A New Genealogy for Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

In the past years, a wealth of 18th and 19th century Jewish genealogical resources have become available for Bohemia, the western half of Czechia (the new name for the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia).  As a result, a large number of genealogists working in this area have been collaborating on Geni.com, building interconnected trees covering the entire region and setting up town projects for many of the communities.  Recently, I used these resources to revisit the genealogy of the famed Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), considered the founding father of the American Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in North America.

Rabbi Wise’s biography is well-known, and is described in detail in the book published in 1916 by his grandson Max Benjamin May (1866-1929).  But Wise’s ancestry, as May concedes, was more difficult to discern:

Very little is known of the ancestry of Isaac Mayer Wise. He could not be induced to talk about his early years, and often said they were too terrible to contemplate. No authentic data are to be found in Wise’s writings; and unlike many another great man who rose from humble beginnings to a position of influence and prominence, he never referred to his early years. While nothing is known of his maternal ancestors, there are a few meagre facts concerning his paternal great-grandfather, grandfather and father. His great-grandfather was a physician named Leo, who had studied medicine at Padua, practiced at Marienbad [Mariánské Lázne], and lived in the neighborhood, in the village of Dürrmaul [Drmoul]. The physician was known as Dr. Leo, and spoken of by his co-religionists as Leo ‘Chakam,’ the Hebrew for Wise. The son of this Dr. Leo, or Leo Weiss, was Isaiah, who also studied medicine at Padua and likewise settled at Dürrmaul. This Doctor Isaiah lived to be over ninety years of age. Besides learned in his profession he was well versed in Talmudical and rabbinical literature, and became a teacher to his son, whom he named for his father Leo. The Leo, grandson of Doctor Leo who had studied in Padua, was educated by his father and became a teacher. Leo Weiss was never a vigorous man, and died shortly after the birth of his youngest child, a daughter. Shortly after receiving his education he removed from Dürrmaul to Steingrub [Lomnicka], a small village of a few hundred inhabitants near the town of Eger [Cheb], in Bohemia, overlooking Saxony and Bavaria. In this village of Steingrub, in which there dwelt a large number of Catholics, Leo Weiss was married twice. His second wife was Regina Weiss. She was, however, a handsome woman, bright, cheerful, lovable, and devoted. She emigrated to America in 1867 with her son Samuel and later lived in Peoria, Illinois, with her daughter, Caroline Korsoski, where she died in 1880 at a ripe old age.

May’s biography adds a few more facts: Wise’s parents had 13 children, seven of whom died in infancy. Isaac was the oldest surviving son, born March 29, 1819 (the date engraved on his tombstone).  Wise first studied with his father in Steingrub until age nine, when he moved to Drmoul to live and study with his learned grandfather, Dr. Isaiah. At age twelve, his grandfather died. Wise then went to Prague to study. On the way he visited a cousin in Mies [Stribro] and an uncle in Pilsen [Plzen]. In Prague he was assisted by the widow of Rabbi Bezalel Ronsperg, an uncle of his mother.  Among the teachers and rabbis Wise claimed to have studied with were Moses Koref, Löb Glogau, and Samuel Freund of Prague, and Aaron Kornfeld of Golcuv Jenikov.  Wise worked as a tutor in the homes of Leopold Jerusalem in Prague and Herman Bloch in Grafenried [Lucina, Nemanice], Bohemia. He was recommended by Rabbi Solomon Judah Rappaport of Prague to be a teacher in Ronsperg [Pobezovice], Bohemia and later took exams in Pressburg [Bratislava, Slovakia] where he studied with Rabbi Moses Sofer.  He returned to Prague and lived with Rappaport before studying for a year in Vienna, living with the German Reform preacher Isaac Noa Mannheimer and teaching the von Wertheimstein family.  At age twenty-three (1842) he passed a rabbinical examination before Rabbis Rappaport, Freund and Teweles, and then served as rabbi and teacher  in Radnitz [Radnice], Bohemia from October 1843.

Wise was married twice, first in Grafenried on May 26, 1844 (according to the family bible) to Therese Bloch, and then in 1876 in Manhattan, NY to Selma Bondi of Dresden, Saxony, Germany.  His 1876 New York wedding license states that his parents were Leopold Weiss and Regina Weiss.  Wise’s first child Emily (the mother of Wise’s biographer Benjamin May) was born February 22, 1846 (according to her gravestone) in Radnitz.  A few months later, Wise and his young family travelled to America, sailing from Bremerhaven for sixty-three days and arriving in New York on July 23, 1846.

