Friday, August 9, 2013

JewishGen's ViewMate cracks great-uncles' tombstones

Not literally, of course.

In contrast to my mother's New England Puritan WASP ancestry, my father's mother Clare descended from Irish immigrants,  and his father Boruch (whose name was anglicized to Bernard) was a Russian Jew. Boruch/Bernard had arrived in this country in 1921 as a 19-year-old; he did not know the language, and did not really know anyone else except for his sister Ita, who had immigrated just a few weeks earlier. For awhile he lived with her, her husband, and their kids in Chelsea, Massachusetts. 

My grandfather was the youngest of seven known surviving children, originally from the region of Volhynia in what was formerly the Russian Empire (now Ukraine). Two of his brothers ended up immigrating also-- not to the U.S., but to Canada. I'm not sure why they ended up there instead of in Massachusetts, where they had a brother and sister living; perhaps they couldn't get into the U.S. for some reason.

Anyway, through a site run by Ancestry.com that focuses on Jewish genealogy called JewishGen, I located a couple of burial records for two of my grandfather's brothers, Moishe (Moses) and Yoel (Joel). Awhile back I had emailed the cemetery through the site and got photos of their tombstones, which contained inscriptions in both English and Hebrew. 

Then fellow geneablogger Elizabeth Handler, who has a second blog focusing on her husband's Jewish family, posted not too long ago about a service offered through JewishGen called ViewMate. It basically allows members to upload photos of documents, tombstones, etc, and get translational help from other members. 

So I finally got around to uploading photos of my great-uncles' tombstones. The process is really very easy: upload the photos with a clear description of what you're looking for (e.g., a translation of Hebrew text into English), wait a day or so for said photos to be approved and to appear on the site, and the wait for responses. If someone is kind enough to respond and translate-- or try to translate-- whatever text you've uploaded, you can click on their screen name and send them a message thanking them. 

Within a day of my two photos being approved and made visible, I received responses from three people. One of them, a man named Jack, was able to give very specific translations from the Hebrew... and how moving are both inscriptions!




According to Jack, the top of Moishe's tombstone is an 8-line acrostic poem, in which the first letter of each line spells out his Hebrew name (Moishe ben Menashe). The poem reads:

How great is our despair
Our house has been broken apart
Alas, we have lost
A son loyal to his people
From his wife and sons
He has been torn, at half his allotted days
His name will be honored
And the Torah will keep him alive

Moishe, son of Menashe
Died 17 Tevet 5697

I do not know the circumstances of Moishe/Moses's death, but he did die young, in about his late 40's.


Yoel/Yalik/Joel, my other great-uncle whose tombstone I found, died even younger, and Jack was able to give me a translation for this also.



The first line, notes Jack, is from the Talmud, and appears in Rabbinic discussion on the death of children:

"Alas, I am weeping on account of the beauty that will be rotting in the earth."

The next four lines compromise a poem on the circumstances of Joel's death:

Within a light machine
To his death traveled the young man
Struck with sudden force
By a speeding mass of iron
A man of endearing qualities and a precious soul.
Yoel, son of Menashe,
Died on 22 Av 5686, may his soul be bound in eternal life.

Aged only 31, Joel was killed at a railroad crossing when his car was hit by an oncoming train. He had immigrated to Canada just four months earlier, and could not understand the English sign warning of the danger.

Yoel (Joel), brother of my paternal grandfather


There are many factors that make Jewish genealogy a challenge, not the least of which is the lack of records from the "old country." But a tradition that is helpful is that of giving the name of the deceased's father on tombstones. So if you can locate a grave of a Jewish ancestor or relative, you can likely discover his/her father's name.

I wanted to thank JewishGen, those who were kind enough to respond to my translation requests, and especially Jack, who was able to translate these so well. And thanks also to Elizabeth Handler, who alerted me to this service to begin with.

Without them I would never have known these touching and beautiful words.