My Father’s Family — Part 1

Towards the end of the 18th century there lived in Nîmes, France, a Jew by the name of Jacob Abravanel. He was a Sephardi Jew and a clothier trading in cloth for all and various uses. He was recently married to a Sephardi Jewess. The people of the small Jewish congregation of Nîmes and its Rabbis regarded Jacob Abravanel as a scion of the statesman and philosopher Don Isaac Abravanel.

As time turned into the 19th century France went through great social and national changes. In 1812 Napoleon decided to conquer Russia and organized La Grande Armée of 690,000 men. Behind this huge army there moved a train of about 6,000 wagons and carts carrying supplies and driven by men and women whose task was to replenish and repair this huge Army after every battle. These people were civilians. Some of them were Jewish. Jacob Abravanel and his wife were at that time in their early twenties. They decided to join this train of contractors and purchase a wagon and two mules. We have no knowledge of the reason for this strange change in their lives.

On June 23, 1812 Napoleon’s army reached Kaunas in Lithuania and the Abravanel couple decided to remain and settle there. Their reason for this decision is also unknown to us. The Jewish population of Kaunas was larger than the one in Nîmes. The majority of these Jews were Ashkenazim but there were also Sephardi Jews in Kaunas and two Synagogues: An Ashkenazi Synagogue and a Sephardi Synagogue.

The first year of the Abravanels in Kaunas was not a happy one for Napoleon left behind him the sick and the seriously wounded soldiers who were a burden on the entire population, was beaten while trying to conquer Moscow and retreated, passing again through Kaunas on December 7 with the frozen and sick remnants of his army, leaving behind a mass of typhus stricken soldiers. The slow and tired retreat through Kaunas lasted all this month and ended when the Cossack army stormed into the city.

Years passed and generations upon generations came and passed away. Ashkenazi Jews married Sephardi women and Sephardi Jews married Ashkenazi women. The Ladino language mingled with the Yiddish language. Jacob Abravanel and his wife died leaving behind several children and grand-children. Early in 1874 their grandson Haim Abravanel was due to be married and the matchmakers who considered him to be a scion of Don Isaac Abravanel made special efforts so as to find him a match which would value him: It was Sarah-Gitl, daughter of Zalman Feinstein. She was the niece of Rabbi Shneour-Zalman of Liadi who was the founder of the Habbad Hassidim mainstream and their first Leader and Teacher.

The bride lived with her parents at Lyozna, district of Vitebsk in Belorussia and so the intended groom, Haim Abravanel, traveled from Kaunas to Lyozna. A sumptuous wedding was arranged for this most honorable couple (and a Sephardi Jew married an Ashkenazi Jewess).

During those times it was customary with the Ashkenazi Jews for the newly married couple to stay with the bride’s parents for one full year. On the 25th of February 1875 Sarah-Gitl gave birth at Lyozna to a son named Moshe Leib Abravanel. It should be noted that the Ashkenazim had difficulty in pronouncing the name Abravanel and as early as mid-ninteenth century, in Kaunas, Lithuania, the name was pronounced (and then written): Abarbanel. In conclusion the importance of this marriage was the formation of a family which was the descendant of two most important Jewish personalities: Don Isaac Abravanel and Rabbi Shneour-Zalman of Liadi.

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