A Few Things Are Illuminated...

This is the first draft of a piece I expect will show up soon in the New York Jewish media--probably in shortened form. I thought I'll put the full version up here first.

A FEW THINGS ARE ILLUMINATED: A WILD AND CRAZY ROOTS TRIP TO THE OLD COUNTRY

By Walter Ruby

“Searching for family roots is like snorting crack cocaine. The rush it gives will hook you for the rest of your life.”

If someone had said something like that to me after the deaths of my parents, Helga and Stanley Ruby, three years ago, when I began working on a modest family history project together with my siblings Dan and Joanne, I would have found the analogy ridiculous and more than a little sacrilegious. Yet my fascination with our ongoing search for generations of lost ancestors has grown exponentially since then. By the time a fellow family history enthusiast, Eli Wohlgemuth, of Montreal, made that remark to me in jest several weeks ago in Vilnius, Lithuania, where we met by serendipity and quickly discovered unexpected overlaps in our respective family trees, I understood exactly what he was talking about.

Somewhere between the time, early in my search, when I found New York City death records proving that my colorful grandfather and namesake, Walter Ruby (1893-1939), a self-made liquor magnate remembered in our family for having invented the rum and coke, actually committed suicide instead of dying of a heart attack as our family had always believed; and my setting out last month with my fiancé Tanya on a two week jaunt through Russia, Belarus and Lithuania in search of archival records of ancestors who wisely abandoned these places for America well over a century ago, I too had become an impassioned ‘Jewish roots’ junkie.

What, I have been asked, can be so fulfilling about researching family history that one would choose to devote considerable money and valuable vacation time to shlepping across the former Soviet Union on steamy, overcrowded trains? Actually, there is quite a lot. There is the excitement of sleuthing around in the distant past; experiencing an electric connection with history. There is a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment in recovering and placing on our family history Internet site, www.rubyfamily.blogspot.com, the names of family members my siblings and I have recovered who would otherwise have been forever forgotten. Yet the greatest rush of pure excitement comes in uncovering unexpected pieces of information which connect the dots (or branches on the family tree), while providing startling insights into the psychological makeup of family members who died many decades before my birth.

One such ‘Alex Haley’ moment came for me shortly before leaving on my trip, as I sat in the Gottesman Library perusing an obscure 1961 biography of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), known as the Gaon of Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania), and widely considered the most prominent rabbi in the Russian Empire in the late 19th Century. Spektor, for whom the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at YU is named, was both a brilliant decisior of halacha and a politically astute community leader who negotiated with high officials of the Czarist regime on behalf of beleaguered Russian Jewry amidst government-sponsored pogroms during the 1880’s even as he simultaneously sent coded messages to Jewish leaders in Western Europe; asking them to orchestrate international pressure to get the Czar to cease and desist.

As a child, I often heard from my father that we were descended from a mysterious figure he called ‘the Kovno Rav’. Yet as my siblings and I put the family history together, we realized we did not understood exactly how Spektor was related to my great-grandfather, Joseph Rabinowitz (Walter Ruby’s father), who emigrated to New York in 1875. Suddenly, in the book on Rabbi Spektor, written by a New York rabbi named Efraim Shimoff, I found a short passage explaining that after the death of Spektor’s oldest son, Rabbi Chaim Rabinovich (1834-1874), the Gaon of Kovno “took care of his grandson, Joseph Rabinowitz, studying with him until he became proficient in Talmud and Jewish Codes.” Eureka! Not only did that passage establish that Joseph Rabinowitz (the Americanized version of Rabinovich), was the grandson of Spektor, it also made me the Kovno Gaon’s great-great-great grandson.
The text also provided context to a conflict my father had often spoken about between the deeply pious Rabinowitz and his youngest son, Walter Ruby, a headstrong self-made businessman who not only shortened his family name from Rabinowitz to Ruby, but also took pleasure in eating lobster and celebrating Christmas. Walter Ruby used to say that his father, who spent his days learning Talmud while his wife, Lena, struggled to run a corner grocery store in East Harlem and raise nine children, was good for only one thing; getting Lena pregnant every year. Now I understood that Joseph must have been powerfully impacted by the experience of studying with his tzaddik-like grandfather just before his emigration, and therefore devoted his life to an Old World tradition of lifelong Judaic learning that his Americanized son found a betrayal of his father’s core responsibility to adequately support his family.

A similar moment of revelation awaited me in Rostov-On-Don, a raucous river town in southern Russia where in the 1870’s and 1880’s, Shalom-Aron and Sophie Tulbowitz, my great-great grandparents on the other side of my father’s family, are said to have run a tavern. In Rostov, Yevgeni Gimodudinov, a first-rate archivist employed by the city’s revitalized Jewish community, unearthed two documents in the handwriting of Rostov’s main rabbi 130 years ago, recording the birth of a son Gavriel to the Tulbowitzes in 1878 and the death of their three year old son Isaac the following year. The document referred to the family as mecshane (a social rank that can be translated as ‘townspeople’) of Rechitsa, a small town in what is today southeastern Belarus, about 500 miles from Rostov.

