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An unbroken chain of Jewish genealogy

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Neil Rosenstein, a retired doctor living in New Jersey, has been researching his roots ever since his childhood in South Africa. Born in Cape Town in 1944, he studied medicine there and interned in Israel. But despite the rigours of medical school, he never abandoned his family tree research for long. Forty years ago, he published the first edition of The Unbroken Chain, an extensive study of the genealogy of the major rabbinical dynasties of Ashkenazi Jewry from the 15th century on. (He has also written numerous other books on rabbinic roots and Jewish genealogy.)

Even after the second edition of The Unbroken Chain was published in 1990 at more than double the size of the original, Rosenstein continued his labours. Recently, the first volume of the third edition came off the press. It is the first in a projected five-volume set that will probably be five times the size of the original. The final product will likely contain more than 80,000 names, all descendants of the same extended family tree that has captured Rosenstein’s scholarly attention for decades.

The Unbroken Chain:
Biographical Sketches and Genealogies of Illustrious Jewish Families from the 15th-18th Centuries

The Unbroken Chain traces the lineages of many distinguished rabbis, talmudists and prominent Jewish personalities, and shows how their families are linked. Through meticulous research, Rosenstein connects Karl Marx, Helena Rubinstein, Martin Buber, Moses Montefiore, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Moses and Felix Mendelssohn, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Isaiah Berlin and many other accomplished Jews. Key branches of the same family tree involve the famous Katzenellenbogen, Auerbach, Soloveitchik, Horowitz and Landau rabbinical lines.

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The figure at the top of the pyramid is Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen (1482-1565), otherwise known as the Maharam of Padua, whose descendants gave rise to the Ger, Bobov, Horowitz and other chassidic dynasties. Not too surprisingly, there are strong hints of royalty in the family as well. Rabbi Meir’s grandson, Saul Wahl Katzenellenbogen, entered Polish folklore in medieval times by allegedly becoming “king for a day” during a brief interregnum between Polish kings.

Because of major textual misinterpretations that have now been corrected, Rosenstein has identified rabbinic giant Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (died 1609) as another patriarch of this enormous tree. “Instead of just taking the previous genealogies as gospel, I’ve dug a little deeper and discovered some essential facts that show that a lot of people who may have believed they traced back to Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen actually trace back to the Maharal of Prague,” Rosenstein explained.

Rosenstein is himself connected to the “unbroken chain,” since his grandfather was a Katzenellenbogen. This does not put him into exclusive company, however, since he estimates that as many as half a million Jews alive today (and perhaps many more) may claim descendancy from the Padua Rav or the Maharal. Rokeach, Horowitz-Margareten and Rothschilds are other prominent names on the tree. More current figures include political commentator Charles Krauthammer and daytime television’s Judge Judy.

Although it contains more plots and subplots than any hit television series on Netflix, The Unbroken Chain is non-fiction and not anything like a movie or novel – don’t even think of reading it in chronological order. It is a highly compressed and detailed genealogical resource that may be delved into at random for the intellectual pleasure of it. While many newly offered photographs, documents and illustrations make the browsing more inviting, I would also have liked to see more genealogical charts. The book is divided into three main chapters, each containing multiple subchapters devoted to separate family branches; a chart for each branch would have been a welcome addition.

First and foremost, The Unbroken Chain is meant to be consulted by researchers hoping to pinpoint their ancestors somewhere in its vast historical depths; the index has been vastly expanded for just such a purpose. However, many people may regard this book as a dinosaur because it is not online, which of course is the best way to present a genealogical database these days.

Finding an ancestral connection to a noted rabbi is one way Ashkenazi researchers may sidestep the “brick wall” of about 1808, before which Jewish communities in Russia, Lithuania, Galicia, Prussian Poland and other regions were not obliged to keep civil records. I know one person who found her ancestor in the book, a discovery that allowed her to go back at least another ten generations and instantly acquire some 10,000 new (mostly dead) relatives. According to Rosenstein, such monumental personal discoveries happen frequently, and can forever change the way a person feels about himself and his family’s place in the dramatic tapestry of Jewish history.

As a first in this volume, Rosenstein presents some cutting-edge DNA research into the Katzenellenbogen lineage that he conducted with fellow researchers Jeffrey Mark Paul and Jeffrey Briskman. The group took five descendants of Rabbi Saul Katzenellenbogen of Chelm (1617-1691) from different branches and with different surnames, and used their DNA results to confirm that the previously conducted paper-trail research was correct. “By studying their DNA results, we were able to determine what the true Katzenellenbogen gene was.”

However, not even the latest scientific techniques are enough to solve every genealogical mystery, Rosenstein noted. “Sometimes there will be things that will not have an answer. In such cases, we can only say ‘Tayku,’ just as we do sometimes when reading the Talmud. ‘Tayku’ means we have to wait for Eliyahu the prophet to come along to tell us what is the right answer.”


Bill Gladstone is a professional genealogist, writer and publisher based in Toronto. His website is www.billgladstone.ca

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