A few weeks ago I read the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole which describes the painstaking discoveries wrung out of the bits and pieces of old paper stored in a synagogue in Egypt. When it comes to history, every little scrap of information is precious.
The same is true for genealogical research, where family historians look for clues in all kinds of records, from civic and religious archives to tombstones. One avenue of research, which was new to me until recently, is the phenomenon of prenumeranṭn, Yiddish for “pre-subscribers”. This was a list of people who donated money so that an author could publish his book.
The prenumeranṭn are helpful for genealogy because the donor names are listed by town either in the front or back of the work. If you know the town where your ancestors lived, you can search the list of that town and perhaps find new members of your family tree. One scholar helpfully catalogued a huge number of religious books with prenumeranṭn and indexed them by town. With the help of hebrewbooks.org many of these works are now online so it is possible to do the research without having to go to a library.
My father has been doing genealogy for years and just recently sent me a page from a prenumeranṭn that showed an ancestor of ours from Sanmarghita, Romania who donated money to help publish Mareh Yehezkel by Rabbi Yehezkel Paneth. The citation gave us the name of one of our ancestors, who was previously unknown and was probably born in the 18th century.
What is even more intriguing is that Rabbi Yehezkel Paneth had a son name Rabbi Menachem Mendel Paneth who also published books, one of which is called Sharei Tzedek. It turns out that another unrelated part of my father’s family, from a different part of Romania, helped the younger Paneth by donating to the publication of his book as well, and the name of the donor was none other than Rabbi Jonathan Benjamin Adler (my brother’s name is Jonathan)!
It’s fascinating to think that my family was connected to this Paneth rabbinical dynasty. Yehezkel Paneth was an adherent of Hasidism and visited the Seer of Lublin while Menachem Mendel Paneth was a notable student of the Chatam Sofer and the Pressburg Yeshiva in Bratislava, where my grandmother was born. As the first member of my family in many generations to be a rabbi, it’s neat to know that I have a link to some of the most important Jewish leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In Sacred Trash, the authors note that the world of the Cairo Geniza was similar to our own: capitalist, somewhat democratic and often chaotic. They also note that the Geniza records show the community’s obsession with donations to stay afloat. As the authors and publishers who needed to solicit prenumeranṭn to get their books published knew, it is hard work to sustain Jewish life generation to generation.