Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear fragments of Fiddler on the Roof.
“At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.”
I have always liked that song. It speaks to me of a different time and place.
It reminds me of great-grandmother S. (may she rest in peace) who used to ask me if I went to heder. She would smile and listen to my stories and nod her head. In her later years as her mind started to go she would sometimes slip into Yiddish or occasionally Polish and speak to me about places and people from her youth.
Sometimes my grandfather would translate what she said and I would find out that she was speaking to a long lost brother or cousin. Some of these conversations were punctuated with tears. I did what I could to console her, but in her angst I am not sure that she really heard me. Every now and then my grandfather would translate some of these conversations but I never really believed what he claimed she was saying as the words didn’t fit with her agitated state.
She came to America for many reasons, not all of them were because it was seen as a land of wealth and plenty. I always suspected that some of those tears were realized because of memories she wished to forget.
Grandma died when I was 17. She was about 96 or so we thought. They weren’t very good about keeping records in the old country so we never did have an official birth certificate to use for confirmation.
On the other side of my family I can remember my Zaide asking me similar questions Great-Grandma S. I have a number of good memories of him, but not as many as I do with my grandmother as I was just short of seven when he died. Mostly I remember him as a man who had white hair and walked with a cane.
His son, my grandfather has told me lots of stories about him. He was tall for his generation, a solid six feet and a tailor by trade. He spent much of his life in Chicago. I grew up hearing stories about how he helped to establish unions and the fistfights that he had with policemen who would try and prevent him for shutting down nonunion shops.
My Zaide was a tailor from Vilna who left because he didn’t want to be drafted into the Russian army and he was tired of dealing with the Cossacks and the troubles that they brought. My father has related some of the stories of how the family would hide in the fields when the Cossacks would come and my grandfather has shared numerous other tales with me as well.
When my Zaide came to America he wasn’t interested in being a religious Jew anymore. He was proud of his heritage and never hid the fact that he was Jewish, but neither did he follow its proscriptions as he once had. Family legend says that in the early 1900s my Zaide’s father came to America to visit. When he discovered that my Zaide was eating treif he declared that America was no place to be a Jew and returned to Europe.
He died before the war and missed out on the Nazis, but it is virtually inconceivable to think that other family members were not caught in their foul net.
Earlier today I contacted my maternal grandfather and picked his brain for a few minutes about family memories. He’ll be 92 next month. As we spoke about the past I heard a wistful tone in his voice and there were a couple of moments when there was a hitch in his voice.
He still has questions about things that happened. Some of these questions will remain unanswered because those that could have shed light are no longer with us. It is 21 years since his mother passed away and more than 40 since his father went.
I was familiar with some of the stories. He remembers when the firemen in Chicago used horsedrawn wagons and he still recalls how his three year-old baby cousin was killed by one of those same horses when something startled it.
One of his grandfathers was born in 1859. He died in 1931, long before my grandfather became a parent and so long before I was born that I imagine he couldn’t have conceived of the day when he himself would become a grandfather.
He spoke to me about relatives that were muscians as well as relatives that were famous ballroom dancers.
I listened so very attentively as all I want to do is soak this up. It is incredible to me to think that my grandfather connects me to a man who was born prior to the US Civil War. It is not inconceivable to think that one day I may offer a similar connection some not yet born relative of my own.
The trip into the past raises so many questions for me. I can’t help but wonder if I have any of the traits/habits of relatives who are long gone. In my parent’s house there are stacks of albums with pictures of people who are part of my DNA chain. A postcard dated earlier than 1910 was written by cousin J to his mother. He writes “Ma, is dad still angry with me or can I come back home now?”
It is a potpourri of relatives, a melange of family spices and aroma. There are rabbis, tailors, musicians, politicians, dancers, teachers and more. It is a long chain that calls out to me. In places it is an enormous family. There are great-grandparents who were part of families of 12, 14 and 17 children.
There are family members scattered around the globe. Some who are still in touch and some who are not. London, Israel, South Africa, South America, Montreal, The US and who knows where else.
In the age of the Internet it is easier than ever to stay in touch. Do I have the energy and wherewithal to try and track them down.