Discovering Roots, Climbing Trees, & Choosing Paths

My earliest memory of Jewish prayer involves me sitting in shul on the high holidays, scrunched up between my father and my grandfather. I was young, perhaps 3 or 4, and I sat with the siddur open in my lap, blissfully unaware of what was happening all around me. I certainly didn’t grasp how lucky I was to have been there, seated between my patriarchs in a rare moment of serious, intentional spirituality.

So, I did what lots of kids do…

I played with the tzitzit (fringes) that hung from their tallisim (prayer shawls).

It’s a powerful memory. I’ve never forgotten it.

Like many descendants of Eastern European Jewry, my ancestral history is pretty foggy.

Dinner table conversations provided only scant details of our family’s narrative. We knew that we’d come from somewhere in Belarus, and that we had lots and lots of cousins around the world.

That was it.

So, I’ve made my way through a Jewish life with only anecdotal details of who I really am.

“Josh, you’re a Kohen. Our family descends from the priesthood…”

“You come from a long line of rabbis and Jewish intellectuals…”

“Your cousins are important members of the Jewish people around the world…”

These stories always seemed broad and unsubstantiated, and they did little to help solidify a personal connection to my own history. Frankly, I thought the stories were fabricated so that we all might feel better about our disconnection.

Clues were scarce. Before Ellis Island, our family name was Katznelson. I recall the day when I first discovered Google, and that my earliest searches were for that name. Predictably, the results were overwhelming, and sensing a needle/haystack situation, I quickly abandoned the approach. I resigned myself to accepting the disconnect between my deep involvement with contemporary Jewish life and the sadness I felt whenever I considered my own place within it.

Then, about a year ago, it happened.

An ad popped up online for one of the many genealogical research websites available today. On a whim, and with the assumption that I’d find nothing new, I signed up and dove in.

At first, I found little of substance beyond a few historical facts I already knew. My family had left the shtetl and arrived in New York with new names, new stories, and new identities. There was no way to connect the dots to their lives in the old world.

Then, in a life-altering twist, a distant relative saw the small family tree I’d assembled online. She wrote to me… and included a link to a ship manifest.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

Since that day, I’ve uncovered my lineage going back seven generations. It’s changed me, clearing the lens through which I see the world. I look into the eyes of my ancestors as they peer up at me from the grainy, wrinkled photographs I’ve discovered online. I say their names aloud, and I wonder if they were funny, if they sang, if they prayed…

I’ve learned of my family’s role in establishing the state of Israel, of the poetry and literature we’ve created, and of the deep Jewish connection that binds us all together.

I’ve also discovered that the vast majority of my family was killed by the Nazis on a single day in 1941.

The trees of our personal histories stretch us in two directions, both deep into the ground and high up into the sky. They pull us back to our roots, while also pushing us to discover something more… something that feels like God.

As I’ve come to understand this, I’ve felt a strong sense of personal evolution. I’ve continued to search for a deeper connection to my family history, sensing its importance in a new and profound way. I’ve experienced this most acutely when connecting with my kids, and I’ve felt a strong impulse to provide them with the very same historical ties that were conspicuously absent for me. Everything is changing.

Change doesn’t come without hard choices.

I’ve slowed down my pace. I’ve made a conscious effort to be more present in my daily life, in my spiritual work, and in my personal relationships. And, after 15 years of leading high holiday services, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical this year during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While I love and deeply value my congregation, I also truly need this break. I’m lucky to be surrounded by extraordinary friends and colleagues, friends who have been amazingly supportive of this decision and have understood its deep import to me.

I am growing, and I’ve decided to do my best to honor that growth.

Though it may feel odd, I will not chant Kol Nidre this year. I will not blow the shofar. I will not sing songs of remembrance at Yizkor.

Instead, for the first time in my life, I’m going to spend Yom Kippur in the pews with my kids. I will sit between them, placing siddurim in their laps, and helping them to find the correct page.

And perhaps, as I’ve dreamed, they will each reach down and hold my tzitzit in their hands…

Ken y’hi ratzon.

May it be God’s will.



**Cross-posted from Times of Israel, 3/21/19