“Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family”
Review by Arthur Kurzweil
Published in Avotaynu.
Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and
His Family by Chaim Freedman. Avotaynu, 1997. 704 pp.
It is not since Neil Rosenstein's extraordinary ground-breaking work, The Unbroken Chain, that I have had such enjoyment reading a book in our field of Jewish genealogy. “Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family” by Chaim Freedman, which traces the family tree of Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, is as fascinating as a detective novel, intricate as a scientific thesis, and uplifting as the most beautiful poetry.
A great sage once said that the Jewish People, as a single entity, is not an animal but a plant. The implications of this metaphor are frightening, or at best paradoxical, for as every botanist knows, it is when a plant is cut back that it is stimulated to grow. I have heard a stirring presentation on this notion from a revered rabbi who aptly points out that when we look at Jewish history, the pattern becomes clear. A few examples will suffice: right after the incredibly traumatic expulsion from Spain, we see the most creative period in Jewish theological history, that of the mystics of Safed; after the massacres in the Ukraine, we see the great revival movement known as Hasidism; after the Holocaust, we see the birth and growth of the State of Israel.
This troubling metaphor passes through my mind as I reflect on Eliyahu's Branches. It does not take much imagination to actually feel that it is not a book, but a living, growing part of that glorious tree called the Jewish People. As I leaf through this inspiring book, I feel like I am looking at one of those scientific documentary films that use special photography to show us how flowers grow and bloom. The petals appear and unfold right before our eyes.
We, in Jewish genealogy, often quote a well-known passage found in the Talmud: If you save one life, you save a whole world; if you kill one life, you kill a whole world. Of course, every family tree, from the most modest to the most elaborate, illustrates this notion: How many of us have been struck by the realization that if a certain two people never met, married and had children, we-and dozens, if not hundreds of others would not be here? This is the striking message of this outstanding, deeply moving new book; every life is sacred; every life has the potential to create an entire world.
Chaim Freedman has been researching the descendants of the illustrious Gaon of Vilna for more than 30 years. And, while the careful critic will observe that Freedman makes some leaps of faith in this methodology, resulting in some doubtful branches and descendants, one must surely be in awe of his monumental efforts. The introductory material in this book, where the author explains some of his methods and some of the many difficulties involved in such a mammoth search, will delight any family historian. Freedman invites us to think about his search strategies and some of the stumbling blocks that he had to encounter. Of great importance is Freedman's discussion about the pitfalls and problems facing the genealogist who must depend upon sometimes dubious oral testimony. (In all of my travels, including public speaking about Jewish genealogy before more than 800 Jewish groups nationwide, the one individual who is claimed as an ancestor more than any other is the Vilna Gaon.)
The vast majority of this book is the genealogy itself. Freedman has painstakingly tracked down about 20,000 descendants of the Vilna Gaon, providing the reader with capsule biographies of many of them. These brief biographies alone communicate the exceptional creativity bursting forth from the lives of the descendants of this illustrious sage. But, this massive volume offers more: There is a wonderful essay on the importance of genealogy as reflected in Jewish thought through the ages; biographical material on the Vilna Gaon himself; a listing of every town mentioned in the book (along with the current name of the location); a useful glossary; a rich bibliography of sources; and, of course, a name index.
Every Jewish genealogist should have this book on his or her shelf. Even if the contents do not help you specifically with your research, the volume will serve as an inspiration, not only to show what can be done in our field if one has the will, but, also, as a monument to an eternal people, who despite the trials and tragedies of history, persevere.