Writing the book of life
Yes, it’s that time. Beach, lake, mountain, or hammock in the backyard. Time to relax, recharge – and settle in with a stack of books.
But perhaps, instead of reading, we should think about writing – taking our moments of leisure to craft a record of who and where we’ve been, and how we experience our changing world.
For several months, my cousins and I have been sharing information about our attempts to trace our family’s path from eastern Europe to North America. My paternal grandfather had eight children, four born in Europe, one (my father) conceived in Manhattan but born during a visit to Warsaw, and three born in New York. Intent on sinking roots in the new world, and typical of immigrants and their children, my father and his siblings quickly Americanized, transmuting Yiddish/European names into American ones. Embracing a New York version of Jewish life, they mastered the culture of the new land, with little interest in stories of the old. They spoke English to one another and, later, to their children, so that few of my cousins heard Yiddish at home.
And now, belatedly, the cousins are curious – about life in Europe, about the early years in North America. But neither my grandparents nor any of my father’s siblings are still alive, so we can’t ask them. Instead, we stitch together a past from remembered stories and archival research.
My cousins range in age from mid-40s to mid-70s. The stories we remember hearing from our parents are contradictory. According to one version, our ancestors were “princes” in Europe, with a lavish home and servants. In another version, they were paupers and debtors. Yet another version casts them as fleeing from the police. There were ocean voyages back and forth and various children left behind with relatives and retrieved before the family finally settled into their new lives. Our pooled recollections are a hodgepodge of romanticization and conjecture, with few means to tease out the facts from the vagaries of memory and fantasy.
Thankfully, we don’t rely only upon these twice and thrice told tales. My cousins have been resourceful in tracking down archival sources that help us reconstruct our shared past. Thanks to the Internet and the digitization of documents, we have copies of ship manifests that anchor (no pun intended) at least parts of the family journey that occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century, even copies of census reports that my grandfather submitted during the family’s early years in North America. We have other kinds of saved documents – report cards from our parents’ childhood, naturalization papers for the siblings born in Europe. The past begins to take shape.
But what’s missing is the interior life of our parents and grandparents – what and how they felt about their lives on both continents, why they decided to emigrate, how it felt to leave the familiar and acculturate to the new. Documents can’t tell us that – only our parents or grandparents could have. They were more interested in building their own lives, and did not see anything remarkable in their life journeys. And we rarely asked.
My grandfather was a natural storyteller, weaving fantastic tales of his flying horse, Itzm-Bitzm, that followed the family across the ocean and lived in a courtyard in New York. Grandpa also wrote poems in Hebrew; my father saved a few and passed them along to me.
No one in our family thought to leave behind lifewriting or to write down my grandfather’s wonderful tales. If they had, our picture of them – and of where we come from – would be richer. The email exchanges among my cousins contains moments of discovery, but also a prod to current generations to chart our lives in writing, as we see, experience, and feel ourselves and our times. The world is changing – the Jewish world is changing. Let’s leave a map so those who come later can find where they’ve come from, to better understand where they find themselves.