Families are a bit like a puzzle, with the difference being that no one has all the pieces – spaces inevitably remain. Sometimes, an unexpected piece turns up, and a little more clarity emerges.
I have a half-brother and a half-sister, the two children of my father’s first marriage. We did not grow up in the same home, and when our father died in 1964, each of us had different pieces of the paternal family legacy, tangible and intangible.
Last fall, my brother sent me a copy of a document with a note that said: “I think this is from our great-grandfather, but I don’t read the language. Maybe you know what it is.”
The document, which I had never seen and did not know existed, was hand-written in Yiddish, about which I know only the proverbial bissel. But I was able to make a guess that it was likely a will.
I located a translator from the YIVO website, and a few weeks later I received an English rendering of what did turn out to be my great-grandfather’s will, dated March of 1936.
I have known next to nothing about my great-grandfather. Now, I knew his Hebrew name, and the Hebrew names of his children, which I had only heard in their anglicized versions. And I learned for the first time the name of my great-grandmother, which I had never known at all.
I now also know the address at which my great-grandparents lived in Brooklyn, and I know that they davened at the First Brooklyn Rumanian Synagogue, because according to the will, that shul was forbidden to sell the seats my grandfather had purchased.
But most of the will was about the disposition of jewelry, to which some intriguing and puzzling details were attached. Among the items listed, there were bequests for:
- “[A] diamond pin and collar buttons from the Sadigura Rebbe.”
- “A spoon and fork that was received from the Boyaner Rebbe.”
- And “the gold coin that is engraved by the Boyaner Rebbe.”
Apparently, in that far corner on the edge of Ukraine and Rumania from which our family came, our great-grandfather had some contact or connection with the Hasidic courts in two adjacent towns, known to the Jews who lived there as “Sadigura” and “Boyen.”
We do not know what happened to the diamond pin or the collar buttons. The spoon and fork are probably the set my brother reports having had all these years, and that he gave to his older son.
But it was the gold coin that was of the most interest. My father had always worn around his neck a gold chain on which was suspended a gold medallion inscribed with Hebrew letters. Was this possibly the same “gold coin that [was] engraved by the Boyaner Rebbe” mentioned in the will? My brother asked: “Do you know what happened to it?”
Well, yes. For the past 57 years, I have had in my jewelry box a gold medallion with Hebrew inscriptions on each side. But I had no idea what it was, or where it came from, or why my father had worn it. It was only after my Hebrew 101 class in college that I could even read some of the engraved letters, enough to know that one side of the coin read “Yitzhak Friedman,” which was not my father’s name. But I had never been able to make heads or tails of the inscription on the reverse side. Now I had two words that might solve the mystery: Boyen and Sadigura.
My on-line search revealed that Yitzhak Friedman was, in 1887, the first Boyaner Rebbe. So I expected that the puzzling inscription on the back of the coin would now reveal the word “Boyen.” Except that when I retrieved the coin, it read “Sadigura.”
It turns out that Yitzhak Friedman was one of the sons of the first Sadigura Rebbe, who, despite relocating to the nearby town of Boyen, seems to have retained the yichus, or prestige, of being from the celebrated lineage of Sadigura Hasidism – and stamped his coins to confirm the fact.
For almost six decades, I have had no idea who Yitzhak Friedman was, and why my father would have worn a medallion with his name. And the Hebrew letters on the other side of the coin had always been a mystery. But now this unexpected document had helped me solve the puzzle. Proving that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Hasidism was not what I expected to find in our family story. I wrote to my teacher Rabbi Art Green, the acknowledged contemporary expert on Hasidism, to tell him the story of the will – and to ask about the custom of engraved gold coins.
Art noted with some amusement that it was no small irony that a classical Reconstructionist rabbi (me), one whose mentor was the ultra-rational Mordecai Kaplan, turns out to have hasidic roots. Who says God has no sense of humor?
But it is unlikely that our great-grandfather was a Boyaner Hasid. More likely, Art explained, our great-grandfather’s story was a common one among East European Jews: when you needed a miracle, you went to the local hasidic rebbe, regardless of whether you were one of his Hasidim. You would make a donation; the rebbe would receive your petition; and, presumably, forward your request on to God.
Or, you might receive in exchange for your contribution a charm or amulet, perhaps even a gold coin engraved with the name of the rebbe, a custom that was prevalent among the Sadigura Hasidim. And that is likely how the gold coin from Rabbi Yitzhak Friedman, originally of Sadigura, came into our family yerusha, or inheritance.
Such are the unexpected and sometimes surprising pieces of the puzzle that we call “family.” Those about whom we knew nothing, or next to nothing, are no longer anonymous; they have become present through story and have now become a new memory.
This past summer, a friend kindly sent a poem to me, written by the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz. The poem asks what the difference is between an average person and a saint, and answers this way:
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime game of chess with God
The metaphor of the spiritual path as a game of chess reminded me of one of my favorite hasidic teachings that I learned from Rabbi Larry Kushner. It is called “The Three Rules of Checkers,” a similar metaphor pointing to some larger truths.
“The Three Rules of Checkers” goes like this:
- You cannot make two moves at once.
- You can only move forward, not backward.
- And once you reach the last row, you can move wherever you want.
While I remembered the “Three Rules of Checkers,” I could not remember in whose name Rabbi Kushner transmitted this teaching, or in which of his books it was found.
Do you know those 3:00 AM moments, when the answers you look for in the daylight suddenly appear in the dark? Well, I had one of those moments; wisely chose not to share it with my wife at that hour; and went to find the Kushner book that I had suddenly remembered.
It turns out that the three rules of checkers is attributed to Rabbi Nachum of Rizhyn, who, as it turns out, was none other than the uncle of Yitzhak Friedman – the name engraved on the gold coin named in the will of my great-grandfather.
To paraphrase a line from my favorite film: “Of all the rebbes, in all the shtetls, in all the world, he turns up in mine.”
Coincidence? Serendipity? Bashert? Part of the Divine Plan? Who knows?
But somewhere I suspect the Boyaner Rebbe and my great-grandfather Ze’ev Wolf are sharing a schnapps in celebration of how, four generations later, the legacy of a hasidic gold coin was finally revealed.