My Cousin Is the Pope -- and It's Everything

05/04/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2016

I'm Jewish. I married a Jew. Both of my parents were Jewish. And so on. And yet, apparently, I am the cousin of a Pope - specifically, the still-living but now-retired Pope Benedict XVI. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI and I descend from at least two common ancestral lines.

The first is via our mutual great grandfather, Abraham Zwillinger, who was born circa 1754 and tracing down from whom, Pope Benedict XVI and I are fifth cousins, once removed.

From Abraham Zwillinger (1754-1824) to Me

Abraham's Zwillinger's eldest daughter, Johanna (born circa 1778), married a man called Michael Tauber (born c. 1771). Johanna and Michael Tauber's son was Leopold (born c. 1803). Leopold's daughter Amalia (born c. 1852) married Moritz Loewy (born c. 1851). Their son was my great-grandfather, Adolph Loewy (born 1883), whose daughter, Vivian (born 1913), married Harold Cahn and had two sons, one of whom was Jeffrey Cahn (born c. 1943). Jeffrey Cahn, who passed away in 2013, was my father.

From Abraham Zwillinger (1754-1824) to My Cousin The Pope

Abraham Zwillinger's younger daughter, Barbara (born c. 1784 and known as "Betty") married Markus Knopfelmacher (born c. 1786). Their daughter Josefa (born c. 1809 married Jacob Tauber (born c. 1811 and a relative of Michael Tauber, mentioned above). Josefa and Jacob Tauber's daughter was the Pope's great-grandmother Elisabeth (born c. 1834 and also known as "Betty"), whose daughter was the Pope's grandmother, Maria Peintner (born c. 1855). Maria Peintner's daughter was Maria Reiger (born c. 1884), whose son, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Jr. (born 1927), grew up to become Pope Benedict XVI.

From Nissel Knopfelmacher (1722 -1764) to Me and My Cousin the Pope

But as mentioned above, the Pope and I have more than one ancestral line in common. We also share a common sixth great grandmother - a woman called Nissel Knopfelmacher, born circa 1722.

Nissel Knopfelmacher's daughter, Sheva Knopfelmacher (born c. 1748), was the mother of Michael Tauber, who as mentioned above, was the father of Leopold, who was the father of Amalia, who was the mother of Adolph, who was the father of my grandmother, Vivian. Nissel's son, Jacob (born c. 1739) was the grandfather of Markus Knopfelmacher, who was the father of Josefa, who was the mother of Betty, who - as noted above - was the grandmother of the Pope. That makes the Pope and I seventh cousins.

Another Famous Religious Leader

Discovering that a Pope is my mishpocheh was mind-boggling. Even more mind-boggling was that I stumbled upon this discovery while trying to ascertain whether I was related to a different famous religious leader, Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague (born c. 1525), which in turn, came out of a fairly aimless binge. At some point during said binge, it had become apparent that there was a family connection between myself and some guy that everyone on the site kept referring to as "the Maharal". A quick internet search revealed that this "Maharal" guy was a revered sixteenth century Talmudic scholar, philosopher and mystic, who, as legend had it, created the Golem of Prague, which he used - along with its magical powers - to defend Prague's Jews from anti-semitic attacks.

From The Maharal of Prague to Me

Digging in, I was able to connect that the Maharal of Prague was my fourteenth great grandfather. His daughter, Vogele (born c. 1556) married a man named Cohen and had a daughter Chava (born c. 1580), who married a man named Bachrach and had a son, Shimshon (born c. 1607). Shimshon had a son, Chaim Bachrach (born 1638). Chaim Bachrach had a son, Samson Bachrach (born c. 1657) and a daughter Chava (born 1660). Samson's daughter Malkah (born c. 1680) married Chava's son, Zalman Spitz (born c. 1680) and had a daughter, Sarah (born c. 1703). Sarah's daughter was Nissel Knopfelmacher - my sixth great grandmother.

