by George E. Johnson
When Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on NBC’s hit show “Who Do You Think You Are?” she was delighted to discover that her paternal great-great-great grandfather, Tzvi Hirsch, was a prominent rabbi, kabbalist and purported miracle-worker in Novogrod, Poland. Tales of a fabled rabbinic ancestry inspired her to declare in a Guardian interview, “I really am a Jewish princess!” Put another way: She’s got yiches.
For centuries, yiches—usually defined as lineage or pedigree—was intimately tied to Torah study. The great chronicler of Yiddish language Max Weinreich writes in his History of the Yiddish Language, “Yiches derives from the principle that Torah is the best of wares and on this the entire social scale was based: an ignoramus; a boor; a workaday Jew; a Jew; a scholar; a renowned scholar; a genius.” Many rabbis disapproved of this concept, emphasizing the importance of judging a person on his or her own merit. But the family trees of noted rabbinic families were highly prized, painstakingly kept—usually by the families themselves—and used in arranging marriages. Although this practice dates back to medieval times, it is alive and well today. The family of 20th-century, Polish-born, American rabbinic scholar Jacob Agus maintains documents tracing its lineage back to Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, the 16th-century commentator on the Mishnah; Meir Katzenellenbogen, the 15th-century “Maharam of Padua”; and the 11th-century commentator Rashi. The family genealogy of a prominent Yemenite family, preserved at Westminster College Library in Cambridge, England, traces its yiches all the way back to the biblical Jacob.
“Among Hasidim, it’s all about yiches,” says Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America. Like other rabbinic families originating in Europe and the Middle East, some Hasidic dynasties trace their lineage back to King David. But uniquely, notes Heilman, Hasidim claim that the tzaddik, or righteous leader, has a mystical connection to the biblical prophets, which is transmitted through the “holy seed” at the birth of a male descendant.
So where does the idea of yiches come from? The short answer is the Bible. The first explicit references to yiches in Hebrew (from the root yud-hey-sin, meaning “relation to” or “related to”) appear in the Book of Ezra, which discusses the unsuccessful search by the descendants of Barzillai for their genealogical record to prove they were members of the priestly tribe, and in the Book of Nehemiah, in which the author states, “I found the Book of Lineage (sefer ha-yachus) of those who had ascended first to Jerusalem (from Babylon).” Both the Talmud and the writings of first-century historian Josephus refer to scrolls of yiches that were scrupulously kept in the Temple, prior to its destruction, which traced the ancestry of Israelite women eligible to marry the High Priest. Even so, the rabbis of the Talmudic period argued that a proselyte who was learned in the law was greater than an ignoramus with yiches.
What counts as yiches has changed over time and place, with an evolving tension between the value of heritage and what one makes of oneself. The Yiddish literature scholar and author Ruth Wisse, whose Yiddish-speaking family emigrated from Romania to Montreal in 1940, notes, “We rarely spoke of yiches. My mother would often use the phrase yiches-atsmoy”—the yiches of oneself—“meaning he has achieved high status through his own accomplishments rather than noble birth.”
Secular, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America 100 years ago developed their own understanding of what kind of yiches was important in the new world. In The Joys of Hebrew, Lewis Glinert finds this telling assessment in The Forward in 1905: “Typists don’t do too well; some receive a paltry three dollars a week. But typists have more yiches than shopgirls—it helps them find a husband, and they mix with a more refined class of person.”
According to Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and editor of the Jewish-English Lexicon, yiches today can mean merely descent from someone important, such as a well-respected or famous scientist or politician. For some Orthodox Jews, though, yiches is still serious business, used to make certain fine distinctions—for example, to identify a descendant of a convert as a prospective mate. Ayala Fader, associate professor of anthropology at Fordham University, who has studied the role of yiches in matchmaking among Hasidim, notes that while family yiches remains “the ideal,” their approach to matchmaking is more nuanced, placing the most weight on an enduring match that will be good for community continuity.
Ironically, the modern approach to yiches is perhaps best described by this Yiddish saying, preserved in Nahum Stutchkoff’s Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language: “Better an ounce of gold than a pud (40 pounds) of yiches.”