08 January 2009

Germany: Connecting with Jewish ancestors

When University of Tennessee history professor Daniel Bing, 70, was 10 years old, his father told him a secret.

"He came to me," the retired University of Tennessee history professor remembers, and said, "Son, I want you to know that you have Jewish ancestors. This is something you should be very proud of." And he was proud. Though he grew up in the Southern Baptist church, Bing was fascinated with his Jewish heritage. "It sounded exotic," he says with a soft laugh.

That secret took him on a journey to Ihringen, Baden, Germany and the family history of the Levi family, which changed its name to Blum, reported the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Following his retirement in 2000, Bing set out on a search that eventually uncovered information on his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Abraham Levi (1694-1764), a scribe in Ihringen, who created Passover seder haggadot, and whose works are in a London museum. He visited the town in September 2008.

Bing's Jewish ancestry stayed with him. Like most secrets, it was powerful and alluring. And though he didn't know it at the time, the truth of his heritage would start him on a lifelong journey to uncover the history of his family, a search that ended in September in a small town in Germany called Ihringen.

His search began, as most children's would, with the encyclopedia. He read everything he could about Judaism. As he grew older, he continued to gather information about his family. In graduate school, he found a New York City business directory with his great-grandfather's name in it. He uncovered his grandfather's address books and made contact with distant cousins. He unearthed a family tree finding "all the Bings I could handle." But the story of his paternal grandmother's family, the Blums, remained a mystery.

When Bing retired in 2000, he poured himself into the search for the Blum family. "I felt so isolated," he says to explain his impulse to uncover his ancestry. "There was no extended family to speak of for me. It was like searching for roots and reconnecting with an older generation." A phone call from his sister jump-started his investigation. She told him Ancestry.com was offering a free trial. It was more than a historian could resist. With some digging, he found a marriage license that mentioned Ihringen, Baden, Germany, and he discovered his family had originally been named Levi.

Blum was a German name his ancestors adopted in 1809 when Napoleon declared that Jews in Baden must adopt secular surnames.

And for the first time, he uncovered the name "Abraham the scribe from Ihringen," a man who created Haggadot, religious guides for the Passover Seder. Using the Internet, Bing searched three words: "Abraham," "Levi" and "Ihringen." To his astonishment, he found a scholarly article written in German. He wrote the author and asked for his notes. There, he found the answers he was searching for. Abraham Levi, who lived from 1694-1764, was the scribe of Ihringen. And he was Bing's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

The story continues and concludes with Bing's reflection on his journey, which included speaking to a youth group in the town following desecration of its Jewish cemetery:

"I feel closer to my Jewish heritage than ever before. This is more exciting than anything I've ever done in my whole life. I never dreamed I'd have an experience like this." He looks at the photographs of the Haggadah drawn by Abraham Levi and says, "This is an incredible artistic and scribal accomplishment." With pride he adds, "And it was done by an ancestor of mine."

Read the complete story at the link above.


  1. I'm still going crazy trying to find my gr-grandfather who came here from Germany in about 1865. I've done everything I can think of, given the restrictions of a very limited budget. Could use some help or feedback. Please?

  2. I have a brick wall with my maternal grandfather. My mother, who was 5 when he died in 1917, said he was from Frankfurt but I don't know if that means he lived there or he left from there. The 1910 census shows he came to the US in 1902. How should I proceed? Thanks.