Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 27, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly

















Home and Family
More Creativity
The Family Tree
by Devora Piha

On Tu Bishvat we pay special attention to trees and the fruits that they give us. Trees also provide shade and can be a sign of an underground water supply. Additionally, we know that the trunk provides wood with which to build and paper for writing. The roots are its contact with its nourishment and its source.

The Torah is compared to a tree. "It is a tree of life for those who cling to her." The roots of a tree spread from the trunk into many branches; each branch spreads into many stems and each stem into many fruits. Each fruit has many seeds, each one capable of producing an entire tree with roots, branches, stems, leaves, fruits and more seeds, to produce another tree, and so on, without end...

A tzaddik is compared to a tree. Like the stately palm, he will blossom, and like the cedar of Lebanon will he grow tall. Fruits refer to the tzaddik's deeds and actions in this world. Even after he dies in this world, he will grow and be elevated in olom haba (Maharsha, Bova Basra).

A tree whose branches blossom forth tzaddikim is indeed a perfect picture. Another lovely picture is a Family Tree. A broad thick trunk, many branches reaching upwards to the heavens, and strong supporting roots that go deep into the earth around it. The family tree with genealogy and history is a center piece for discussions on the positive points of each member and other relevant and factual information. Making a family tree with your children is a parallel activity to displaying and decorating the fruits of Tu Bishvat. Display it on your wall during and after your Tu Bishvat seder.

The following information was generously given by a professional genealogist who asked to remain anonymous.

All of our roots go back to Adam HaRishon. For practical purposes, we will suggest here doing a family tree that includes three generations: grandparents, children and grandchildren. Of course, anyone who has more inclusive family records or knowledge can include it. The roots are patriarchial, displaying two sets of grandparents. The trunk are their children, and the branches are the grandchildren. Later branches are the children of the grandchildren. A genealogy chart doesn't have to take the shape of a tree that starts from down to up. It can go from left to right, starting with your parents/ 4 grandparents/ 8 great- grandparents/ 16 great- great-grandparents.

Family trees are categorized in three ways:

* Names and dates / * Photographs / * Medical and genetic links

Jewish Surnames

In Europe, prior to one hundred years ago, kohanim married either kohanim or leviim, adhering to the custom to marry within one's tribe. Around the year 1820, with the declaration of the Napoleanic law, Jews were obligated to take last names. Before this time, people were called after their father or grandfather (patronymics). Moshe ben Avrohom became Moshe Abramowitz (`witz' indicating `son of'). This situation was more complicated for the Sefardim since they named a child after a living parent.

Surnames were often selected from a compulsory list brought around by civil servants. One's choice of name depended on how much he could afford to pay or on his position and community standing. The list was divided by profession or occupation, such as rabbi or tailor (hence: Rabinowitz, Miller, Goldschmidt and Chait), physical attributes such as Klein and Gross (small and big), character, like Ehrlich (straightforward) or by the name of the town with or without the addition of `ski' to form such last names as Posen, Belski or Warshevski. Arbitrary names included colors: Schwartz, Green, Braun, Weiss for black, green, brown and white, while many names are abbreviated forms: Segal, for segan leviim or Zaks -- zera kodesh shenisrefu (families who had martyrs who died al kiddush Hashem, and so on. [A young baal tshuva with the unlikely surname of Duchin discovered that he was from a family of kohanim -- who had gone up to duchin!]

Names of famous or prestigious families had to be bought or certificated. Some of these names came before 1820: Rappaport, Margolis and Horowitz. Kazenellenbogen dates back to the 1500s. This name, says our expert, Rabbi Meir Wunder, denotes lineage from Rashi and was based on a small town in Germany whose Jewish population was expelled and went to Italy. Rappaport is derived from a town in Italy, with the first syllable denoting the crest or symbol of a raven. Horowitz stems from leviim and the name comes from a village near Prague. Margolies, as one might guess, denotes the profession of diamond dealer, as may be the name Shapira, Shapiro, Spiro, which relate to sapphire. On the other hand, Shapira might originate in the German city of Speyer, one of the three Kehilos Shu'm. A fascinating subject to pursue on your own...

