Yichus is usually defined as “pedigree” and as a ba’alas tshuva (someone who became religiously observant later in life) who was raised in a typical upper middle class, secular, but culturally Jewish and very liberal American home, the concept that some people are “better” than others strictly because of their ancestry is difficult to for me to accept. This was especially painful when my children were of shidduch age and were rejected outright by certain elements within the frum community because we are BTs and also because we have no yichus. I really didn’t understand the concept of “royalty” and its inherent superiority within the Jewish Orthodox world, especially since even so-called “yichusdik” families are not immune to the same troubles as the general population, however rare: divorce, abuse, molestation, mental illness and white-collar crime. Perhaps they hide their skeletons and black sheep better than the rest of us, but they are still there. None of my relatives have been accused of any of the above tzuros, and we are known as decent and honest folk. So why the focus on yichus? (P.S. My children all married happily and well. As it turns out, it’s G-d and not the matchmakers who are in charge of shidduchim.)
One of the Chabad bochurim (young men) who came up to Maine for Purim told us a little about himself, and I think I finally may have an answer as to what yichus is truly about.
“Y” is one of 14 children; his father is the rabbinical leader of the Russian Jewish community in Toronto. This young man is terribly proud of his family; not with a sense of superiority, but rather, with nachas. He took genuine joy in his family’s accomplishments, and the love and closeness he felt towards them radiated outwards. All of the children in his family were raised with a mission to serve and reach out to the Jewish community at large, and feel genuinely that this is their purpose in life and approach it with great enthusiasm. They are a very old Chabad family – generations and generations of affiliation with Chabad. The young man’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather, born and raised in Russia, were not only affiliated with Chabad, they were rabbis under the most difficult and dangerous times, during the Bolshevik Revolution, pograms, the two World Wars, and Stalin. Out of necessity, they performed mitzvos in secret and educated their children in all things Jewish, despite the possibility of imprisonment, hard labor or death should they be caught, during a time when neighbors and “friends” were spies and even children informed upon their own parents if they didn’t conform to communist ideology.
I asked how the boy’s father managed to be raised a frum Jew during the Stalin and Communist era, and he told the following story:
At that time Chabadniks were under special scrutiny by the government, because unlike so many of their fellow Jews, they refused to be intimidated into rejecting Jewish observance even when threatened with arrest, labor camps, and death. When the baby boy (“Y” ‘s father) was born in the 1950s, they arranged for a secret bris, at which there would undoubtedly be informants. (The act of circumcision itself was not officially illegal, but was not accepted practice by the general Soviet population; it was, however, illegal to be a mohel or to circumcise under the auspices of religion. Circumcision became a very rare and dangerous event for Jews in the USSR, but “baby naming” ceremonies were allowed and registration of names was required.)
They wished to name their infant son after the previous Lubavitch rebbe (Yosef Yitzchok Shneerson), but knew that to do so would be courting further danger. So when it came time to declare the baby’s name at the bris, the boy’s paternal grandfather cried out, “Yosef! After my father, may he rest in peace!” But no sooner had he spoken, when the boy’s maternal grandfather cried out, “No! It must be Yitzchok, after my father, may he rest in peace!” To the horror of the guests, an argument and shouting match ensued: “Yosef!” “Yitzchok!” “Yosef!” “Yitzchok!” and the two grandfathers nearly came to blows at their grandson’s bris! The visibly distressed father of the baby decided to make peace: “We will call him Yosef Yitzchak” and so it was.
Of course the entire “altercation” had been a ruse and distraction, but now the government was satisfied the child was being named after both his deceased great-grandfathers rather than the Lubavitch Rebbe, and they were mollified.
Yosef Yitzchok’s parents were determined that he would be given a proper Jewish education and observe all the mitzvos. They also did not want him to be corrupted by the government school, whose Communist ideologies succeeded in brainwashing the littlest “comrades” and encouraged them to not only reject their parents’ religion, but to inform upon them if they dared practice it. But every child from the age of 6 or 7 was required by law to attend the local government school. So Yosef Yitzchok’s parents came up with a plan: they would send their son away to the town where his grandparents lived, and he could attend school there. That’s what they said they were doing. Instead, they kept their son hidden from the age of 6 in their home, completely out of the public eye. Yosef Yitzchok had to remain completely indoors all of his young life. The only time he was able to venture outside was in the summer, when there was no school and he “returned home” for a “visit” during school’s hiatus.
One day little Yosef Yitzchok must have been frustrated by the extreme confinement, because he wandered carelessly outside. Suddenly he heard his neighbors approaching! He quickly dashed into his family’s outhouse in the backyard (they did not have indoor plumbing), where he was forced to remain for many many hours until the neighbors finally went back indoors. He never made the mistake of venturing outside again. And so he was raised a completely frum Jew, well versed in Torah and mitzvos, right under the nose of Stalin and the Communists!
When a child is raised in a home where mitzvos are performed with joy, and he hears of the sacrifices and mesirus nefesh that his father and grandparents experienced in order to remain observant Jews, he has a sense of legacy. He truly feels his importance as a link in a long chain of generations of Jews, and he feels the responsibility and privilege of continuing along the same path to ensure the link remains unbroken in the future.
I don’t know anything about my own great-grandparents. Our grandparents’ generation wished to break free from the anti-Semitism and oppression they knew in the Old Country and so when they came to the “Goldeneh Medina” – the US – they threw away any remnants of Jewish observance. They Americanized their names. And sadly, they were embarrassed by the old-fashioned ways of their forefathers so they ended any ties to their past. Their children and grandchildren grew up without a sense of legacy. It’s much easier to reject Judaism if one doesn’t feel that one is a link in a chain that has profound historical, religious and personal significance. Devoid of legacy, the individual bears little sense of responsibility or appreciation for continuity.
I still take issue with the modern-day shadchanim who emphasize yichus. Because the yichus that they’re talking about means little to me: name-dropping about ancestors with no emphasis on the character of the prospective person of the present. But genuine yichus? That’s the sense of legacy, of knowing who your ancestors were, knowing the extent of their commitment to living a Torah-filled life and passing on the beauty of their faith and love of G-d despite all odds against their doing so, and imbuing their children with a sense of pride and strength, belief, faith and desire to continue that link in their children’s children and grandchildren and future generations until the Final Redemption. That was that young man’s heritage: he had genuine yichus. As a ba’alas tshuva, that is something lost to me. I can only hope to transmit it anew to my own children and grandchildren, so that they will someday have their own claim to yichus, as it’s meant to be.