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Shorashim: How I Discovered My Roots

(Autumn In The Village 1939-1945 by Marc Chapel. Image courtesy of

In the seventh grade, the Tanach (Jewish theology) class assigned students the Shorashim (Hebrew for roots) scrapbook project. The school always had seventh-grade students complete this project as it coincided with a student's Bar or Bat Mitzvah ( a Jewish rite of passage that symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood). At the time, I was excited to pick out the yellow scrapbook and populate its pages with miscellaneous facts about my family. The farthest I went back was three generations. My Romanian, Siberian and Polish great grandparents left religious persecution, limited economic opportunities, and a whole way of life to come to a country for a better future. It is due to their sacrifices that I am who I am today. But, I did not recognize their risk when I was twelve. So, I let the Shorashim scrapbook sit idly by for twelve and half years until recently when I uncovered something new.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

The summer before my senior year of college, my mom and I went to Prague and Berlin. As we descended over the verdant Czech landscape, I was exuberant as I touched down in the Old World. It was probably 8:30 in the morning when I went up to stamp my passport; my excitement greatly contrasted the rest of the weary travelers. In fact, the man behind the passport booth took an extra five minutes looking over my passport before letting me into the Czech Republic. While in Prague, I saw Prague Castle, drank Czech beer, and explored my first European city.

(Image courtesy of me. This is a picture of me in České Budějovice, Czech Republic)

As a history major, I geeked out about how I was behind the Iron Curtain. In college, I had a fantastic professor named Vladimir Solonari. Professor Solonari taught courses about the USSR, the history of communism, and the aftermath of Glasnost. When looking back at his classes, the main takeaway is how extent historical events can shape the current socio-economic and political attitudes, policies, and beliefs. The unit on the 1968 USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia made me extra excited as I toured the country.

(Image courtesy of me. This is a picture of the exterior of Prague Castle, Prague, Czech. Republic)

On my last day in the Czech Republic, my mom and I visited the Jewish quarter. Prague has a rich Jewish history, as it served as a center of Jewish learning for hundreds of years. Just like the rest of Europe, the Holocaust decimated the Jewish population. Nazis and later Soviets destroyed and marred Jewish sites, such as synagogues and cemeteries, all around the city to create shrines to their ideologies. While there are no longer Nazis or Soviets living in Prague, Prague is once again home to a Jewish community. When you go to Prague, the city pays homage to Jewish writers like Franz Kafka and theologians such as The Maharal with statutes, stores, and souvenirs. Tourism has helped preserve the various synagogues and artifacts around the city.

The Maharal is a famous rabbi who is best known for being the main character in the Golem legend. The Maharal created the Golem to protect the Jewish community from pogroms. The Golem had Amet (Hebrew word for truth) on its forehead. Once it completed its duty, the Maharal removed the first letter, so it spelled Met (Hebrew word for death). Legend says that the Golem is in the attic of The Old Synagogue, waiting to serve the Jewish people again. The Golem legend inspired writer Mary Shelley with her character Frankenstein's monster.

(Left Image: In Search Of The Kabbalah In Prague. Prague - 25 mars 2010 --- Devant l'hôtel de ville trône la statue du grand rabbin Yehouda Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609), dit le MaHaRal, le kabbaliste, créateur du Golem. (Photo by Thierry Esch/Paris Match via Getty Images). Center Image: In Search Of The Kabbalah In Prague. Prague - 26 mars 2010 --- Le vieux cimetière juif de Prague, où l'on compterait quelque 12 000 sépultures, les unes recouvrant les autres. Parmi elles, la tombe du MaHaRal, le grand rabbin Yehouda Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609), créateur du Golem. (Photo by Thierry Esch/Paris Match via Getty Images) Right Image: Czech Republic, Prague. Old Jewish Cemetery. Was in use from early 15th century until 1787. Tomb of Ludah Lower ben Bezalel, Lower (1520-1609). Scholar of Judaism as the Mahral of Prague. Important Talmudic scholar, Jewish mystic, and philosopher. (Photo by PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images))

As we left Prague to board the train to Berlin, I wondered if anyone in my family ever walked across the St.Charles Bridge or prayed in the Old Synagogue. Whenever I think about my time in Prague, I think about how a place that witnessed some of the worst of history still maintains a genial nature; in addition to being the home of some fantastic strudel.