Weinberg (wine or vine mountain) was a very common name found in several locations, villages and towns to people not related. People from one family branched out and Weinberg became Weinberger. A second or third brother from the same family took a different surname to avoid the draft in Eastern Europe. This was the case if only the first son was not drafted. This added to the confusion in family lines.

Ellis Island added substantially to this confusion. Custom officials made out random `Jewish' names. A man whose name in Romania was Abramovitz became Sin Shalom because when asked his name, he responded with the statement to where he was going, "To my son Sholom."

A medical tree lists the ages and illnesses that family member died of and genetic links, such as the Ashkenazic illness, Tay-Sachs. It is noted that first cousins who marry three times or several generations in a row could be problematic. A medical tree may uncover the reason for a grandson's red hair when no one else in the immediate family has a carrot top. The medical tree revealed a great- grandfather who had red hair. It can also be useful in calling attention to certain tendencies, such as a weak heart, and serve as warnings.

Accuracy in tracing family lineage is best achieved by searching for archives, actual birth, marriage and death certificates, gravestones and wimpels (long bands of fine cloth embroidered on the occasion of a boy's birth that includes name, date and father's name. These `swaddling cloths' were used at the bris mila and were later donated to bind the sifrei Torah in the synagogue). Also valuable are community records, circumcision record books, kesubos, decorative genealogy records and memorial plaques. Many families have important dates of births and deaths and other momentous events recorded in the flyleaf of the mother's siddur.

For those who want to look into the family history, begin by interviewing all available family members, look for published or recorded informal family history and contact the family historian -- most families have someone who takes an interest in these facts. A professional genealogist who is an expert in the field will do a very thorough job.

TREE #1 is suitable for those aged 9 to adult:


* Imitation parchment paper or quality bristol paper or bristol board 12 x 18 inches or larger

* Pencil and eraser

* Metal nib pen, quill pen, calligraphy pen, calligraphy marker or rapidiograph

* Artist quality goache (opaque) or watercolor paint (transparent)

* Brush and container with water


* Look for ideas of tree motifs in story books, postcards or reproductions of kesubos and Judaica (parental supervision necessary). Look at several trees outside for clues to realism. Compose a design and do a finished version of the tree inluding color and texture of paint on pratice paper. This will work out any difficulties in advance. Do several if necessary.

* If you plan to do calligraphy, practice writing out the names and dates now. (Perhaps a talented neighbor will fill in for you.)

* Draw outline of a large tree in pencil, using the whole paper.

* Write in family name and names of members.

* Ink over pencil lines.

* Paint tree with colors.

TREE #2 suitable for ages 5 years and older:


* Imitation parchment paper, Bristol paper or copy paper

* Pencil

* Green and brown colored papers

* Scissors and glue


* Draw a large tree with child on practice paper or let child do it alone.

* Child draws trunk, branches and roots on brown paper.

* Child draws several leaves for each branch

* Child cuts out all pieces

* Assemble on parchment or bristol paper and glue in place

* Write in names of family members on roots, trunk and leaves

* Frame, if desired, display or give as a gift to grandparents

TREE #3 ages 4-5 years and older


* Imitation parchment paper and school drawing paper or copy paper

* Pen

* Oil pastels: greens, yellows, browns, mustards, grays - a light and dark value of each


* With a pencil, draw a big tree, emphasizing to child the necessity of making the tree large enough to accommodate all the names of family members

* With oil pastels, make a cluster of leaves in a spectrum of spring or autumn colors by hitting or dabbing the colors against the paper

* Color the branches and trunk one side light (brown or grey- brown) and one side dark to suggest light and shading

* Write in family name and names of all members

* Display or give to grandparents. Frame -- optional.

Optional for those who enjoy sewing or fibercraft:

* Do an appliqued or embroidered Family Tree, with or without filling, of your own design.

* Make a stuffed pillow or toy in the cutout shape of a tree embroidered with the family names on the branches or leaves.


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