanny and Joseph Levine as parents of the bride or groom is the one for Jennie.

Jennie, my great-great-aunt

It's been a while since I blogged about any genealogical findings. I'm hoping to get back into that habit... and where better to start than with a nice, juicy sex scandal?

Back on Thanksgiving Eve, I decided to systematically search various old New York newspaper sites for combinations of ancestors' names and known addresses. When I searched for the combination of "Ida Green" (my great-grandmother) and "99 Clinton" I struck gold.

I found an article from the New York Times of 5 March 1893, reporting that "Mrs. Ida Green of 99 Clinton Street and her husband had her sister, Jennie Leivne, arrested yesterday ... as a refractory and wayward girl." I had never heard of Jennie before.

Long story short, Jennie had come over from Russia four months previously and lived with Ida and Barnett, had run away two months later and taken up with Joseph Rosenberg. Other newspapers assert that she knew Joseph from the old country and that between running off and settling down with Joseph, she had spent time in "various disorderly houses". Ida had Jennie arrested, claiming she was underage, and Joseph was arrested for abducting her. (I don't see how Ida could have it both ways, but there you go.)

The couple agreed to marry. Ida said that would satisfy her, and so they wed and Ida dropped the charges.

The marriage certificate is somewhat helpful: It lists Jennie's father as Joseph T. Levine (which is consistent with the "Yosef Tuvia" on Ida's gravestone and the "Fannie Levine" listed in the 1905 NY census as her mother) and Jennie's mother as Fanny Rabinowitz (which again is consistent with the "Fannie Levine" in the census, but adds Fannie's birth name to my database.) It is also worth noting that the officiant is "Louis Klein, Rev. of Cong. Tiferes Achim Ancei Dinaburg", who is the same rabbi who officiated at many of my grandfather's older siblings' marriages a decade or two later. This gives a much earlier date for my great-grandparents' affiliation with the Dinaburg Landsmanschaft.

And that's all I've been able to find about Jennie and Joseph. No luck looking in NYC birth records, censuses, or passenger lists. Just a scandal-of-the-day in several newspapers. Although this does make my great-grandmother the earliest member of my family to have her name in the Times.

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.)

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.

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.

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.