(Image courtesy of me. This is a picture of The Old Synagogue's roof where the Golem is said to be

Last month, I started work on my thesis project. This long project (which I promise will have multiple blog posts devoted to its inception, creation, and hopeful completion) requires me to focus my energy on one thing. When talking to friends, I usually compare my attention span to a tapas bar. I like to divide my attention into small tasks to do my best work. While finishing my thesis proposal, I decided to take a break and look at my family tree after watching an Ancestry commercial.

(video courtesy of Ancestry)

My ancestry tree sprouted many green (clue) leaves while sitting on a digital shelf for over twelve and a half years. At first, I began to update my maternal family tree. Through ancestry, I discovered my three-times great-grandparents. My Gammy's eyes lit up in joy as I regaled long forgot names of her grand and great grandparents.

(Image of my grandmother (Gammy) on the left circa 1957 and a cousin)

Then, I began to search for my paternal side. I learned more about my Dad's father's side. The furthest I went was my second great-grandparents. Yet, the golden key of my family tree was my great grandmother Rivka, the woman I named after.

(Image courtesy of my Uncle . Image depicts my father (on left standing) with Rivka and his brother circa 1980s).

Rivka was a pugnacious woman. As the youngest of eighteen, she journeyed to America as a teenager while her family remained in the Transylvanian foothills. Rivka met her husband Joel and married around 1918. Rivka and Joel had two children, my grandmother, F., born in 1920, and my great-aunt, G., born in 1935. In 1937, Joel died when a bus struck him as he crossed one of New York City's busy thoroughfares. Rivka never remarried, and when her daughter F. had her sons, my uncle and my Dad , she moved with Florence's family to Miami Beach in 1960. Rivka helped raise my father to be the man he is today. Rivka had some interesting quirks. For example, she viewed dogs as wild animals and was dismayed when her daughter G.i bought a puppy. She also had an irrational fear of dry cleaners as she was worried they served as a front to human trafficking operations. Rivka spent her life helping her family and others. She donated to various charities, helped Jews escape Europe during WWII, and advocated for Israel. She died in 1990, and I was born seven years later.

(Image courtesy of my uncle. Image depicts my grandparents, uncle, and father in the 1960s).

Although I never met Rivka, I always have a special place for her in my heart. Growing up, I wanted to be as brave as the five-foot woman who came to America but did not lose her heritage. When I clicked on her green leaf, I learned about her family and saw a picture of her father. From her father, Rivkah was a direct descendent of Jewish "royalty". Her ancestry included famous rabbis, pioneers, and business people. Upon digging further, I discovered my eighteenth great-grandfather. In fact, I visited his tombstone on a late July afternoon in the Old Jewish cemetery in Prague. My eighteenth great-grandfather was none other than The Maharal.

(Image courtesy of . Image depicts Rabbi Judah Loew Color offset print, size of picture: 40 x 23 mm Poštovní tiskárna cenin, a. s. (Postal Stationery Printing House), Prague, 2009 Jewish Museum in Prague. f you would like to learn more about my ancestor, please go to . )

In Judaism, when one visits a gravesite, it is customary that one puts a stone on someone's grave instead of flowers. The meaning behind this custom is that, while flowers wilt and die, stones last forever. When visiting someone's grave, a stone is a permanent reminder that the living continues to remember a person's legacy. When I saw my ancestor's gravesite, I was one of the many people who put a rock on his grave. On a Friday in July, I unintentionally paid respects to a person responsible for my existence.

I don't know if the rock I put is still on the Maharal's grave. I do know this. I never thought my seventh-grade genealogy project would impact my life the way it has.


Me on my first day of graduate school

Rachel Huss

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