Sunday, September 16, 2007

Long Yisroel's Journey Into Levite

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 Holy Temple. All modern Jews are descended from the ancient Kingdom of Judea (the Kingdom of Israel having been exiled to Assyria in 726 BCE); thus, almost all contemporary Jews are descended from the tribes of Judah, Manasseh, Benjamin or Levi. Very few non-Levites know whether they descend from Judah, Benjamin or Manasseh, since one’s mitzvah-obligations are the same either way. Levites, and that subset of Levi who are Kohanim, priests, descendents of Aaron, since they each have different customary or legal obligations and privileges, have done better in maintaining their family tribal identity. But without other information, all Jews are considered Yisroel – descended from some other tribe than Levi.

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). Sidney hadn’t been all that religious, and we weren’t that close, so we didn’t hear about it until a couple of weeks later, when someone sent us an obituary. I found a notice of a memorial service set up by his klezmer buddies (colleague Pete Sokolow, student Margot Leverett), and Dad and I went. Dad shared stories of playing with the klezmer greats in his childhood (he had been a bit of a prodigy), and of the family.

There we met Sidney’s son Dr. Bruce, and his sons, who are in college and grad school. After the program was over, I asked the sons, “This may seem like a strange question, but are you Leviim?” The answer: “Yeah, so?” Which I regarded as rather “mesiach lefi tumo” sort of answer – matter-of-fact, not “the answer you’re looking for.”. So I told them about the whole thing, the gravestones, my asking their grandfather Sidney, etc. Bruce’s response: “Dad didn’t know his own Hebrew name”. They belong to a UTJ synagogue in Manalapan, NJ, so they’re clearly at least somewhat religious. Bruce would have known his own grandfather Shloimke, who died in 1973 or so, and presumably knew from him.

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 Florida for my bar-mitzvah, he didn’t mention anything. He may have forgotten himself, although he did remember some interesting stuff. One day we were standing around in the pool at their condo colony in Florida (1979, summer), and Grandpa asked what I’d been learning in school. Well, we had started Talmud a year before, so I told him we had done the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Bava Metzia. He starts reciting the whole first page of the 2nd chapter by heart, something he hadn’t looked at or cared about in probably 75 years. After he died, we found his tallis in the house, presumably from their marriage in1912 (they were married 73 years). I used that tallis as the chuppah at my wedding, so we had something of my grandparents present.

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 Lincoln Square (they had buttonholed him on Shavuos). He too thought it convincing, and arranged for Dad to be called to the Torah as a Levi a few weeks later. Dad has since had more Levi aliyot, and will wash his first priestly hands on Shemini Atzeret (they’ll be away without a minyan the first two days of Sukkot).

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:
1 JAN 1892 d: 29 JAN 1985
_____+ Harry BECKERMAN b: 14 JAN 1890 d: 11 MAY 1985
_____(see below for their descendents, to me)
____3 William FISHBERG b: 15 DEC 1890 d: MAR 1973_
_____+ Eva COHEN b: 21 MAR 1902 d: 8 DEC 1976
______4 Philip FISHER_
_______+ Living RUDES
__2 Boruch BECKERMAN b: WFT Est. 1827-1869 d WFT Est. 1875-1950
___+ Sarah
____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: Jan 12, 1889 or 1890 d. May, 1985
_____+ Rebecca FISHBERG b: 1 JAN 1892 d: 29 JAN 1985
______4 Sydney BAKER
_______+ Wendy WISAN
________5 Jonathan BAKER
_________+ Debra KORPUS

My ancestry in male line
My newfound cousins’ ancestry in male line


Anonymous said...

Wow, fascinating. (I'm sorry I don't have something more substantial to say.)

The Reform Baal Teshuvah said...

"he just found out he was a Levi."

Love it. "Was a Levi," as in was all along.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, even it it does deprive me of the chance to tell Gabbaim in strange shuls who ask if I am a Cohen or levi: "No. I have put in for a promotion but it hasn't come through yet." Oh well, truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction.

thanbo said...

Yeah, that was where I was most of the summer - having put in for the change in status, but waiting for R' Sokol to decide.

