A few weeks ago, my husband got an email out of the blue from a distant relative in Israel. This Israeli was working on some family genealogy. He was stunned to discover that he had many U.S. relatives he never knew about. Together, my husband and this distant relative took on a big extended family project, even as COVID-19 shut down borders and isolated us in our homes.
Suddenly, my husband in Winnipeg and his dad, aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey were emailing, sending photos and stories to one another. They tried to iron out all the stories they’d heard and fit the puzzle pieces together. My husband’s paternal grandparents (z”l) were from Mezritch, Poland. They spent the Second World War on the run. They were in a Siberian Gulag work camp. Then, they lived in a shantytown near Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After the war, they stayed in a series of displaced persons camps in Germany before U.S. relatives found them. They arrived in the United States, with their three children, in 1950.
Discovering what may have happened to each relative 75 years ago, and documenting it, has taken on an urgency for both my husband and this “new” Israeli relative. In part, it’s because his oldest aunt, who was 9 when she came to the United States, remembered it all and discussed it with her mother in detail, over and over, as those who’ve gone through huge upheaval sometimes do. For my husband’s aunt, this childhood experience defines much of her worldview. Now, though, her mother, my husband’s grandmother, has died. His aunt is still alive, but unwell. She’s unable to recount the stories or identify the people in photos anymore. The family is racing to record as much of their family history as they can before even more of the pieces are lost forever.
In the midst of this nightly family email exchange, I read a book called Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris. This novel makes connections between the Sephardi Jews who fled Spain after the Inquisition, the crypto-Jews of New Mexico and the history behind the family connections and modern-day Jewish practice. The author explained that the idea for the book came to her when she met someone long ago. This New Mexican seemed convinced that his family had been Jewish. Indeed, now we know through DNA analysis that many Spanish-speaking people throughout the world have Sephardi Jewish roots.
Gateway to the Moon was graphic, full of historically correct violence, and direct. It took me a long time to get through. It was powerful, but also hard to grasp the scope of the suffering faced during the Inquisition. This religious violence chased Jewish families for hundreds of years through Spain, Portugal, Mexico and beyond.
Morris does a good job of connecting people throughout history in her narrative. This was particularly powerful when a character tastes a lamb dish in Morocco, on vacation, and is instantly transported to her grandmother’s table in New Mexico. Even as their identity was hidden or forgotten, familiar recipes remained. Just the taste of that lamb stew connected the character to the family’s lost past and their Sephardi Jewish identity.
The ramifications of these huge experiences – violence, trauma, colonization, wars, genocides, terrorist attacks and pandemics – will shape us and future generations. We, as Jews, and as people, are forever shaped by these things. We’re about to celebrate Passover. It recounts a huge event in our people’s story – slavery, freedom and migration. This experience shapes us, though it happened (if it happened) long ago. As we say at the seder, Avadim hayinu: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. We’re commanded to remember this as though we personally left Egypt.
As I write this, we’re suffering a pandemic, another huge, worldwide and scary experience. My husband and I are Gen Xers. We’ve been shaped by the Holocaust experiences of our families and friends. We were raised hearing their stories and traumas, and it was part of who they, and we, are.
Now, I pray that we, and all our families, and everyone in our community, live to think about what the ramifications of this next event will be. It will impact us all.
My family and I wish you everything good – a chag sameach, zissen Pesach – a happy holiday. Most importantly, may you enjoy it in good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.