Jewish Geneology: The Hasid

I don't know if I have mentioned it, but my day job is in a historical society. Specifically, I am the society's lone professional researcher, which, in practice, means that I fill a lot of roles. One of them is teaching a genealogy class.

I am not a trained genealogist, but, then, my class is quite introductory, and, in order to be a teacher, you need not know everything about a subject, you merely need to know more than your students. I have pursued my own family tree, on and off, since I was in my early twenties, and quite avidly for the past few years.

Properly, that should be plural: I have pursued my own family trees. I have two, one biological and one adoptive. The biological one points exclusively back to Ireland. The adoptive one points to a variety of places in Eastern Europe, and many of the branches end as you might expect, with extermination at the hands of the Nazis. This is the distressing fact of Jewish genealogy is your family is Ashkenazi -- it inevitably ends up being a map of genocide. This may be an area of investigation for me at some time in the future, as I can't help but feel that they deserve some documentation from a family member. It is not my first area of investigation, however.

My Irish family tree isn't terribly long. Ireland lost many of its official records in a fire in 1922, and that tends to create a wall for genealogists. My biological family has done research on their own, as they still have relative in Bohola in County Mayo they keep in touch with. So I have some names that go back to the 1800s. There is my biological 3rd great grandmother Margaret O'Brien, as an example, who was born about 1821.

But my adoptive family's tree goes back much further. It goes back to 1660, and this is thanks to the Hasid.

I don't know when I first learned about the Hasid. I feel like it must have been back in high school. I had thought my mother had told me about him, but she insists she didn't, so it may have been my uncle. Nonetheless, at some moment in the past, I learned that via adoption I was now part of the family line of a man named Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes.

I am going to continue to write this under the assumption that my readers know a little bit about Hasids. I will assume you know that it began as an ecstatic, mystical movement in Western Ukraine in the 18th century, and was headed by a man named Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, generally called the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Master of the Good Name.

I found a photograph, converted into the illustration at the top of the page, last week. It is from an old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, Ukraine. For those of you who can't read Hebrew letters, the grave on the right is labeled "Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov." The grave on the left is labeled Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes.

That's my ancestor, buried next to the leader of Hadidic Judaism. I did not know that was where his grave was.

I did know a few things about the Hasid, though. The fact that he is my ancestor was the basis for a play I once wrote called "Kishinev," and I did an awful lot of research for the play. I knew he was a Hasid even before the Ba'al Shem Tov was a Hasid; he was reportedly one of the leaders of a group of early Hasidim, and although he was apparently initially skeptical of  the Ba'al Shem Tov, he quickly became a devotee.

There are miracle stories about Wolf Kitzes in Martin Buber's books on Hasidim, and there are stranger stories still in books published by and for Hasidic Jews. There is a story that I made the centerpiece of my play, in which Wolf Kitzes was to take a journey, and the Ba'al Shem Tov told him if anyone should ask him how things go with the Jews, he should tell the truth. Wolf Kitzes becomes lost on his trip and is sheltered by a man, and, when asked about the Jews, responds that God watches over them. Wolf Kitzes returns to a distraught Ba'al Shem Tov, who informs him that the man was the patriarch Abraham, and he could have intervened on behalf of the ailing Jews had Wolf Kitzes told the truth.

I don't remember where I read this story, or how close this version (the version I put in my play) is to the original. And so I plan to do some digging.

Just last week I managed to push my family tree far enough back to find Wolf. Even though he did not start a dynasty of Rebbes, Hasids are pretty dedicated to maintaining family trees of important Rabbis, and so Wolf's is online. I could follow his family down through the ages, one Kitzes after another, finally connecting to my grandmother, and then my mother, and then me.

I don't know anything about the intermediate family but for their names, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes Jews like to pretend we were not as sexist as the rest of the world -- after all, to be a Jew, you need a Jewish mother! We're a matriarchy!

But if you want to see a chart of power, rather than ethnic membership, my family tree is an example. All the men are named. Many of the women aren't. There is my 6th great-grandfather Israel Kitzes, and then there is his wife, Wife Kitzes. There is his father, Nachman Kitzes, and there is his mother, Wife of Nachmann. His father was Ze'ev Wolf, the Hasid, and while I know his wife's name -- Rachel -- one of his daughters is on my family tree as Daughter Kitzes.

I don't know that I will be able to fill in these blanks. But this is my family history, and I am interested in it, so I shall dig into this as best I can. I'll start with the Hasid himself, Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes, because it has been a long time since I have looked into the life of my 8th great grandfather, and it is time that I did.