Today, December 23, is National Roots Day. Whenever I think about my roots, I am inspired by my late father’s obsession with genealogy and discovering his family history. My father taught me that in order to adapt to the present and evolve with an eye toward the future, you have to understand the past.
My father saw genealogy as a puzzle to be solved by connecting the dots, no matter how tangential the relationship. When he died, he left me a shoebox filled with random names and diagrams. My approach is quite different. For me, the key to understanding my roots is not found in those vast genealogical scrolls Dad loved. It’s in the stories. For that reason, I was delighted to find three of my father’s stories written for each of my children when they celebrated their Bar and Bat Mitzvot.
For my son, Dad shared the story of his own Bar Mitzvah 50 years earlier. His writing provides a unique insight into life in 1934:
Year two of the New Deal. June 30th, the red-letter date. The week begins with the onset of an early summer heat wave. Temperatures hover near the triple digit mark. Blazing sun. Stifling humidity. Preparations are under way. Mother, tantes [aunts], neighbors, friends – all are engaged in an orgy of cooking and baking…
Meanwhile, the focus of this sweaty, frenzied activity is absorbed in the daily heroics of the new “Samson,” Hammering Hank Greenberg, who has come as a messiah to lead the beloved Detroit Tigers out of the American League wilderness to their first pennant in a quarter century.
Saturday morning dawns with sun and heat unabated. The “man to be” is adorned in the new suit – 100% wool worsted, tan color, belted back jacket and knickers. The neighborhood shul is filled to capacity with 125 perspiring souls — women in the balcony, a collection of bearded elders wrapped in ankle length taleism [prayer shawls] surrounding the bimah [podium]…
Now, in a quick singsong, the blessings are chanted, followed by the Haftorah [a reading from the Book of Prophets] and the closing blessings. Then comes a five minute break for “the speech” — obligatory thanks to mother and father and to the United Hebrew Schools for inspirational tutelage, promises to work diligently for the betterment of mankind and Judaism, and to remain steadfast in the study of Torah [the sacred scroll containing the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures]. Finally, the descent from before the Ark to a shower of candies from the balcony, and it’s over.
Sundown, and all the food comes forth from the secret hiding places and is lugged up to the Parkside Social Hall, a sparse room over the main business street store fronts…The “Bar Mitzvah” and a handful of boyfriends cavort in a corner. Batting averages and individual athletic heroics are loudly discussed. Trading card deals are arranged. Teachers and sundry elders are mocked and mimicked. Across the room are the girls, the older sister and a few daughters of relatives and friends. A constant chatter and giggle prevails. Never the twain shall meet. By 10:00, the “man of the day” and the older sister are dispatched to the babysitter who has been minding the younger brother and sister at the house about a block away. Their big day is ended. The adult revelers go on and on. The only memento of all of this — the Mickey Mouse watch I gave you today.
In 1986, my father shared this story of his mother, for whom my older daughter was named:
Orphaned at fifteen, [your great grandmother Ida] had to make her way to the New World under a false name and identity in the care of a family of strangers to join her siblings who had made the passage earlier and were struggling to establish homes in the “promised land.” The priority was to find some menial employment, generally in the needle trades, to contribute to the family’s economic needs. Education was limited to a few night school courses providing the barest rudiments of reading and writing. Only after years of painstaking laborious self-education, was she able to slowly and methodically read and enjoy a novel.
Careers and professions were as alien to her as flying to the moon. Marriage, motherhood, and homemaking were the only outlets for her native intelligence, energy, and determination, traits that you share in abundance. Cooking, baking, sewing, and needlecraft, and managing the budget through good and lean times, were among the acquired skills that were excellently mastered through sheer will and persistence.
My memory goes back to my eleventh year, in the midst of the great depression of the thirties, when the loss of our house seemed imminent through foreclosure. Despite her limitations, your great grandmother confronted a board of bankers and negotiated a new mortgage that preserved our home. In later years, she worked side by side with your great grandfather operating several small businesses that successfully provided their livelihood, despite the onset of debilitating illness.
By 1990, Dad’s fascination with genealogy was fed by access to information via the Internet. He was spending a great deal of time on ancestry.com and sending emails to anyone who may have been remotely related to him. That year, he shared this with my younger daughter:
Until recently, I could only tell you the names of your great great grandparents, all of whom lived out their lives in poverty and anonymity in the shtetls of Lithuania. A few years ago, as the result of a casual conversation with a newly met distant cousin, I was happy to learn about your great great great grandfather, Noach. He lived in the same small village from which your great grandmother and my mother, Ida, departed for America. Thus, we have traced one strand that tells us our family was already established in Lithuania at the end of the 18th century, the age of the Chassidic revival in Eastern European Jewry. Undoubtedly, we had ancestors actively participating in the fervor and mysticism of that period.
Of my father Philip’s side of the family, I only know bits and pieces of stories of aunts and uncles, three generations removed from you, who seemed to be intellectuals and revolutionaries. They were caught up in the movements of the beginning of this century to overthrow the Russian Czar and to break out of the ghetto environment. I know of an uncle [David] killed by Cossacks for his activities. Others fled to South Africa to escape conscription [into the Russian army – a 25 year commitment], and a widowed aunt took three small children to Palestine in the mid 1930’s, establishing our Israeli cousins there.
Turning to your grandmother’ s side, we know that your great grandmother Alice’ s family name was Klavir [perhaps taken from “clavier,” the name for a stringed keyboard musical instrument in Germany from the late 17th century], and hints at musicianship in your ancestral past…
Your grandmother’ s father (your great grandfather), Philip Krut, for whom you are named, was turned out into the world at the age of ten. He was sent to Riga, Latvia, to be apprenticed as a tailor. Following his mother’ s death, he left his newly remarried father’s household overburdened with siblings from both marriages, struggling to survive in grinding poverty with barely enough to feed them all… The incredible hardships of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust took the lives of many family members.
My father was a history buff who mastered new technology to further his interest in genealogy and finding his roots. Dad saw newness as a tool to pursue his passion for the past. This is the powerful legacy my father passed to me. For some, it’s all about what’s coming next. For me, it’s essential to look backward to move forward. Like my father, I value my roots as well as my wings.
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