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Jul 7 2014

Filling in the Gaps of My Grandparents’ Jewish Past

By at 10:43 am

Grandparents vintage photo

I remember my grandfather reading The Forward (in Yiddish) on the back porch. I remember my grandmother in the kitchen cooking all the wonderful Eastern European foods from her childhood for me and my brothers and sisters.

I loved my grandparents, but they were foreign to me. I knew they weren’t born in the U.S. and came from somewhere else. I knew they had to leave their childhood home suddenly and it had something to do with them being Jewish, but the details and the reasons were fuzzy to me. I had a vague sense of something heavy and intense, but couldn’t quite sort it all out. Nobody really talked about it much.

Even though I was just a little girl, I knew my father loved his parents, but also felt ashamed of them. He would avoid driving through the Bronx and Queens where he grew up. He hardly ever spoke about his parents at home with us and rarely said the word “Jewish.” I used to eat my grandmother’s chopped liver by the spoonful when I was younger–it was so delicious. My father, on the other hand, gravitated to more refined food.

I didn’t learn what assimilation meant until I got older. And then it kind of all made sense. By fully embracing secular culture, my father could separate from the painful Jewish memories of his parents.

Now, I’m a mom of two children, ages 11 and 13, and I desperately want my kids to learn about their great grandparents–their Jewish roots. And as a mom, it falls to me–either I teach my kids as much as I can about their Jewish past, repair what was lost and re-establish the Jewish continuity, or say nothing and the only Jewish history they learn will be from their teachers at school and from books. I choose the former.

I want my kids to learn about their grandparents and great grandparents and their parents. I want them to appreciate their history, not out of guilt or fear but from a place of fortitude and pride. That it’s because of their great grandparents’ hard work and sacrifice that we live in comfort today. That because of them we have the freedom to be whomever we want and worship however and wherever we want.

Often, I make chicken soup like my grandmother. I don’t have her recipe and I am sure my soup tastes nothing like hers. I remember she used to put baby star pasta in the broth. Sometimes I do that too. I also buy herring for breaking fasts even though my kids think it’s weird and smelly. I make kale salad and buy wild salmon and local and organic vegetables, but I also cook kugels and blintzes and bake challah and babka. I love sitting in my modern kitchen with my husband and kids eating all the dishes from my grandparents’ childhood.

I tell my kids stories about their great grandparents, too, now that I have a better sense of their past. They should know what life was like for my grandfather in the Ukraine. They should know about the pogroms and how as a young boy my grandfather knew that many of his neighbors and even some of his own family members were murdered for no other reason than that the fact that they were Jewish. They should know that he eventually escaped, found his way to New York, and started over.

I want them to know there was a time when not everything was made overseas. Their grandpa Jacob made a living in the U.S. as a tailor as many Jewish immigrants did back then. He worked hard and saved enough so my father could go to college and have more opportunities than he did.

I want my kids to know their place in the world stretches wide–wider than just school, their friends, soccer, San Francisco. It stretches way back to a small town in the Ukraine called Kamyanets-Podolskiy. And back even further still. I hope I can fill in enough of the pieces to give my kids a strong sense of their past. Only by knowing where they come from can they truly know who they are.

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