Monday, March 16, 2009

Esther, A forgotten daughter of Reb I...

                                                                Esther, A forgotten daughter of Reb Itzele


      An acrostic on the headstone of my great-grandfather Abraham Berger ( 1845-1916) reads Alef Bet Yud Tsadi Het Quf Lamed Ayin.

It was called to my attention by my friend Shifra Epstein in around 1980 when I showed her a photograph of the stone. At first I thought I knew what the acrostic meant. Abraham's father was named Isaac Levi and I assumed that the acrostic referred to this man. Alef Bet would be the Hebrew word, 'av', meaning father Yud Tsadi Het Quf spells Isaac (Yitskhak) in Hebrew. The acrostic was, I thought, a reference to Abraham's father.

    But Shifra disagreed. She pointed out that it was unlikely that the person who composed the inscription would go to all that trouble to provide some redundant information. Also, my theory did not explain the lamed ayin in the acrostic. It took me a long time but I finally came up with another, more satisfactory solution. She thought that 'av' referred to a more remote ancestor.

    One of Abraham's sons was my great-uncle Izzy. Izzy's Hebrew name was Yitskhak but the family called him by his Yiddish name Itze. So the yud tsadi het quf could be read 'Itze'. If lamed ayin were added, with ayin given its Yiddish pronunciation as 'e', then yud tsadi quf lamed ayin would be read 'Itzele' and the whole inscription would be 'Av Itzele.'

    The suffix 'ele' eliminates the possibility that the acrostic could refer to Abraham' father. This suffix is normally used in Yiddish with the names of small children. Its only used with the name of an adult if that person is a notorious bandit or, lehavdl, a famous rabbi. Abraham's father was not a bandit. He was a rabbi but he wasn't a particularly famous one. So 'Itzele' must have referred to a more remote ancestor.    

    Itzele had a specific meaning in the Lithuanian and Belarusian Yeshiva world in which Abraham and his son got their education. It referred to Rabbi Isaac ben Chaim Volozhiner who lived from 1780 to 1849. 'Av Itzele' could be interpreted to mean that Abraham was a descendant of Rabbi Isaac or 'Reb Itzele'.   
    A comparison of Reb Itzele's dates, 1780-1849, with Abraham's, 1845-1916, allows us to be more specific about the relationship. Reb Itzele would have been 65 when Abraham was born making him, in all likelihood, a grandfather. So one of Abraham's parents would have been a child of Itzele. It could not have been his father, Isaac, because Ashkenazim do not give a son the name of his living father. So it had to have been Abraham's mother. 
    On Abraham's death certificate, obtained for me by Greg Rothstein a descendent of Abraham's brother Israel Rothstein, the name of Abraham's mother is given as 'Esther'. So I am left with the conclusion that Reb Itzele had a daughter named Esther. So far though, I have not been able to find any references to Reb Itzele having a daughter named Esther. In Neil Rosenstein's book The Unbroken Chain only three daughters of Reb Itzele are mentioned, Rebecca, Rechel and Reina Batya, each of whom was married to a famous rabbi. Evidently, though, knowledge of Reb Itzele's family is not very complete. For example, the same book does not give the name of Reb Itzele's wife. This is surprising in the case of a man whom historian Michael Stanislawski described as probably the best known Russian Jew of his generation! I am hoping that future research will fill in the gaps in our knowledge.