Not only did that attribution solve the mystery as to where the family had lived before moving to Rostov, it also offered a plausible motive for their decision to leave for America in the early 1890’s. Gimodudinov informed us that in 1887, the Russian government announced the creation of a new military province of the Don, to be under the control of the virulently anti-Semitic Don Cossacks. At first, it appeared likely that all Jews would be forced to leave Rostov as a result of this edict, but in 1891, the government, leery of destroying Rostov’s economic vitality, announced that Jews registered as residents of Rostov would be allowed to stay. Yet while we know the Tulbowitzes had been in the city for at least 15 years, they were likely still listed as being residents of Rechitsa. Also, according to family lore, the Tulbowitzes’ daughter Rose (1874-1949) was kidnapped by Cossacks as a small child and had to be ransomed. So it seems probable that the new ascendancy of the Cossacks would have led the Tulbowitzes to regretfully to pull up roots; with the entire family moving to Albany, New York.

I now knew that both sides of my father’s family hailed from Belarus, as Rabbi Spektor was born and grew to prominence in tiny shtetlach that are today located near the border of Belarus and Poland—once the very heart of the Pale of Settlement. Tanya and I spent a day travelling through those towns and villages, a penultimate Chagall dreamscape with goats, cows and storks on roofs. Only the Jews, massacred by the Nazis almost to a person, were missing. In overgrown Jewish cemeteries in small market towns like Rabbi Spektor’s birthplace of Ros’, only a few forlorn stones stuck out of the rich black earth amidst the high grass and thorn bushes, as a disappearing testament to a lost civilization.

As soon as we arrived in Vilnius (Vilna), a ravishingly beautiful city similarly haunted with still-vivid memories of the killing of nearly all of the 100,000 Jews who lived here in the early 1940’s, our guide, Regina Koplevich, informed us that a visitor named Eli Wohlgemuth wanted to meet me. It turned out that his great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yishai Wolgemuth of Memel, (then the easternmost city in the German Empire and today the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda) had been a good friend of my great-great-great grandfather, Rabbi Spektor of Kovno. That was extraordinary enough, but I was more excited because the maiden name of my grandmother on my mother’s side, Elli Ringel, a German Jew raised in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg (today the Russian city of Kaliningrad), a short distance from Memel, also happened to be Wolgemuth. After we compared notes, Eli, a world-class expert on the extended Wohlgemuth clan, expressed the belief that my great-grandfather, Julius Wolgemuth, who was in the moving business in East Prussia, was likely closely related to his Rabbi Wohlgemuth. Eli also told me that all of the East Prussian Wohlgemuths were descended from family members who left central Belarus for the German Baltic Coast during in the first two decades of the 19th Century.

My grandmother, Elli Ringel (1900-1981), who fled the Nazis from Berlin to America with my mother, Helga, was a charming woman with a wry sense of humor, but one of her less edifying qualities was a German Jewish aversion to Ostjuden, (i.e. Russian Jews). This was a prejudice about which she remained outspoken all her life, although she deigned to make an exception when my mother married my Russian-descended father. Yet, here was an exquisite irony; if Eli from Montreal was correct, the snobby ‘more German than the Germans’ East Prussian Wolgemuths were really Ostjuden themselves! All of my life I have blamed my myriad neuroses on the conflict bubbling inside myself between my Prussian and Russian sides; between the repressed and authority-fearing side of my personality and the exuberant, romantic and rebellious side on the other. Now it appeared that I might have saved myself thousands of dollars in therapy costs, since the uber-yekke Wohlgemuths turned out to be nothing more than self-hating Ostjuden.

The last strange thing to happen on the trip was that I somehow managed to get mugged in the center of Kaunas while viewing buildings associated with the life of Rabbi Spektor. It was an event so rare in Lithuania’s normally somnolent second city that it made Page 5 of the country’s main daily newspaper. As our guide showed us a building that once housed an orphanage named in the great rabbi’s honor, a middle aged man collared me, wrestled my camera from my neck and ran off. I gave chase and some local youths, hearing my cries, caught the robber and held him until the police arrived. They handed me back the camera, but somehow the memory chip had disappeared, and with it, all of the photos of our trip. Then two cops showed up and removed a loaded pistol from the assailant’s jacket. Apparently he had shouted “I will shoot” in Lithuanian when he accosted me, but since I hadn’t understood him, I foolishly gave chase.

Given that I was the first American in memory to be mugged in Lithuania on a Jewish roots trip, some local people semi-seriously suggested it might have been a supernatural occurrence. Perhaps the ghost of Rabbi Spektor was displeased that his descendant travelled by bus from Vilnius to Kaunas on a Shabbat with the intention of snapping photos of the ohel (mausoleum) he shares with his son, Tzvi Hirsch Rabinovich, in the Kaunas Jewish cemetery. Perhaps he therefore arranged for a mugger to steal my camera as a kind of warning to change my non-observant ways, but mercifully, arranged things so that my life would be spared.

I don’t buy that theory because I learned from my readings about Rabbi Spektor that he was a kindly man with a relatively tolerant approach to those who had slipped away from tradition. So perhaps my attacker was simply was one of those dybbuks who were said to have haunted these parts a few centuries ago. Or perhaps he was just a timely reminder that there is plenty of tohu v vohu (chaos) in the natural order of things, and no rational explanation suffices for an inexplicable happening.

Whatever. Despite the mugging, I returned home from my sojourn among my ancestors with a deep sense of fulfillment. I hadn’t found answers to some of the questions I had come with, but I learned other things that added incomparably to my understanding of those who came before me. The whole thing may indeed be a kind of narcotic, but as someone who has sampled less edifying substances in my lifetime, I can testify that roots research is the most uplifting addiction I’ve yet succumbed to.