Based on these facts, genealogists have for years crafted a tree for Rabbi Wise and his descendants (who include the Ochs-Sulzberger family owners of the New York Times) that identifies his father as Leopold Weiss, son of Dr. Isaiah Weiss, son of Dr. Leo Weiss.  I set out to determine if anything further could be learned about the family from the newly available records.

The Bohemian Jewish census of 1793 has been transcribed and published in book form by Ivana Ebelová, and recently made available online (click on News, then Inventories, for a list of pdf files, except for the index!).  A first step to looking up a town in the census, however, is figuring out what Kreis (Region) it was in. This is not always easy, since the governing Kreis in 1793 may not be the same as the political district of today. An additional complication is that Jewish records usually give the German name of the town, whereas the recent Czech resources are often organized by the Czech town names. Finally, there are often several towns with the same name in Bohemia and Moravia.

We do have a few resources to help. JewishGen has a database with most of the major towns, but is often missing the small villages.  So, the first place I look is usually the Wikipedia page List of historical German and Czech names for places in the Czech Republic. The Wikipedia page is not foolproof.  For example, looking up Steingrub gives a link to the wrong Lomnicka (in Moravia) rather than the correct one we are looking for in northern Bohemia near the German border!  Once I have a likely Czech name for the town, then I can try to find the district or region, using Wikipedia.  If that fails, I turn to a useful tool created by Alex Calzareth, Map of Bohemia and Moravia Jewish Vital Registers.  Again, finding Lomnicka is tricky because there are so many of them, but ultimately I was able to find the right one near Plesná (by typing Lomnicka Plesna until the program finds the right town). This allows you to zoom in and out, seeing all of the towns in the region with surviving Jewish record books. Lomnicka is north of the larger city of Cheb, which Wikipedia tells us is in the Karlovy Vary region. However, looking over at the list of regions for the 1793 census, you won’t find Karlovy Vary. If you go to Julius Müller’s website on Jewish Familiants, you’ll see an old map of the districts in Bohemia. If you zoom out on Alex Calzareth‘s map, you’ll see that Lomnicka is way in the far left, in a district then called Loketsky.

So, you’ll find the 1793 census for Steingrub in the book for the Loketer Kreis. If you search Steingrub in the pdf file, you’ll find every mention of that town. Starting on page 79 is where you can see all of the Jewish families. Looking up the page you will see that Steingrub is part of Walhof Gut (domain), along with the towns Fattatengrün [Bozetin], Zweifelsreuth [Cizebna], Hörschin [Hrzin], Wallhof [Lesna], and Neukirchen [Novy Kostel]. The first three towns have just one Jewish family, Wallhof has three, Neukirchen has four, and Steingrub has eleven.  In 1793, there is no Weiss family in Steingrub, but two of them in Neukirchen.

However, Rabbi Wise’s family history said that his Weiss family lived in Drmoul, so I decided to check there also. Using Alex Calzareth’s map, I find that Drmoul is 51 km south from Lomnicka, and in the Pilsner Kreis.  In 1793, there were 25 families living in the village of Drmoul. The first three listed have the surname Mayer. The next is the widow of Markus Weiss. But the very next entry, I noticed, was named Josaias Doctor.

This was my first clue. Josaias Doctor in Drmoul sounded suspiciously close to Rabbi Weiss’ grandfather Dr. Isaiah.  Doctor is not a common surname in Bohemia and may have denoted Isaiah’s profession. My next step was to take a look at the Familianten book records for Drmoul to see if I could find out more about Josaias/Isaiah Doctor.

In 1726, due the order of the Habsburg ruler Charles VI, the number of Jewish families was limited by quota to 8,541 in Bohemia and 5,106 in Moravia.  To enforce this quota (or numerus clausus), a so-called Familianten order was issued.  According to this order, only the first-born son of each Jewish family was given permission to marry (called a copulatio consensus). The permits could also be sold if there were no son to inherit them. This draconian Familianten order was in force until 1848. As a result, many Jews who could not obtain marriage permits emigrated from Bohemia and Moravia. Those who stayed often married only religiously, and as a result their children were recorded as illegitimate in official records.

