I don’t know about you, but talk of bloodlines leaves me queasy. We Jews have had more than our share of grief from notions of blood purity. If you’re like me, you just don’t want to go there.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself spending a Thursday evening in October at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (of all places), taking part in a reunion of King David’s dynastic line (of all things).
I write these words with the full knowledge thatmy family name links me to a branch of Jewish life that reached great heights of rabbinic authority and passed it from father to son. A case can be made that bloodlines deserve critical respect — that is, modest respect for what those lines might tell us about heritage and past achievement, with due caution not to overplay their predictive impact.
The openly stated goal of the Davidic Dynasty is hardly modest. The dynasty is aimed at “reuniting Jewish descendants of King David, reinforcing Jewish roots in Israel and evoking pride and unity.” This effort, the evening’s celebrants were told, comes “at this critical time when the world questions Jewish sovereignty in Israel.” Heritage, after all, implies inheritance.
The New York dinner was just a warm-up for the main event, “an historic reunion in Jerusalem next spring” in which organizers expect more than “1,000 Jewish descendants of King David from around the world… to participate.” Future plans include the opening of a Davidic Dynasty Museum in Jerusalem.
The evening’s co-chair and main organizer, Susan Roth, makes no personal claim of Davidic descent, although she does have her own pride of lineage: She once performed with her parents, Yiddish stage stars Lillian Lux and Pesach Burstein, and her twin brother, Mike Burstein, in a legendary act known as The Four Bursteins.
Today, Roth is a self-published author and activist. Her Eshet Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) Foundation describes the coming Davidic reunion on its Web site as “an Historic and Majestic event to declare our Eternal Right to our Homeland and restore Jewish Pride in our Glorious Past and in the promise of our Future.”
For all its big plans, the October 19 dinner attracted a rather smallish crowd, with invitees seemingly outnumbering the actual mishpokhe. In the latter category were the evening’s three main honorees: Robert Morgenthau, the 87-year-old district attorney of Manhattan; the popular Orthodox inspirational speaker Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis and a revered Hasidic sage, Grand Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky, who happens to be a distant relative of mine.
Speaking of distant relatives, we were informed at the evening’s outset that Morgenthau, the rebbetzin and the grand rabbi were all related, because they all shared a common ancestor, King David. Also declaring his blue-and-white blood was event co-chair Mitch Dayan, whose family came to these shores from Aleppo, Syria. He claims direct father-to-son descent from King David, and he was kind enough to announce that all the King’s men (and women) were part of one big family. At about this point in the evening, I was wondering when I might hit up Dayan for some help with my children’s college tuition in lieu of missed bar mitzvah gifts.
After all, I thought, this could be big. The organizers said that they have traced (or are in the process of tracing) all the descendants of King David and are in the process of reconstituting what is, in effect, a royal family. This is a royal line with considerable pretension, promising to produce no less than the fated messiah, son of David, reborn king of Israel and harbinger of the End of Days.
There was no talk at the New York dinner of launching a full-blown Israeli monarchist party. But there have been some preliminary meetings among Israeli far-rightists, aimed at precisely that.
Morgenthau, in his after-dinner remarks, spoke movingly of his struggle to affirm his Jewish identity and that of his family, including his famous grandfather and father, Henry Sr. and Jr. — one a diplomat, the other a Cabinet secretary — who played crucial roles in saving Jewish lives during the First and Second World Wars. If anyone on that dais deserved to wear a royal Jewish signet, my vote was for the DA.
Still, for all the drama and significance in the claim of Davidic descent, the authenticity of the claim appears difficult to nail down. The Davidic Dynasty project relies for its fundamental assertion on the work of genealogist Chaim (Keith) Freedman. Organizers offer some history to back up the idea that, blood being blood, King David’s descendants are all witty, wise and successful. Among famous Jews tracing their ancestry back to David, Dynasty organizers say, are the talmudic sages Hillel the Elder (who thus outranked his arch-rival, Shammai), Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi and Yochanan Ha-Sandlar, along with the medieval scholar Yosef Karo (which would put his descendant, historian Robert Caro, into The Family).
Family members over the past four centuries were said to include the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the Lubavitcher rebbe and the late president of Israel, Chaim Herzog.
Of course, “We Are Family” is a great old song. Lately it’s even become a commercial slogan for a popular restaurant chain — “Olive Garden: When you’re here, you’re family!” (As if your Uncle Morris would ever charge you $19.95 when you come over for gefilte fish and pasta.)
But can we really trace back family histories over 3,000 years? According to David Einsiedler, writing in the same scholarly journal, “Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy,” “Careful examination of all available sources leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is no complete, reliable and positive proof of claims of descent from King David, whether via Rashi, Judah Loew the Elder, or any of the other families claimed. There are at present no known sources that could fill the gaps or set the record straight. It is possible that there may be actual descendants somewhere, but at present, no one can produce sufficient and unquestionable proof of this claim.”
The counter-argument is that recent genetic breakthroughs have led to real progress along these (blood) lines. There was, for example, a 1997 study finding common DNA markers among Jewish males, and even more so among the kohanim, the priestly caste traditionally believed to trace its lineage directly to Aaron, the brother of Moses.
More recent studies have shown a close genetic kinship between Jews and the descendants of their presumed neighbors in the ancient Near East, including Kurds and Palestinians. Jews, it’s worth recalling, have tended, at least until the past century or so, to marry in, preserving common DNA traits. But I don’t think the organizers of the Davidic Dynasty Reunion were trying to gain bragging rights about familial ties to the Arabs.
None of these details has to stop you from affiliating with the Davidic Dynasty. You can even pick your level of DNA confidence, opting either for the $70 per year “Royal membership” level, or, for sympathetic commoners, the $40 per year “Loyal membership” level.
Be forewarned, however: While tradition does specify that the messiah will come from King David’s family, and while that understandably might reinforce the urge to identify the King’s descendants, there is a paradox at the heart of all this. David, after all, was not born into “royalty.” He was a shepherd boy, a hick from the sticks. If that isn’t enough to make the concept of a royal bloodline suspect, there is always the tradition of David’s own blood heritage, which takes him back to Ruth the Moabite, a convert to Judaism. Thus, the great king hails from a family with an unimportant rural pedigree compounded by a combination of Jewish and non-Jewish lineage.
With deference less to Robert Penn Warren than to Humpty Dumpty, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all King David’s children cannot put him back together again.