An Amazing Treasure

I hope everyone who celebrates had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with gratitude.  This post is about a family heirloom.  It doesn’t belong to me, but it is nevertheless something for which I am grateful because it is part of the legacy of my Katzenstein ancestors. I am just about done writing about the Katzenstein line, but before I move on, I want to share this treasure.

I have referred often on the blog to the work of David Baron, who has done an incredible job of researching the Katzenstein family. David is the husband of Roger Cibella, who is the three-times great-grandson of Gerson Katzenstein, my great-great-grandfather. Roger’s great-great-grandfather was Scholem Joseph Katzenstein, who settled in western Pennsylvania and probably was the one who introduced his little sister Hilda, my great-grandmother, to my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal. And Roger is my third cousin, once removed.

Roger owns a siddur (a Jewish prayer book) that belonged to our mutual ancestor, Gerson Katzenstein. The inner pages of the front and back cover of the siddur contain inscriptions by Gerson marking the births of each of his six children beginning with the birth of Roger’s great-great-grandfather Scholem (with the middle name Abraham here, not Joseph, which I found interesting) in 1848 through the birth of my great-grandmother Hilda in 1863.

Roger and David kindly shared with me images of the inscriptions as well as an image of some of the text of the siddur.  They also sent me a translation of the inscriptions and information about the siddur provided by the scholar, Arthur Lagawier.[1] The information below came from Lagawier’s report to Roger and David:

The book is entitled Beit Rachel v’ Sha’ar Hallel-Ya [House of Rachel and Gate of Praise], and it was edited by Rabbi Naftali ben Isaac Ha Cohen. Rabbi Naftali was born in Ostroh, Ukraine, in 1649 and died in 1719. He married Esther Sheindl, the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke Zak of Ostroh, and he headed the yeshiva that his father-in-law built for him in that town. After Rabbi Shmuel died, Rabbi Naftali succeeded him as rabbi. Rabbi Naftali and his wife had fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters.

In 1704 he became the rabbi of Frankfurt, but in 1711, a fire broke out in his home and spread, burning down several hundred homes. Four people died in the fire, and Rabbi Naftali was accused of setting the fire and was put in jail. After he was released, he went to Prague and then Breslau. Rabbi Naftali wrote several books, prayers, and hymns as well as the siddur once owned by Gerson Katzenstein. The prayer book was first published in Amsterdam in 1741, but the one Roger owns is probably a later reprint.

The book includes the daily prayers and those for Shabbat and holidays as well as other holiday readings and commentary on the prayers and other readings.  It also contains the entire book of psalms.

I asked for help on the Tracing the Tribe site in translating the handwritten inscriptions because the translations by Arthur Lagawier did not always read clearly. Thank you so much to Baruch Miller for his work in translating them. I have also included some of the content of Lagawier’s translations.  The inscriptions in the inside of the front cover translate as follows:

For the son later known as S.J. Katzenstein:

My son Shalom Avraham, born on Tuesday night (third day of the week), the 24th of the month of Av, the week of the Torah portion Re’eh, in the year 5608, corresponding to the 23rd of August, 1848. May the Eternal grant my son to learn the Torah, to be married, and to do good deeds throughout his life, amen.  Signed: Gershon Ben Abraham Shalom Ha Cohen, Morah [teacher].

For the second son, known as Jacob:

My son Yakov Solomon, also called Yerkev, on the fifth night of the week, the 2(?) of the first month of Adar, the week of the Torah portion Ki Sisa, in the year 5611, or 1851. He should grow to Torah, the chuppah, and good deeds. Gershon  

For Brendina, the third child:

My daughter Branche, Briencha (Bertha), Born in the month of Kislev in [5]612, according to the non-jewish calendar the year 1853.  May the Eternal grant to her to grow up….Signed: Gershon

(Some parts of these inscriptions were not legible, but one can assume they all followed the formula asking that the children grow up to Torah, chuppah (marriage), and good deeds.)

On the inside of the back cover of the book are the inscriptions for the last three children born to Gerson Katzenstein and Eva Goldschmidt:

For the third son and fourth child, Perry:

My son Pesachya, born Tuesday, the 25th of Av, 5616. He should grow to Torah, the chuppah, and good deeds. August 1856 in Philadelphia. Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom, the righteous kohen.