Rabbi Wise in fact ran afoul of this law when he was rabbi in Radnitz by marrying Jewish couples without a license. “When called to task for this infraction of the law,” May writes, “he bitterly complained against its iniquity and unjustness, and stated he would continue to disregard so inhuman an edict. When questioned at Prague by a member of the imperial council in charge of Jewish affairs as to the cause of so many illegitimate births among the Jews, he pointed out that it was due solely to the barbarous restrictions of the right to marry.” [May, page 37.]

One other result of the Familianten laws was that the government kept very good records of which families lived in which towns. The list of Familianten were collected in the Book of Jewish Familianten (also called Mannschaftsbuecher in Moravia). Records were collected in 1799 and in 1811 and updated until about 1830.  Each record comprised the name of county, registration number of the family in the whole land (based on copulatio consensus), the registration number of family in the county (set up in 1725), name of the father, his wife, his sons and a few other family details. Today, these records provide a very good resource for researchers investigating their family histories, and they have recently been made available online by the Czech State Archives on Badatelna.eu.

Once again, finding the right book is not always easy. You can try searching the Familianten inventory (Fond 2098) on the badatelna.eu website, using the Czech name of the town. Trying Drmoul comes up blank. Going back to the 1793 census record (above) gives us another clue. See where it says “Kuttenplan”?  That is the name of the town that the Jews of Drmoul actually belonged to. Literally they were under the “protection” of Kuttenplan [Chodova Plana], although living 7.5 km away in Drmoul. Searching for Chodova Plana comes up with one book.  These books usually have a handwritten index in the front or back. This one shows a page for Isaias Doktor.

Isaias Docktor is identified as the son of Abraham Günzburger and Fanny/Debora [daughter of] Aron. He was married twice, to Rifka [daughter of] Abraham (c. 1780) and Rebeka [daughter of] Löwy (c. 1792), and died February 11, 1833. The page identifies his sons Aron (b. 1781), Löwy (b. 1784, d. April 20, 1837), Nathan (b. 1800) and Michael (b. 1802). Löwy is identified as unmarried [ledig].

Isaiah Doktor’s grave is located in Drmoul and has been photographed and indexed by Achab Haidler on his website chewra.com.  I was also able to find the graves for Isaiah’s parents Abraham (d. 1766) and Deborah (d. 1769).  Abraham was a doctor (rofe in Hebrew), and his father was named Isaiah.

Grave of Isaiah Doktor (d. Feb 11 1833) in Drmoul, Czechia.

If Isaias was Rabbi Wise’s grandfather, the dates fit pretty well.  At Isaiah’s death in 1833, Isaac Wise would have been just 13 years old.  But could the Isaiah’s unmarried son Löwy be Rabbi Wise’s father Leopold? If so, it meant that Wise’s parents were not officially married when he was born. That still needed some additional proof.

Many of the Jewish vital record books have been placed online by the Czech State archives. The principle Jewish records are held in Fond 1073, while a set of duplicate parish records (many from just the 1848 time period) are kept in Fond 241. Unfortunately, the record books for these towns did not cover the dates I needed. The book for Steingrub began in 1820, a year after Rabbi Wise’s birth, and none of the subsequent entries mentioned a Leopold or Regina Weiss. The record book for Grafenried did not include any marriage of Rabbi Wise and Therese Bloch. The birth records of Radnitz had no mention of their daughter Emily. (But I later found a record for an illegitimate son of Therese Bloch born March 14, 1845 in Radnitz, who apparently died before being named, which confirmed that Rabbi Wise’s 1844 marriage was without a proper license under the Familiant laws.) I decided to look for further clues, perhaps related to Wise’s siblings. Wise’s sister Caroline was born February 29, 1840 (according to her tombstone in Peoria, Illinois), but the Steingrub birth register ends in 1839, a year too early. I looked through Drmoul records and found no leads. Using Alex Calzareth’s map, I started looking at record books for towns near Steingrub and Drmoul, but at first didn’t find anything that looked useful. I decided that while I was looking through the books, I should try to work on the trees for the other Weiss families in Steingrub and the Doktors in Drmoul, and found that much had already been compiled by fellow Geni curators Oded Hartmann, Yoav Lahad and Benjamin Schoenbrun. In 1840 I found an illegitimate daughter born to Barbara, a daughter of Isaias Doktor.

