Gilded in Guilt

It stares me in the face. No matter where I sit it stares at me hauntingly. I am unable to run from it.

The ‘It” to which this refers is a tree. A tree which requires little watering. (actually none).

A tree which is not scorched by sun’s rays. A tree which remains unmoved in winter’s cold and summer’s heat.

A tree whose branches grow and whose leaves do not wither nor fall. A tree which has seen both light and darkness for the past 293 years taking the dust from my wall with it.

A tree which has entrapped me in its gilded presence and which has enwrapped me in constant guilt.

It is the maternal family tree which hangs on my living room wall. A tree which had its roots planted in Polish soil sometime in 1727 (293 years ago) and which was last pruned in August 1927…. 93 years ago… in the city of Lemberg (Lwow) .

The photo-portrait of its 1927 owner-gardener looks down upon me (I’m sure with some measure of disappointment) in his Chassidic garb… the payot, the long beard, the black clothing. Only the fur streimel has been removed for the photographer and temporarily replaced by a large yarmulka.

Made in Austro-Galician Poland in the large city of Lemberg in 1927, the name changed later to Lwow under Polish independence and now to Lviv in the Ukraine, the leaves of the tree may look to be falling but they do not. Somehow they cling to the branches of the tree.

The tree, in its present form, was planted by Rabbi Raphael Weissman, a sofer (a scribe), my grandmother’s nephew in Poland in August 1927 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of my great—great—great (whatever) grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Esor Weissman’s appointment as Chief Rabbi in the town of Nemirov (then Poland, now Belarus).

He had eight children, five sons and three daughters. Between them 152 grandchildren were born. Their Hebrew names are inscribed on leaves of the tree. My mother was # 138.

Whither did they wander, my family seems to have settled in at least 18 different Polish town and cities. Their names are inscribed on the megillat ha yichusin.. my family three-foot long tree. Like the Jews who settled in those towns, many of the towns and villages themselves are also dead.

Their religious obedience was to the seer of Belz but I have no particular fondness to being a Belzer chassid nor of any attachment to the Belzer Rebbe. I am quite removed from the Chassidic world with the one exception of my devotion and respect for Chabad in memory of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson z”l of Lubavitch whom I met on three occasions but do not recognize the claims to his messianism.

Nevertheless, having survived 293 years of pogroms, massacres, exile, two world wars and a tragic holocaust (1939-1945) which wiped away hundreds of years of my Weissman family, it is no small thing that my tree continues to grow with its roots still firmly embedded in Jewish soil. (Or is it Jewish soul?)

Inscribed on its leaves are the names of each member of my family from 1727-1927, where they lived, who they married, and the names of all children born to each of them.

One of the last names, Feige Royza bat Esther Machla bat HaRav Moshe Esor Weissman, born in 1906 is # 138 on the long list of names, is that of my late mother.

No leaf-space to add me and my three children and three grandchildren. No room on the cracked parchment scroll encased in its large gilded frame for additions.

Un-inscribed family members will have to take it on faith and belief and trust. I am the 8th generation. My children are the 9th and my grandchildren the 10th.

To transfer the three-foot long tree from one wall to another or from one room to another requires at least four hands in order to prevent its falling.

It is little wonder then that the portrait-photo of my great-great-whatever grandfather looks down upon me with scorn, despite the smile from his beard-covered face which covers much of his lips.

If he were alive today, what would he have thought of me? For a certainty, he would not recognize me as one of his own. No long black kapote, no furry streimel. No payot, no flowing beard. Only a distant whisper of his voice can be heard. : “Vos far a yid is er, mein einickle?” What kind of a Jew is my grandson?

I reply to him in words which he can no longer hear in the Hebrew language which he did not speak, defying his Yiddish . “Al tidag, Saba. Ha neched sheli, Ariel, lo kol kach rachok mimcha”… Don’t worry, grandfather. My grandson, Ariel, is not too far from you”.

Reverting to his mamaloshen tongue, I say:

“Eibishter, hob rachmones auf mir”. Eternal One, have mercy upon me !

I am, in the meanwhile, entrapped in the gilded frame which protects the three-foot parchment hand-written scroll history of 293 years of my family’s life.

In a very few more years when my feet no longer walk upon this earth and when my eyes no longer find delight in my distant history, 293 years of my life may be tossed away from its place on the wall.

Gilded guilt will be no more ! Nobody wants it. Nobody has requested a claim to it. No museum needs it.

So… while my great-great-great (whatever) grandfather stares down at me, I stare up at him with immense honor and respect and I tell him that I wish I could have known him, could have been hugged and kissed by him, could have been blessed by him.

I do not know the date of his death. I am the last survivor of my Weissman family. There are none who can tell me. I would gladly recite kaddish for him on the date of his death. I don’t know the place of his murder. I do know, however, that it was at the filthy hands of German Nazis. So I will light a memorial candle on Yom HaShoa. Perhaps I will shed tears for a zaideh I never knew but whose blood runs through my veins.

Is there a kaddish prayer for a dead tree? A family tree? My birthright !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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