Long Yisroel’s Journey Into Levite
My twenty-year quest to discover the truth of our heritage came to a successful conclusion this summer, a conclusion marked by tragedy to a journey plagued with doubt.
Sufficiently melodramatic? In short, my father, my brother and I recently became Leviim, members of the tribe of Levi.
The Levites (Leviim) served as janitors, choristers, security guards and musicians in the once and future
Why is this an issue for us?
22 years ago, in 1985, my father’s parents died, a few months apart. Grandma Beckerman was buried in the wintertime, so the gravestones in the family plot were covered with snow (I remember it being a snowy week). Grandpa Beckerman passed away in the spring, so I got a chance to look at the gravestones, and … what? Uncle Willie’s gravestone says “Zev ben Yitzchak Halevi”. Halevi? He thought he was a Levi? I couldn’t ask my grandparents, since there they were in the ground. I called up Willie’s son Phil, who told me that “Dad always maintained we were Leviim, so I put it on the stone.” On a recent visit, I saw that Phil was gone too, and also had Halevi on his stone.
I started asking around. I asked a couple of cousins at the cemetery about it. One thought his grandmother had mentioned it, others didn’t think so. Later I called my father’s first cousin Sidney Beckerman, and asked him. He thought yes, but later asked his sister, who said no.
At the time, I brought this information to R’ Saul Berman, then at Lincoln Square Synagogue, my home shul. He said that there wasn’t enough data to change, I should stick with my chazaka (presumption) of being a Yisroel, and if more information came to light later, we could look into it again.
And there it sat for 22 years. I would go around telling people I was a “safek Levi”, doubtful-status Levi. Which of course means nothing halachically, but it was good for a laugh. (as I said – plagued with doubt). Since my parents had not given me a Pidyon haBen ceremony, redeeming a firstborn son from the priesthood, I wondered if I should have such a ceremony, since I might be a Levi and not need one. At the time, they had belonged to a Reconstructionist synagogue, which didn’t hold with such old-fashioned claptrap as redemption of the firstborn. Also, as a first-born, since the first-borns had originally been intended to be the Temple servitors (we lost that status when firstborns participated in the sin of the Golden Calf, while the Tribe of Levi stayed away from it), I had washed the Kohanim’s hands about three or four times. Why? If there are no Leviim in synagogue on a day when the priests bless the congregation, the firstborns go to wash the priests’ hands.
During this period, I had an officemate who was, among other adjectives (Sefardi, BT, Chabad, diabetic), a Levi. I had told him about my uncertainty, and he figured that I was probably a Levi, based on
a) our family is musical (Dad was a professional trumpeter, he & I both are amateur chazanim, Dad's whole family is musical - classical on his mother's side [the Philharmonic Fishbergs], klezmer on his father's side);
b) we all like to help out around the shul, cleaning up especially;
c) a migo argument: if someone wanted to pretend to have an ancestry undeserved, he would have gone all the way to Kohen - why bother to pretend just to Levi?
* * *
Last Pesach, my father’s cousin Sidney Beckerman died. He had played at my wedding, he was an old-time klezmer clarinetist, who had learned from his father Shloimke Beckerman, one of the three great klezmer clarinetists in the interwar United States (the other two being Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein).
There we met
Why didn’t Dad know about any of this? He grew up totally non-religious. My grandfather apparently cut off his payess at his bar-mitzvah (1903). Dad never went to shul with his parents, growing up. His grandfather took him to an interview with a rabbi, where he demonstrated he could read a little Hebrew – this was his bar-mitzvah (he learned to lein at age 69). And when Grandma & Grandpa came up from
So I brought all this evidence to R’ Moshe Sokol, our local Orthodox rabbi, including R’ Berman’s earlier demurral, the ambivalent evidence, etc. He said he’d think about it. He tried passing it up the line, but his higher resources didn’t bother to respond. Finally, at the end of the summer, he said that it was sufficient to decide that we really were Leviim (obviously had always been, even if not knowing, since it’s descent-related). For Kohen (priest) status, there would have to be more definitive evidence, since a Kohen deals in money matters, redeeming firstborn sons, and acts as a divine channel in blessing the congregation – a mistake there would have been much more serious.
Meanwhile, Mom and Dad had brought all this stuff to R’ Saul Robinson, the current rabbi at
This week, then, Rosh Hashanah, I washed my first hands as a Levi, and had my first aliyah to the Torah as a Levi. Stu Feldhamer, the president and my study partner, announced this to the congregation as “Now you see what can happen if you donate a lot of money to the shul. (wait for laughter to die down) But seriously, he just found out he was a Levi.”
So all my waffling was vindicated. Not having a pidyon haben, washing hands as a firstborn all foreshadowed the eventual discovery of the Truth – that my father’s family is Levitical.
For reference, here is the relevant subset of my family tree. Uncle Willie was my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Shloimke was my grandfather’s brother, but Grandma’s and Grandpa’s fathers were brothers, so whatever held for the boys in my grandmother’s family, also held for my descent through my grandfather.
1 Solomon BECKERMAN b: WFT Est. 1797-1826 d: WFT Est. 1851-1911
__2 Isaac Beckerman FISHBERG b: 1848 d: 1949._HAS HARP ON GRAVE
___+_MASSIA b: BET. 1858 - 1859 d: 1907
____3 Rebecca FISHBERG b:
_____+ Harry BECKERMAN b:
_____(see below for their descendents, to me)
____3 William FISHBERG b: 15 DEC 1890 d: MAR 1973_HAS
_____+ Eva COHEN b: 21 MAR 1902 d: 8 DEC 1976
______4 Philip FISHER_ HAS HALEVI ON GRAVE
_______+ Living RUDES
__2 Boruch BECKERMAN b: WFT Est. 1827-1869 d WFT Est. 1875-1950
____3 Samuel (Shlomke) BECKERMAN b: 1883 d: 1974
______4 Sidney BECKERMAN b: 1919, d: April 2007
_______+ May ?? (still alive)
________5 Bruce Beckerman (cardiologist), b. c. 1950-1955
__________6 William (grad school, Penn), b. 1985
__________6 Mark (college, NYU), b. 1987
____3 Harry BECKERMAN b:
_____+ Rebecca FISHBERG b:
______4 Sydney BAKER
_______+ Wendy WISAN
________5 Jonathan BAKER
_________+ Debra KORPUS
My ancestry in male line
My newfound cousins’ ancestry in male line