I also posted about my research to the Jewish Genealogy Portal, a group I founded a few years ago that is now with over 20,000 members the largest Jewish genealogy group on Facebook. This group allows me to post my research and get feedback and help from others while I am working on a puzzle. Craig Partridge, one of the many genealogists collaborating on Bohemia, responded by informing me that one of his Popper relatives, Ignaz Popper of Radnitz married Laura Wise, a niece of Rabbi Wise, born 1849 in Steingrub. Searching the records in nearby Neukirchen [Novy Kostel] in Fond 1073, I discovered Laura’s birth record. Her father was Samuel, the son of Regina Weiss from House 64 in Steingrub. That was my first success at finding a record of a Weiss relative of Rabbi Wise.

So Isaac and Samuel had the same mother, Regina Weiss, but there was no mention in the records of a father to Samuel. This indicated to me that Samuel, and probably Isaac, were born out of wedlock, although I could not find a birth record for either of them to prove it. Samuel’s marriage record was also in the book for Novy Kostel and it provided an age so I could estimate his birth in 1822. Still, the Steingrub birth records for 1822 did not list Samuel. There was however a Lippmann Weiss born out of wedlock in 1833 in House 64 to Rebecca Weiss, daughter of Joachim Weiss.  It seemed very likely that Regina was the same as Rebecca, since it is very common for women’s names to change over time in these old records. The birth record for Samuel’s daughter Bertha [Blümerl]  lists Samuel’s mother’s name as “Rika” which is also close to Rifka, Hebrew for Rebecca.

I kept searching in various record books until I returned again to Novy Kostel, but this time in Fond 241, the Catholic parish copies, which (very unusually) pertained to earlier years than the Fond 1073 book I had used for the birth of Laura Wise. I had initially passed over the description of the book in Czech, but this time my Google Chrome browser offered a translation and I noticed that it said the book contained something related to circumcisions “a description of the book foreskins 1803-1840.” This is something that I had not seen in any other record books from Bohemia and Moravia. Apparently the parish had used the records of the local mohel, Jakob Pollak, to help reconstruct a new book of birth records for the community. Included in this new book was a beautiful ledger of the circumcisions performed by Jakob Pollak over thirty-seven years. Incredibly, in 1819 I found the following record:

The record says that on 11 Nissan 5579 (April 6, 1819) Pollak performed the circumcision of Isaak son of Löbl Doktor of Steingrub. April 6 is exactly eight days after the date of birth of Rabbi Wise on March 29, which is precisely when you would expect his bris to have occurred.  At last we have a birth record for Rabbi Wise, and it proves that his father was not named Leopold Weiss, but rather Löbl (= Leopold) Doktor, who is certainly Löwy Doktor, the son of Isaiah Doktor of Drmoul. Rabbi Wise was clearly born out of wedlock and was given his mother’s surname (Weiss), later changing it to Wise in America.

With every solution comes more questions, and Rabbi Wise’s ancestry certainly poses many of them. If the father of Rabbi Wise’s grandfather Isaiah Doktor is named Abraham Günzburger, how does that fit with the legend that Isaiah’s father was also named Leopold?  What do we make of the Mayer middle name? Boys in Bohemia rarely were given middle names. (There is, however, an Isak Löbl Weiss son of Salomon, born 1823 in Lomnicka.) In the records of Prague, the second name is usually the given name of the father. But Rabbi Wise’s middle name may point to a different source. In the mohel records for August 15, 1822 we find Samuel, son of Löbl Mayer, which could be Isaac’s brother Samuel. Did Samuel and Isaac have different fathers?  Or is Löbl Doktor the same as Löbl Mayer? One problem with the latter theory is that there is a Lev Mayer, probably son of Abraham and Sara Mayer, from Lazne Kynzvart, living in Studnicka who dies in 1831. On the Familiant records, Löbl Doktor dies April 20, 1837, but I have yet to find a death record or grave. Who is the father of Isaac’s baby sister Caroline, born 1840? And how is Rabbi Wise related to Rabi Bezalel Ronsperg (Rosenbaum). There are Rosenbaums in the area. You can see on top of Rabbi Wise’s circumcision the record of Hersch, son of Naphtali Rosenbaum of Katzengrün [Kacerov].  But I have not been able to connect this family with Rabbi Bezalel Ronsperg.

As researchers work through the copious Jewish records from Bohemia and Moravia and add to the trees on Geni.com, we will continue to make discoveries and connections. Jews often lived in very small communities, limited by the Familianten laws, and therefore moved around quite often. The key to Rabbi Wise’s ancestry was found in a book for Novy Kostel, a town that did not come up in his biography.

For further information on Jewish genealogy research in Bohemia and Moravia see Getting Started With Czech-Jewish Genealogy and Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia.

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