This week’s Torah portion tells the famous story of Noah and the flood. It’s told as part of a detailed genealogical accounting of Noah and his family: “These are the generations of Noah…And Noah begot three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth…” This is what we read before we learn about the need to build the ark. After the flood, the descendants of Noah are listed. The final verse of this list teaches us that “Terah lived seventy years, and he begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran.” Avram, later known as Avraham, would become the father of Judaism. This isn’t the only place in the Torah that includes detailed genealogical information. It’s quite common. The information is tedious to read through and, therefore, often overlooked as we read the stories. But, when we do so, we miss a very important Jewish lesson: genealogy matters! By including these lists of ancestors and whom they begot, Torah is gently nudging us to make certain we know where we fit into the list. This is because our ancestors do indeed matter. They are – for better or worse – integral parts of our story and we owe it to them and ourselves to understand them so that we can understand ourselves.

I have been researching my family tree for many years. My research began when I was a teenager, very much disconnected from Judaism but craving to find a connection. My research led me to discover that many of the branches of my tree were vibrantly Jewish. One branch, however, has left me stumped – not only when it comes to the Jewish story. All aspects of this branch, my maternal grandmother’s family, have remained somewhat of a mystery. Until this week!

Thanks to Ancestry DNA, I have found my maternal grandmother’s first cousin, Barbara. Neither of us knew we existed. Barbara, who is well into her 80’s, has lived her life thinking that, outside of the family she married into and created with her late husband, she had no extended family. When I contacted her, she cried and said, “I do have family, I do have family!” She was overjoyed that I was a rabbi. “I knew there were Jewish roots in my family,” she explained, “because I have some pictures of relatives I don’t know doing Jewish things, But,” she said, “I really wasn’t raised as a Jew and have embraced a lot of my late husband’s Christian traditions.” Barbara lives in California but will now proudly watch our services on livestream!

Barbara sent me a box filled with a bunch of pictures this week, including the picture above. She didn’t know who the man in the center was – the one not wearing any traditional Jewish garb, the one wearing the stylish hat and receiving the Torah. But, I know him! He’s my great-grandfather, Louis Wolff z”l, Barbara’s uncle! He was quite a character. A politician, an interpreter for the NY Supreme Court, the son of a Jewish gangster (can’t you tell from the hat!)…I believe this was a staged, political photo, but it’s an incredibly spiritual image for me as it’s a beautiful visual document that brings Jewish life to that branch that’s been too silent. Other contents of the box have helped add some much-needed noise to this branch and given me a better understanding of this part of my family.

The contents of Barbara’s box and Barbara herself not only fill in missing pieces on my family tree, they help fill spiritual gaps in my own story. They help me better understand my roots and, in turn, as the Torah teaches us, better understand who I am.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: