Tag Archives: Jewish roots

The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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T’shuvah

Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)

I’ve been Jewish all my life, but for the first 17 years I didn’t know it.  It’s fair to say that I didn’t really know what “Jewish” was.  In fact, once when I was 8 or so, I went with a friend to Mass, and then told his mother – to her great delight – that I was definitely going to be Catholic.

Well wouldn’t she be surprised.

My father was raised Baptist but really had no interest in religion.  My mother’s family was Jewish, but very secular. 

I, my sister and brother were raised without any religion or religious connection.  Due to my father’s influence, I imagine, we always had a Christmas tree, we went on Easter egg hunts and generally did the things that Christian families did.  But nothing Jewish.

I grew up without any of the normal Jewish childhood experiences.  No Yom Kippur.  No synagogue.  No Passover.  No summer camp.  “David melech yisrael” would have been just a string of sounds in a catchy tune.

It was as if my mother’s Jewish heritage didn’t exist. 

So here’s what happened.

Some time in the middle of high school I underwent knee surgery and had to stay home for several days.  After exhausting all the science fiction in the house I was desperate for something to read.  The only thing I could find was “The Source” by James Michener.

This novel takes place in Israel in the early 60s.  It looks at the history of the Jews through the lens of an archaeological dig.  The site is a fictitious tel named “Makor.”   In Hebrew the word means “source.” 

When I finished that book I knew I was Jewish and I grabbed at it with both hands.  I read book after book on the history of the Jews.  I took courses.  I even joined the Jewish Defense League for a while, until I came to understand them better.

Later I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and learned Hebrew.  I taught it at the university as a TA.  I married a wonderful Jewish woman and raised three amazing Jewish children.  And now there’s a Jewish son-in-law and a new generation of Jewish grandchildren.

Early in my relationship with Judaism, after I returned from Israel, it seemed to me that the only way to be Jewish was to be ultra-Orthodox.  The Chasidim were the saving remnant, the keepers of the sacred flame.  I moved into the Lubavitcher Chabad House at UCLA.  I put on tefillin every morning.  I kept kosher.  I kept the Sabbath. 

This lasted a month.  At the end of the month I knew I couldn’t be Jewish in that way.  I wasn’t even sure I believed in God.   Not, at any rate, the way I needed to in order to live the Lubavitcher life.  That wasn’t going to be my connection to Judaism. 

Instead, as it has developed over the years, my connection has been to the Hebrew language, to the holidays, to my family and to the history of the Bible and of the land of Israel as understood through the perspective of archaeology.

So.  T’shuvah.

On Yom Kippur we think of it as repentance.

What it really means is “return.”

For me it’s been a return to a history that is my history, to a language that is my language and to a land that is my land.

And it’s a return to a book of writings so compelling in its message that it has become the foundation of our whole concept of the obligations of our shared humanity.

 And for me, more even than this, it means a return to wonder.

Who were these people, my ancestors? How did they live? How did they think?  They were a tiny outpost of humanity, living in a poor nation, smaller than many US counties.  They were ravaged horribly by powerful nations, not once but over and over again.  They lost their Temple and their sacred city but somehow, uniquely among ancient peoples, they didn’t lose their God. 

How did they, among all peoples, develop the moral, ethical and spiritual foundation now embraced by half the world’s population?

If they could see how the power of their belief has cascaded down the centuries, what would they think of it?  What would they think of the re-emergence of their nation in its own land, of the resurrection of their language?

Would they recognize their God?  Would they see Him in the miracles of the Tanakh?  Would they see Him in the rebirth of the land of Israel?  Would they see Him in the spread of their vision through Christianity and Islam? 

Or maybe they would see Him in the way a day of teenage boredom can change a person irrevocably, sending reverberations not only down the decades of his own life but also down the lives of generations to come.

So, back to t’shuvah.  Return.

Not just a return to history; but rather, perhaps, a return to the future.

Chris Farrar grew up in southern California, earned a doctorate in linguistics, and worked in technology marketing and, eventually, in data analytics. His first novel, By the Waters of Babylon, follows twelve-year-old Ya’el as she’s deported to Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The novel is available on AmazonBarnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books. If you’d like to learn more about Chris and his work, visit his website: christopherfarrar.com.

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On Watching “Fiddler” Once Again

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Like a petulant child,
I have spent much of my life
railing against the constraints,
as I saw them, of Jewish practices,
advanced by my father who came
from an Orthodox upbringing.

I protested vigorously against
Hebrew school interfering with
afternoon baseball games with friends,
the getting-up-and-sitting-down
for long hours on important holidays, 
and most notably, that my Bar-Mitzvah
was less for me than my extended family.

Yet, despite all those objections,
I am drawn back to my roots by the
familiar opening strains of “Tradition”
in “Fiddler” in a PBS special
on the making of the musical.

I have seen “Fiddler” many times, even in Yiddish,
and each time it brings me back to Anatevka,
a village not unlike my father’s birth place,
which makes me believe I still hang on to
an emotional lifeline to my father, to his faith.

I may have spent years running, but
a simple score I know so well, brings me,
with tears in my eyes, back into the fold.

And I’ve come to realize I am never that far away from the village, 
never that far way away from my father 
and from my own faith.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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An Argument for Jewish Observance

by Orah Friedland Zipper (Denver, CO)

I received a comment from “Anonymous” on my previous post (http://lady-light.blogspot.com/2009/12/archeological-find-proves-ancient.html), which was about the archeological find  of a 2000+ year old cave from the time of the Hasmoneans.  The commenter asked why that could be a reason to become a religious  Jew.  Good question.  To the average non-Jewish person, perhaps, the find might be interesting in a general way; to an archaeologist or historian, it would be interesting as a historical find which would validate and increase our knowledge of the past.

For a Jew, however, such a find as this means so much more.

Look at it this way: we live today in the “Information Age,” right?  We are bombarded with information and have been for years, through the media–through radio, television and newspapers, and in our high-technology era on the Internet through virtual news sites, blogs and now social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  How can we assimilate all this? How do we know what is truth and what is fiction?  And, for that matter, how can we know how to behave, in general, and how to react to events?

Now, we Jews have been blessed with a ‘code book’ which we’ve had for thousands of years, which tells us how to act, and tells us why we are here on this Earth.  This book is called the Torah.  It consists of the Written and the Oral Law, as well as the history of our people.

In our ‘modern’ times, however, people are constantly questioning and arguing religion versus science.  Which one offers the real explanation for the existence of the world? Now to me, there is very little contradiction between science and religion–they are one. Both science and the Torah are a means of explaining the truth of existence.  The more we learn things through scientific study (think ‘Big Bang’ and ‘Quantum Theory’), the more we understand about the nature of G-d (can you tell I’m reading Gerald Schroeder’s books?), and the more it seems to (yikes!) match the depiction of G-d as written in the Torah.

But you’d never know it by listening, reading or watching debates on which one, science or religion, is “correct.” This can–coupled with global anti-Semitism towards Jews and Israel, (which according to many can ‘do no right’ in this world)– really confuse one, especially someone who might be searching for the meaning of his existence.  Doubts abound.  Are any of the religions valid? Maybe Judaism is no more valid than any other major religion?

And then, a Jew goes to the kotel and has a “spiritual experience.” Or a Jew goes to a grave of one of our Tzaddikim, prays before the grave, and is greatly moved–by something—what? Or he visits and walks around, say, Emek ha-Elah, where the future King David, as a young boy slew the giant Goliath, and he (the visitor) is in awe, and his soul is stirred.

Or, a secular Jew, who went through life without a strong connection to his Jewishness, unearths a two-thousand-year-old cave while digging out his basement, which he discovers is the burial place of the last Hasmonean king.  Furthermore, the cave has an inscription on the wall in his people’s alt-neu language, the language in which his Torah was written, and which was revived in the twentieth century as a spoken language.

Is that not awesome?  Is that not enough of a spiritual experience to touch one’s neshama?  Is that not enough that it says to that Jew, ‘evidence of your history in your historical homeland  is before your eyes being unearthed and is unfolding, bit by bit, and proving that history true.  Jew: Is it not time to return?–to return to your Jewish roots?’

If that is not enough of an experience for one’s neshama to do teshuva, I don’t know what is.

Orah Friedland Zipper, a former Hebrew/Judaic Studies educator currently living in Colorado has also worked in various incarnations as translator/transliterator, administrative assistant, test evaluator and team trainer, as well as website writer/editor.  She currently teaches Hebrew privately to adults, writes and is an avid blogger.  Her blog, Tikkun Olam, can be found at http://www.lady-light.blogspot.com, where this article was first published.  In addition, she is also the proud mother of five grown children, bracketed by her eldest daughter, a successful new product inventor and entrepreneur, and her youngest daughter, recently discharged from active duty in the IDF as a Commander in the Combat Engineering Corps.

Three of her children live in Israel , and she has six grandchildren.  She sings soprano, too!

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