I suppose it's a promotion, in the sequence "kohen-levi-yisroel", but I'm wondering if Mr. Spock was right, in Amok Time: After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

Anonymous said...

So are you gonna try for Kohen now?

thanbo said...

No, that's my mother's family.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your parents have moved closer to a Torah-based life since you were born. If you haven't yet done so, here's one vote to hear more about their spiritual journey. advaThanksnce!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

wow, uhm, i'm not sure what the proper thing to say is... mazal tov? :-)

Lion of Zion said...

what a read.

i love your job description of the לויים

thanbo said...

I was flipping through a recent book on the halachos pertaining to kohanim in our day, to see what it said about leviim. Apparently, it's all minhag, what leviim do - there's nothing mandatory about it. The kohanim can wash their own hands just fine, but they let the leviim do it, and there's no mandate to give the second aliyah to the levi, but we do anyway. If that's a minhag, it goes way back, since the Gemara talks about kohen-levi-yisrael for aliyot, at least as a correspondence to the number 3, if not prescriptively (they also talk about tora-neviim-ketuvim, or avraham-yitzchak-yaakov, etc. in the last chapter of Megillah).

Anonymous said...

Not as good as finding out you are a Rothschild. That's what they told me when I found out I am a Levi because of the only pre-war kever of a relative we were able to locate in Holland.

Interestingly, when I asked the sha'ala, I was told that gravestones are presumed to tell the truth.

thanbo said...

There's a Rothschild in my shul. Just having the name doesn't guarantee access to the family fortune, or success in shidduchim either for that matter. In fact, he's on the other side of the money divide - he's a tax auditor.

Gravestones may be so presumed, but ambivalence remains:

1) only one great-uncle's stone said Halevi, the others buried there did not.

2) their father, who is in a different cemetery, has a harp on his gravestone, but not "halevi". One might think the harp indicative, but the entire family was professional musicians - the boys went to the St Petersburg Conservatory, and from there into major orchestras in both Eastern Europe and the US; the girls into less classy jobs. My grandmother, for instance, played piano in a movie theatre in Russia. So a harp may bave seemed an appropriate decoration for the patriarch of a family of musicians.

Gravestones may not lie, but they can equivocate.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating story. My husband also is a safek Levi. Maybe someday we will discover the real deal.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I have a similar story. Grandfather died when I was 2, father was raised reform, and we just didn't believe the non-religious cousins who claimed we were as my father had no recollection. For a variety of reasons my family was estranged from my grandfather's brother. About 3 years ago (after the reconcilliation) he confirmed that he was a Levi, and thus, so was his brother, my grandfather, and therefore, my father and me. I still pause before washing the Kohein's hands on yom tov; I feel very connected to the past in a way that no other mitzva or minhag as done for me.
Welcome to the shevet!

thanbo said...

Hmm, yeah. As a bechor, I have washed kohen hands in the past on a few occasions when there was no levi in shul. Someone at work commented "you may be the only levi who knows [first-hand?] what happens when there's no levi present."

Anonymous said...

Boy, you learn something new everyday - that's a terrific story, and very dogged genealogy.

I knew your cousin Sidney a bit - colleague Pete that you mentioned is my dad, so Sid was over the house a lot on his way to some job or the other with my dad. I remember him as a nice man, who grew incredibly huge tomatoes in his back yard.

The internet's a small place, isn't it?

SEOProMontreal said...

well mazal tov; and welcome to the tribe

Raphy, Aimee (nee Benezra), Shelomo and Devorah Cohen

Aimee formerly of Yavneh Minyan

Anonymous said...

Welcome to he Tribe
Reuven Ben Chaim Ha Levi
AKA Bob Kaplan

Anonymous said...

I have a remarkably similar story, with some zany twists and turns. I am currently status is "safek-levi" but for one year I was a levi, and my original Kesubah had me as a levi - but with more research, the status has been reversed. I'll tell you about it some day.

Anonymous said...

Who did I study clarinet with? Was it Sidney or Harry on 49th st in Boro Park, Brooklyn?
I met your dad in the orchestra of My Fair Lady when I was 12 years old. Maybe you can clear this up for

thanbo said...

Probably Harry. Sidney lived in Bensonhurst, my grandparents were on 47th St from 1940-75.