King David's Genes

By Epstein, Nadine | Moment, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview
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King David's Genes


Epstein, Nadine, Moment


Three thousand years ago, tradition says the prophet Samuel anointed a lowly shepherd named David king of Israel. A warrior who could defeat Goliath and write love psalms, David managed to pull the quarreling Jewish tribes together into one nation and then ruled a kingdom that today remains the heart of Jewish claims to the land of Israel. Living from approximately 1040 to 970 BCE, he had at least one daughter and 22 sons, and amassed enough wealth and power for one of those sons, Solomon, to build the Temple in Jerusalem.

Male descendants of King David ruled Israel until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, and Jews scattered. Some managed to stay in Palestine, others fled to Egypt, but the victorious Babylonians took most of the nesi'im--the princes of the Davidic line--to Babylon. There, the King David line continued: Princes of the House of David were appointed by religious leaders to govern the Jewish community. This person was called Rosh ba'gola, which translates as "head of the exile" or exilarch. Fraught with behind-the-scenes political infighting, the position survived the Arab conquest of Baghdad but came to an end when the last exilarch, Hezekiah, was imprisoned and tortured to death in 1040 CE.

Descendants of the exilarchs and other nesi'im fanned out across Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt and the Mediterranean basin in search of new lands in which to practice their faith. Some stayed in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and from there migrated to Europe. Like other Jews, they followed varying routes to modernity, separating into Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mlzrahi and other groups. Some families, especially rabbinic ones, kept careful track of their pedigrees, passing the tradition of royal descent from generation to generation. But through the centuries, plagued by perennial migrations and persecution, the vast majority of King David's descendants, a number estimated to be in the millions, lost knowledge of the line ...

THE ASHKENAZI PATH

Susan Roth discovered her family's lineage through a chair. Not any chair, but the hand-carved chair of Rebbe Nach-man, the 18th century founder of the Breslover Hasidic sect in the Ukraine.

Her parents were actors who had kit their pasts behind. Her father, the well-known Yiddish actor Pesach "Peishachke" Burstein, had run away from home as a teenager to join a traveling East European theater troupe, and her equally well-known mother Lillian, had been raised in Brooklyn disconnect-ed from her family's East European history. Her mother's grandmother, Rivkah Rabinovitch, had immigrated to New York but was traumatized by pogroms and rarely spoke of the past. Pesach's parents had been murdered in a pogrom, so Susan and her twin brother Mike, who grew up performing alongside their parents, knew little of their ancestry.

Her brother went on to become the famous Israeli actor Mike Burstyn, but Susan, a diminutive, energetic blond with a flair for the dramatic, left the theater at age 19 and married Michael Roth and became Orthodox. In 1997, when asked to participate in a film about her parents (The Komeidant, which would go on to win the Israel Academy's award for best documentary in 2000), she was hesitant. She agreed on the condition that the producer and director would arrange for her to see the chair of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The chair, revered as a holy relic by Breslovers because of its connection with their founder, had been brought from Ukraine to Israel and lovingly refurbished. It was kept in the men's section of the Breslov synagogue in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim.

"They did it!" she says, "they carried it up to the women's section, which had never been done before. I spent an hour with the chair and then I went down and talked to the head of Breslov. He asked me why the chair was so important to me." She told him that the only thing she knew about her family's history was that her great-grandmother Rivkah's grandfather or great-grandfather had been Baruch, the shochet (ritual slaughterer) of the town of Tiplik, and that he had carved Rebbe Nachman's chair.

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