Family History of Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein
and a Visit to His Grave
by Rabbi Daniel Fink
Copied from Rabbi Dan's
Blog with the permission of Rabbi Fink.
Sunday morning, I set out
to visit the grave of my great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi
Finkelstein. Thanks to my father's years of
genealogical research, I've learned a bit about R. Yehudah Tzvi's
life. He was born in 1824, in Keidan, a largely Jewish
shtetl north of Kovno in what is now central Lithuania.
Like his father, Shimon HaLevi Finkelstein, and eight generations
before him, Yehudah Tzvi became a rabbi who studied and taught in
Slabodka, the materially-poor but spiritually-rich Jewish ghetto of
Kovno. He was, according to family lore, a student of
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern Mussar movement; later he
would go on to teach this tradition to students of his
Together with his wife, Faige
Rivka, R. Yehudah Tzvi had five children: daughters Chana Ettel, Reise
(Rose), and Rachel Esther, and sons, Shimon and
Mendel. Channa would later move to Palestine with her
Shimon Finkelstein followed in his
father's footsteps, learning Mussar in Slabodka and receiving rabbinic
He emigrated to America and served Orthodox
congregations in New York and Baltimore; his son, Louis Finkelstein was a
pre-eminent American rabbi and historian, who was, for many years, the
chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological
My great grandfather, Mendel Finkelstein,
also became a rabbi and came to America, with the blessing of his renowned
Lithuanian teacher, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor.
settled in Dayton, Ohio with his wife, my great grandmother, Tobba
(Tillie) Kagen, who grew up in Srednick, Lithuania, along the banks of the
Their son -- my grandfather -- Rabbi Joseph
Fink, broke with Orthodoxy, studied at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union
College in nearby Cincinnati, and spent most of his illustrious career at
Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, where he was a major public figure,
teacher, and activist well beyond the Jewish
But to return to Yehudah
Tzvi. . . this "Old Country" Litvak came to the United States as a widower
in 1906, with his daughter Reise, her second husband and their six
He was 82 years old at the time.
He lived twelve more years in New York and died
on the exact same secular date as my own father -- March 28 -- in
Dad's records told me that he
was buried in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, in a section
belonging to the United Hebrew Congregation of New York: Gate 148 N, Block
88, Row 20 R, Grave 20.
So that is where I headed from
Well, the trip is not
the arduous journey it would have been back in 1918, but it is still quite
After almost ninety minutes,
twenty-plus dollars in toll, and way too many miles of decrepit pot-holed
roads (where is all that toll going?
) through the grim and
graffiti-blighted bowels of the Bronx, I arrived at the
I checked in at the office, where the
thoughtful and accommodating receptionist very graciously outfitted me
(contrary to the stereotype, I almost always find New Yorkers to be
unusually helpful) with a map and directions to the
the car, passed through gate 148N, and walked among crowded rows of tall,
weathered, mostly-granite headstones to where my great-great grandfather's
gravesite should have been and found. . . nothing.
thought maybe I had counted wrong, but a recount of rows shed no new
So I made my way, slowly and carefully, through
the entire section, probably containing over four hundred graves,
examining each stone and searching for Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein --- to no
Eventually, I drove back to the office and asked
if they would come out and help me, which they agreed to do.
Well, as it turns out, the grave is exactly where it is supposed to
be, but the headstone has toppled over and is lying face down on the
grass, partly covered with leaves, dirt, and moss, so I could not get even
a glimpse of the inscription.
I was deeply
disappointed, but there was nothing to be done, as the fallen headstone
weighs hundreds of pounds, which ruled out the option of trying to raise
or even move it.
To add insult to injury, at the very
moment that I tried to take a picture of the sad cemetery scene, the
batteries in my camera went dead.
did leave a lovely round pebble, which I had taken from the banks of the
Boise River before leaving home, atop the prostrate stone, as the
traditional token of my respects, as if to say, Despite all this, I
As I did so, I imagined how utterly unfathomable it would
have been to Rav Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein to imagine his great-great
grandson a Reform rabbi in Boise, Idaho.
Such is the
mystery and miracle of Jewish history.
But equally unfathomable to my family patriarch would have
been the presence of hordes of Hasidim buzzing around the cemetery where
he is buried.
I wondered what brought them there, until
one of them approached me and asked if I had put on tefillin
As it turns out, the last Chabad
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is buried just a stones
throw from R. Yehudah Tzvi.
Needless to say, his
headstone is very well-tended, as it is a pilgrimage site for Lubavitchers
from around the world.
A Talmudic Litvak and
my great-great grandfather was a undoubtedly a zealous
opponent of Hasidism, which spread rapidly through most of Eastern Europe
but failed to take hold in proudly rationalist Lithuania.
How ironic that he now lies in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
who most Chabadniks actually believe to have been the messiah as they pray
for his imminent resurrection and return.
I bid my great-great grandfather farewell and made the long,
expensive trip back to Bernardsville, arriving just in time to shower and
change for the wedding.
All in all, a bit of a
frustrating day, but also educational.
And, just maybe, for the
For in the
end, of course, no headstone lasts forever.
passage of sufficient time, even words etched deeply into the hardest rock
are worn away by wind and rain.
Even the Ohel
the Chabadniks' venerating complex built over the Rebbe's grave, will one
day yield to history and weather.
course R. Yehudah Tzvi's entire world in Lithuania is also gone --- not as a
result of time's slow ravaging but, rather, the Nazis' swift and brutal
thought of all of these passings, slow and swift, as I reflected on my
great-great grandfather's toppled headstone.
memories are somehow better --- more fitting --- than the picture I might have
taken had my camera batteries lasted just an instant longer.
Perhaps the best that I can do is to just tell his story, to try to
keep his memory alive for another generation or two.
And live up to that memory in my own personal and professional life
as a rabbi and a Jew.
May his memory be for a blessing.
And in the sprit of his memory and fallen headstone, I will
conclude with a favorite poem, by Jane
flooding the simplified
woods, by a small brown
finch --- of the gold time's going,
their blue crowns on fire,
from the sky's white branch.
themselves falling --- the ones who cross through
alone and ask for no
sign. however the passing brightness
Posted: March 19, 2013, 5:58 am
Rabbi Fink received an email from the cemetary, telling him that they had been
looking at the wrong stone, and that Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein's stone
was standing after all. They included a picture: