A family history

This post is part of ROOTS – a series that originates on BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo – see what others are posting on the topic.

Roots: they are the stories that ground you, the food that returns you, the music that comforts you, and the people who know you. Everyone has roots that influence them, even if they don’t consciously know them or can’t access them.

Friday, June 7, 2013 – Prompt:

Tell us a story from your family history.

Wow. This prompt is leaving me with a blank.
I am not so good at choosing when the choice is too wide.
I chose to follow the prompts for that reason. The topic of “Roots” felt wide and vague enough for me to need the framework and the prompts seem to better offer that framework.

But then telling a story from my family history feels like going back to the ocean of the general topic of “Roots”. What story? