The stories about my ancestors are too numerous to write, however, here are some of my favorites for those of you that are interested.
My father is a Holocaust survivor from Transylvania who had his children late in life. (The stories of his life alone could fill a book.) My Canadian mother was much younger than he when they married. They are profoundly different from one another with one exception: they are each directly descended from giant players in Jewish history. These are people whose premonitions saved towns and entire communities—who gave blessings that were fulfilled. Their abilities were passed down throughout the ages to their descendants.
When I was nine, I used to sneak into my father’s library to read his books on Kabbalah. There were so many! But he quickly stopped my efforts. He came from a school of thought where, unless you were forty, married, male, and had already studied the Torah for decades, the Book of Splendor was forbidden. There were many reasons for this: Without proper preparation, the energy emanating from the Holy Zohar (the book of Kabbalah) is dangerous. One could lose one’s mind, or worse, upon reading. It is certainly not reading material for a nine-year-old girl! It is not like I understood much of what I read, though sometimes I would run my hands over the Hebrew letters and they later would appear in my dreams as black fire in a white space. (Dad soon figured this out and hid the books.) I have had wild dreams my whole life. When I was younger, my father sometimes interpreted them. He would listen carefully to my nocturnal visions, then proclaim in a rolling Transylvanian accent, “Mar’eh Yechskal Einacle!” In English, this means “a daughter of the Master Yecheskal”—Ezekial Paneth, my great-great-grandfather (whom I refer to affectionately as my zeyde), the Chief Rabbi of Transylvania. He is also my favorite ancestor and the one to whom I feel closest. Ezekial Paneth was a great Kabbalistic mystic and author of eighteen books. Because of his unique gifts, he was given broad powers by the government.
In one famous incident, my zeyde had a vision that a Turkish army would invade his ancient Romanian town. Before they arrived, he ushered the entire community (Jews and non-Jews) into his synagogue where, he told them, they would be protected. As zeyde predicted, the synagogue was attacked. To this day you can see cannonballs lodged in the walls. But again, as my zeyde foretold, the people were unharmed. In gratitude for what they considered a miracle, the Austro-Hungarian government gave my zeyde a black-and-gold chariot to travel in and a personal seal with a Latin inscription that translates roughly to “super- rabbi.”
Of the stories of his life (which can be read in Hebrew in the biography Mar’eh Yechskal ha-Shalem, by Ezekiel Paneth (2 Vols.), many demonstrate how much he cared for women and children. One speaks of a man from Poland who, after abandoning his wife and family to fend for themselves, arrived in Carlsberg, where my zeyde’s synagogue was located. It was in the mountains and a good place to hide—or so the man thought. After finding out the reason behind the man’s journey, my zeyde had him arrested and threw him in the jail of the synagogue. Zeyde would not release him until the man signed a get (document for a Jewish divorce) for his wife. That way, the woman could be freed from her unsupportive husband and remarry. Without the get, she would be chained to her marriage. Subsequently, my zeyde issued an edict to further protect women from penniless abandonment. Every new man joining the town had to be sketched, and these documents were to be used in case the person tried to flee his family. Zeyde helped over three hundred women —and this was before the Internet! The Romanian government put up a shrine in his honor. To this day, people gather to pray at his gravesite, believing that tzaddikim, like my zeyde, leave a portion of the soul’s imprint in their bones.
Maternally, the Kahana family is descended from the daughters of the Talmudic commentator and scholar, Rashi, whose commentaries on the books of Moses, Writings, and Prophets are fundamental to Jewish study and life. Rashi is a descendant of King David.
Fraternally, tradition says the Kahana family is one of the ancient families from the tribe of Levi.
Rabbi Gershon Shaul Yom-Tov Lipman Heller Wallerstein HaLevi (1579–1654), is my direct ancestral zeyde on my father’s side.
Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipman Heller, also known as Tosafot Yom-Tov, was a giant Talmudic sage and Kabbalist in Prague in the 17th century, who later went on to become chief Rabbi of the Beit Din (Jewish Court) in many cities, including Austria, Prague, and Krakow. He is best known for writing a commentary on the Oral Torah called the Tosafot Yom-Tov. Currently, his portrait hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, entitled Man at the Window (1653) by Samuel Van Hoogstraten 1627–78. His works are still being published today; including his autobiography that was later completed and published by his son, entitled A Chronicle of Hardship and Hope. To this day, I hold copies of this work, which speaks of his life, miracles, adversity and redemption, and hope for the future. Although he suffered such hardships and betrayals, he continued to keep his faith and to inspire others. It is humbling to be his descendent and to read his words, which lend guidance to even today’s challenges. I highly recommend reading his autobiography and also his personal story, which can be found in the book The Feast and the Fast.
I am also descended from Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760); a miracle worker, healer, founder of cassidic Judaism, and considered one of the greatest mystics Judaism has ever known. He was one of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim who incarnate in every generation. His message is of serving the Creator with joy and brotherly love.
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, has been well documented as a miracle worker in cases where he cured the sick, healed the broken-hearted, and communicated with animals, nature, and even hidden realms. Information about the Baal Shem Tov, which means ‘Master of the Good Name’, is so vast, it would fill a library. The Baal Shem Tov had a daughter by the name of Odl, whom my mother is descended and named after.