Let’s play a little game of Jewish geography or, perhaps, Jewish genealogy — a tale of two lines of descendants.
In 1804, my great-great-great grandfather (GGG-GF), Rav Shmuel Shmelke Klein, was born in Nagayszollos (also known as Selisch), Ukraine (or Hungary, or Romania, or Czechoslovakia, depending on the year). A Hungarian kana’i (ultra-Orthodox extremist) leader, he became the av beis din (head of the religious court) in Selisch and the author of the Tzror HaChayim, a book containing novellae on various topics in the Talmud. He had 10 children and died in 1875.
One of his children, Rav Moshe Martin Klein, my great-great grandfather (1843-1880), followed in at least two family traditions; he was also an av beis din (in Szilagycseh, Romania) and had 10 children. Two of them were Rav Chayim Yosef Klein (b. 1863), my great grandfather, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Klein (1862-1942). Chayim Yosef also followed in the family tradition of having 10 children, one of whom was my grandmother, Regina (Rochel) Gross (1891-1979). Shlomo Zalman topped his father and grandfather by begetting 12 children, one of whom was (Yechiel) David Klein (1908-2009). (Interestingly, Shlomo Zalman’s brother, Rav Elijah Klein, was a leader of the Mizrachi movement in Transylvania.)
My Babee (as we pronounced it) came to the United States from Selisch with her four children, including my mother Gertrude (1920-2007), in 1933. Her husband, Isaac Gross, was already in America, having come earlier to earn money to bring his family over. You can read more about my Babee and Zayde here and here.
Babee’s first cousin David changed his last name from Klein to Giladi when he immigrated to Palestine before the war. The story of that immigration and his integration into Israeli society is told in “Ve’ulai Lo Hayu,” a novel by his daughter Shulamit, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1934. David, a well-known Israeli journalist, intellectual, novelist, government official, and translator, was among the founders of the newspaper Ma’ariv.
My mother married my father, Simon Kaplan, in 1940, and had three children: my older brother Lawrence, me, and our younger sister Rena. My mother was a homemaker as well as a bookkeeper; during my teenager years, she worked for the Rabbinical Council of America when Rabbi Israel Klavan ran that organization.
Her second cousin Shulamit, an acclaimed award-winning Israeli novelist, poet, and playwright, married Tommy, a radio and television personality, playwright, journalist, member of Knesset, and government minister. They had three children, including a son, Yair.
Oh, did I mention that Shulamit’s married name is Lapid? Which makes her son Yair Lapid, the current Prime Minister of Israel, my third cousin.
You might ask why I’m bothering you with this detailed family tree. Is it simply to brag that the prime minister of Israel is my third cousin? Well, since the only other family connection I have to a head of state or head of government is that my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Kaplan, was a chavruta (study partner) in Mir Yeshiva in Russia of Zalman Shazar (Israel’s third president), I actually do think that being a prime minister’s third cousin is rather cool (even if he doesn’t know I exist).
Yet it goes beyond bragging (or even coolness).
Rather, it raises several intriguing questions for me. I can’t help but wonder what our GGG-GF would think of all this. Could he have contemplated the fact that he would have a direct descendant living in America who would still be an observant Jew writing for a Jewish newspaper? Could he have imagined that this descendant would have a 16-year Jewish education, including intensive Talmud study, combined with a university-level secular degree, continue to study Jewish texts and other Jewish law and lore throughout his life (though much less Talmud), while spending his professional career as a lawyer practicing in secular courts? Could he have envisioned his descendant living in a multicultural, multiracial town like Teaneck, populated with numerous synagogues and yeshivot of all denominations, which exist in harmony with Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and a Bahai temple? Would any of this have made any sense to him?
The other side of the coin is equally perplexing to me. Could my GGG-GF, who died 16 years before Herzl published “The Jewish State,” have contemplated a vibrant Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael in which almost half the world’s Jews live? A state that follows the Jewish calendar, feeds its Jewish army only kosher food, supports Torah learning and a large charedi population (the charedi population he certainly would understand), and serves as a haven to Jews everywhere in the world while remaining a democracy? And could he have imagined that his direct descendant, a non-observant Jew, would be the national leader of such a state?
Whatever the answer is to these questions, they led me to think about how everyone, from time immemorial, lives only in their own time, and sees most things in that context and from that perspective. So to think about what the future will bring is often more fantasy than reality.
One small example. When I was growing up in the 1950s, a major concern of my Orthodox community was whether it would survive in America. Many thought that the Conservative movement was the wave of the future in our American milieu, and that Orthodoxy was in danger of becoming a dying breed.
How things have changed as my life moved from elementary school to retirement. Orthodoxy is stronger, its schools, shuls, organizations, and communities continue to grow briskly, and its fear of demise has disappeared. Indeed, rather than apprehension of being overtaken by the Conservative movement, cries of triumphalism ring out in many Orthodox quarters, with the sense – expressed by some with despair and, sadly, by others with glee – that it is the liberal movements that are in a steep decline.
I’ll leave that complex issue for, perhaps, another column. But for this column, what I’ve surmised from thinking about what my GGG-GF could have contemplated, and what some were thinking about Orthodoxy in the period after World War II, is that we should know better than to prognosticate about the future. We each live in our own time, and imagining a future long off often is an exercise in futility.
There are, of course, exceptions. Visionaries, like some scientists and revolutionaries, can somehow transport themselves out of their era into one far into the future. Just look at what Herzl wrote in his diary after the first Zionist Congress in Basel ended in 1897: “In Basel I have founded the Jewish state. Were I to state this loudly today, the response would be universal derision. Perhaps in five years, certainly in 50 years, all will admit it.” And almost exactly 50 years later the United Nations approved the partition plan establishing Israel as a Jewish state.
Such visionaries, whose dreams actually became reality, are, however, few and far between. Most diaries making predictions like Herzl’s are unknown to us because their predictions came to naught.
So what would Rav Shmuel Shmelke have thought about Yair and me, third cousins and two of his descendants, living in communities and countries separated by oceans and with lives and positions that are so different from each other – and from his? (I note that Yair’s hareidi political opponents, aware of his prestigious rabbinical lineage, lambaste him for departing from the ways of his ancestors.)
I have a policy of trying not to put words in the mouths of people who are no longer here; I think it’s arrogant to assert what a rabbi no longer with us would opine about an issue that didn’t exist in his time. And while I’ll follow that policy in this case, I can always hope. And what I hope my GGG-GF might think, after considering all that happened in the world between 1875 and today, is this: “For a 19th Century Hungarian kana’i, I did a good job, and I’m proud that my descendants are still serving the Jewish people, each in his own way, in the 21st century.” I know I try to make him proud, and I’m quite sure Cousin Yair does as well.