From the Maharal of Prague to My Cousin the Pope

Eager to discover who else might be part of my Maharal-mishpocheh, I ran an internet search of "Maharal ancestry". With that, I stumbled upon the internet's treasure trove of pages delineating Pope Benedict XVI's Jewish ancestry. Apparently, Pope Benedict XVI was a great grandson of the Maharal of Prague. It wasn't long before it dawned on me: if the Pope was related to the Mahara, and I was related to the Maharal, then the Pope and I must be related.

Head-smack. Of course. Nissel Knopfelmacher.

Unexpected Hate

But what boggled my mind the most was that many of the websites that devoted themselves to tracing the Pope's Jewish ancestry did so for one singularly evil purpose: to discredit Pope Benedict XVI - by establishing him as a Jew - and not just any Jew, but a Jew who descended from a golem-fashioning sorcerer, which is to say (as these sites claim), a Jew who may in fact be the Antichrist. Ironically, with just a little more digging, I discovered another set of websites devoted to discrediting Pope Benedict XVI for being Catholic. According to sites like this, Adolf Hitler was a member of the Catholic Church, which turned a blind eye to Hitler's murder of six million Jews and then never excommunicated Hitler, and therefore the Catholic Church was complicit in the Holocaust, which makes all Catholics (and especially Popes) evil - and even possible Antichrist contenders.

Inevitable Irony

So, let's see. There are those who despise Pope Benedict XVI for being Catholic. There are those who despise Pope Benedict XVI for being Jewish. Meanwhile, let's not forget those who despise him for being born and raised in what was Nazi Germany. In fact, the Pope Emeritus's papacy was always shadowed by his having been a member of Hitler Youth. Although the Pope Emeritus has referred to the Holocaust as a "dark time", and the Weisenthal Center applauded his support of the Jews, there are those who can never get past the fact that young Joseph Ratzinger Jr. acquiesed to the dark politics of his day.

Thus, to some, Pope Benedict XVI is the Antichrist; to some, an anti-semite; and to some, he is both. So much hate, so much contradiction, so much irony. And yet all of it is rooted in historical fact.

How To Hate

Apparently, if you want to hate someone, all you need to do is to look at their family history. And when you find what you believe to be good cause to hate, you must look no further. Literally. Because if you do, you might just find that right there in that family history, alongside of those whom you revile the most, are those who you would consider your allies, your friends and even your own family. So much hate is bound up in the notion that we're all separate from one another - with this group hating that group, and that group hating another group, and all of the lines drawn firmly and irrevocably, But it turns out that the facts do not bear out that separation at all. In fact, we're not separate. We're all related. All of us, even the ones who hate us for who our parents were, even the ones whom we hate for who their parents are.

How to Not

The philosopher, George Santayana, famously said that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We learn history in school for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But what about our family history?

Rarely is family history committed to writing. Rarely do we know much beyond who the parents of our parents were. Family history can feel strangely remote. Yet we expect our children to study wars that happened a thousand years ago among strangers to whom they are not connected at all, at least to anyone's knowledge. If we can ask our children to remember why a war between Britain and France was fought along the shores of the Ohio River in the 1700's, surely it isn't too much to ask that we all dig a little into our our histories to understand how we came to be who we are. Sure, genealogy can be difficult to parse, and the further back we delve into times when it was rare for anyone to venture beyond five miles of their birthplace, when marriages were arranged between cousins with the same last name and children were named for their older siblings who died in infancy, which older siblings had been named for their thirteen-year old parents, the more confusing it gets.

My own children have watched me bite my nails down to the quick as I attempt to figure out who was the father of the first Cecilia Knopfelmacher who died giving birth to the second Cecilia Knopfelmacher, whose husband, Nathan Kohn-Zerkowitz somehow ended up being one of my fourth great-grandfathers?

"Why does any of this matter?" they ask me.

Well, I maintain that it matters. My trip up my family tree taught me that none of us is separate from one another - neither as individuals nor as groups. As such, hate that is rooted in the illusion of that non-existent separation is nothing if not absurd.