This is the inscription for their fifth child, Hannah.  Reading this inscription is very sad because Hannah died a week before her seventh birthday in December 1866:

My daughter Henit/Hencha, born on Friday, 17 days in the month of Tevet in [5]619.  May God she grow up strong and do good deeds, get married, amen. Born on December 24th, 1859 in Philadelphia, Signed by  Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom the kohen.

And finally, my great-grandmother Hilda, named for her maternal grandmother Hincka Alexander, wife of Seligmann Goldschmidt:

My daughter Chinke.  Born Monday, three days in Elul, the 17 of September [August] 1863.  May God grant that she will grow up… Signed Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom, the righteous kohen, in Philadelphia.


Leah Cohen of the TTT group pointed out that Gerson described himself as “the small”  or ha-Koten in several inscriptions. Leah, Baruch and I could not understand why he referred to himself this way, unless it was a form of modesty.

Someday perhaps I will get to meet Roger and David and hold this treasure in my hands, but for now I am delighted to have the photographs and the knowledge that this siddur is in good hands with Roger and David.



[1] According to this website, “[Arthur] Lagawier was a frequent lecturer in Judaism at the University of Washington. He taught religious school at Herzl congregation, served as Director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Community Center, and independently founded the Institute of Jewish Studies, where he taught non-profit classes from 1965 to 1969.”

34 thoughts on “An Amazing Treasure

  1. This makes me happy for you, but annoyed at myself. Years ago we found my great grandfather’s prayer books. Just stuck them in the trunk and gave them to a cousin whose husband is a Rabbi to go to the genizah. (They were really in bad shape.). As we loaded them into her trunk I noticed writing in one and almost grabbed it back. But did not. Now I feel terrible. Too late. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful treasure. To see your great-grandmother’s birth recorded by her father. It must have been an inspiring moment. Did you know about the siddur before you wrote your book about Hilda and Isidore or only after?


  3. Marvelous knowing Roger and David have this invaluable Katzenstein siddur.
    The first inscription dedicated to Shalom Avraham makes it at least 170 years old.
    It’s family history come to life.


  4. Amy, this is an astonishing heirloom! I know you don’t own it, but that you have copies of the pages and know that it still exists in good hands in the family is absolutely stunning. Thank you so much for sharing it!! And what a frightening story about the fire and the rabbi being blamed for it. I kind of knew that was coming when you said it started in his home :(.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel that it is truly in safe hands with Roger and David because I know how much they value the family history. I do hope they make sure it is passed on to someone else who will also cherish it. And yes, even though that story about the rabbi was not related to my own family, I felt I had to share it. Thanks, Luanne!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Amy. Thanks for all your dedication and hard work compiling the family history. You’ve done a truly amazing job researching and writing about the Katzenstein line. I’m glad that we discovered one another as part of that and I was able to put you in touch with my Dad and brother. Our plan to get together this Fall sort of faltered, so we need to figure that out sometime soon.

    Your post about the siddurs that Roger and David have resonated with me. After my Uncle Max passed away in Stillwater in 2010, I took the siddurs and haggadahs he kept in his house that were once used by his Uncle Jake as well as his father (Karl) and grandparents (Meir and Sprinz). Some date back to the late 1700s. I’d be happy to show them to you at some point.

    Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

    Carl Katz

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Carl, It’s wonderful to hear from you, and yes, we must get together—either with or without Lisa and Matthew! I’d love to see the siddurs and haggadahs and meet you. I will email you and see if we can find a good date to get together.

      We were on the Cape for Thanksgiving—it was lovely weather and good to be with family. Hope yours was good also.


  6. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  7. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  8. What a wonderful treasure! I was fascinated by the beautiful notations in the front and back of the book. Then I noticed the word Philadelphia and was a bit surprised. Then I noticed it again. It looked so foreign amongst the words I could not read. I am glad they shared their treasure with you. I imagine you were filled with joy to see your 2nd great grandfather’s own handwriting telling of the birth of your great-grandmother. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! It’s amazing to think of this man writing in Hebrew over 160 years ago, using English for Philadelphia, and knowing he also knew German. It is a treasure. Thank you, Amberly!

      Liked by 1 person

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