Our Sages Tell Us Our Name is Engraved on Our Very Souls
To continue my series of stories about my father's family, I want to introduce you to another of my father's cousins, Aharon Calev Prager. I never knew Aharon Calev because he was murdered by the Accursed some ten years before I was born. In fact the proud German nation murdered nearly all of his family, immediate and distant. Referring to this Amalekite nation as Germans does nothing in my eyes to sanitise their actions over the two thousand years of our Exile.
In the past I have written about the source of my name. In the current narrative I will relate how Aharon Calev received his name. My main source of information about Aharon Calev was his younger sister, Jana Gottshall, who passed away earlier this year. I also uncovered some other, independent, sources.
My great grandfather, Rabbi Avraham haLevi Prager, was the Av Beth Din, Chief Justice, and Rosh Yeshiva of Topolcany. He was one of the main students of the holy K'thav Sopher of Pressburg.
Rabbi Prager passed away in 1901. In addition to a number of daughters, he was survived by one son, Reb Moshe.
The rabbi of Topolcany during Rav Prager's tenure in Topolcany was Rav Calev Schlesinger. These two holy communal leaders are buried next to one another in the far left corner of the Jewish cemetery in Topolcany. I have visited their final resting places.
Rav Calev's grave bears the inscription, "Here lies Rav Calev, known as Feivel, the son of Serel Schlesinger". In other words, his name was Calev but everyone knew him as Feivel*.
On his deathbed in 5671 (1911) Rav Calev called for Rav Moshe. Rav Calev had no children. His request of the younger Rav Moshe was, should he give birth to a son, would he call this son Calev. Rav Moshe readily agreed. Rav Calev passed onto his eternal reward, safe in the knowledge that he had a continuity in this world.
A son was subsequently born to the Prager family, and he was given the name Calev. To his family he was known as Feivel.
As a young child, Feivel became very sick, so sick that there was a fear that he would not recover. The doctors lost hope and the prayers of the righteous of the town were not helping. Rav Moshe decided to go to Munkach (Mukachevo), then in Eastern Czechoslovakia, today in the Ukraine, to seek a blessing from the famed Rebbe. What was strange about this was that the Pragers were students of the Hatham Sofer's yeshiva in Bratislava, very distant, physically and philosophically, from the Hassidut of the Rebbe.
Munkach is about eight hours away from Topolcany. I assume there was not a direct train in those days, so it was probably a very arduous journey. When Rav Moshe eventually had his audience with the Rebbe, the Munkacher informed him that his son was already recovering. He asked though, that a new, additional name be given to Calev and that he procure a gift for him from a "very happy person".
Rav Moshe returned to Topolcany. The way a new name was selected in those times was for members of the congregation to go to the synagogue. The holy ark is opened and, at random, one of the holy scrolls is brought out. This Torah is taken to the elevated reader's table at the centre of the synagogue where it is opened. One of those in attendance starts to read, beginning at the top of the open column, wherever that happens to be. The first name encountered in this reading is to become the "new" name. In our case the name was Aharon, so Calev now became Aharon Calev.
A young woman, who was recently engaged, presented young Aharon Calev with a ring, thus fulfilling the Munkacher Rebbe's second directive.
[Apropos, Jana told me that Rav Moshe hid many things when he realised they were going to be expelled from their homes (did he have any idea of the extermination of his people already taking place not too far to the north, in Poland?). His father's manuscripts and books he bricked up into the attic and family valuables he buried by the big tree in the yard. On returning "home" from the "camps", all on her own, Jana searched for this ring, but failed to find it.]
Aharon Calev continued to be known by both names. Many articles which he, sometimes together with his father, published in various scholarly Torah journals between the two world wars, bore this double name.
Like millions of European Jews before them, commencing during the reign of Edward I Longshanks of England, Rav Moshe Prager, Aharon Calev, their families and their neighbours were expelled from their homes. Rav Moshe suffered from advanced Parkinson's Diesease at the time. Details of their murders are not known**.
May the deeds and memories of the righteous be a blessing to all of us.
Menachem Kuchar, 25th August, 2010
* Feivel A little searching revealed the etymology of the name Feivel. It is the "pet form" of the Yiddish name Faivish. And Faivish is the Yiddish form of Phoebus which any classicist will tell you is the Latinised form of the Greek name Phoibos, meaning "bright, pure". This was an epithet of the Greek god Apollo. What this may have to do with Caleb I don't hazard a guess.
Feival often is linked as a name to Shraga, either as Shraga Feivel or Feivel Shraga. This seems to fit with the Greek meaning as Shraga, in Aramaic, is a flame.
The modern biblical commentary, Da'at Mikra, presents that the name "Caleb" probably derives from the Hebrew kelev, a dog. Though this does not sound overly flattering, he points out that other Semitic languages have similar names. We of course immediately associate 'dog' with the domestic variety, but it is possible that in biblical times, a dog was considered in the same vein as other wild animals such as a wolf, bear or deer, which are still accepted Hebrew and Yiddish names today.
Another meaning of the root, kaf, lamed, beth is to stitch irregularly; does not seem too relevant though.
My son, Aviel, suggests it may come from ka-lev, "like the heart", perhaps reminiscent of "Richard the Lionheart", Coeur de Lion. This would be a more feasible proposition had the kaf been punctuated with a patach instead of a kametz.
In any case, I have no idea how Feivel may be connected to Calev. If you do, please drop me a line.
**Details of their murders are not known I subsequently was informed that Jana and her parents were deported, together, to a work camp. Reb Moshe's medical condition was not good and there was no way that he would survive very long in the camp. One of the doctors there -- I think a non-Jewish fellow inmate -- told Reb Moshe's wife that he was prepared to give Reb Moshe a lethal injection to end his life in dignity, in his bed. His wife pleaded with the doctor not to end her husband's life artificially. Reb Moshe passed away soon after. His family never knew for sure whether the doctor had injected him.
Menachem Kuchar, 10th November, 2012
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