Grapevine November 25, 2020: Family ties

Publication Date24 Nov 2020
Rivlin is fond of telling the story that his forebears were followers of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon, who had declared that the Messiah would come in the Jewish calendar year Taf Kuf Ayin, which in itself is an acronym for "blow and was interpreted as sounding the ram's horn – the shofar – to hail the coming of the Messiah. Rivlin continues the tale by saying that it was untenable that the Messiah should come to Jerusalem and the Rivlins would not be there to greet him.

They're still waiting, but meanwhile Rivlin was supposed to be in Vilnius in April to join in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon.

That didn't work out either, due to the pandemic. The Lithuanian authorities, together with the Lithuanian Jewish community, had spent well over a year organizing events in connection with this anniversary, but in the final analysis, on the actual date of the anniversary, Lithuanian Jewish community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius and Israeli Ambassador Yossef Levy attended a symbolic memorial service at what is believed to be the Vilna Gaon's final resting place.

In February 2019, it was widely reported that Lithuania had refused Israel's request to have the remains of the Vilna Gaon transferred to Jerusalem. That is quite understandable, as the Vilna Gaon State Museum of Jewish History is a major tourist attraction, which also receives donations from Lithuanian expatriates and their descendants. In addition, there are numerous international conferences and symposia related to the Vilna Gaon. A Zoom conference of this nature was held in Poland last week with the cooperation of the Lithuanian government and parliament.

As Lithuania had declared 2020 to be the year of the Vilna Gaon, it was still not too late for Rivlin to host an event marking the special anniversary of his birth.

Aside from anything else, he's distantly related to the Vilna Gaon. According to genealogist Chaim Freedman, who is an eighth-generation direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, the Rivlins are direct descendants of the Vilna Gaon's great uncle – a brother of his grandfather.

Although there are claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also somehow related to the Vilna Gaon, Freedman, who has spent decades researching the many branches of the Vilna Gaon's family tree, says that he has not yet found a link. The closest he has been able to establish a connection is the Milikovsky family tree, which goes back several generations. (Milikovsky was the surname of Netanyahu's father before he changed it.) One of the first entries is a note written in Yiddish, stating that this person was a cousin of the Vilna Gaon, but there is no further information

However, Freedman has a genetic matrix of some 40 people who are related to the Vilna Gaon, who apparently have a genetic match with Netanyahu's brother Ido, who unfortunately is not prepared to allow Freedman access to his database so that Freedman can check all the matches – this despite the possibility that they might be distant cousins to each other.

As he was unable to go to Lithuania, Rivlin is hosting an event in honor of the Vilna Gaon on Thursday, November 26, at 12 noon. The event will be attended by Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene, who will present Rivlin with a medal minted for the Year of the Vilna Gaon, sent by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, to whom Rivlin spoke by phone in April, saying the 300th anniversary was a historic event not only for Lithuania but for the Rivlin family.

■ NOVEMBER APPEARS to be a medal month for Rivlin. Last week he received the Scholar-Statesman Medal from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which celebrates outstanding leaders who, through their public service and professional achievements, exemplify the idea that sound scholarship and a discerning knowledge of history are essential to wise and effective policy and the advancement of peace and security in the Middle East.

Curiously, although Shimon Peres addressed the Washington Institute on several occasions, he was not among the Israeli recipients of its medal. The first Israeli was Natan Sharansky in 2011, followed by Michael Oren and Itamar Rabinovich in 2014, Ehud Barak...

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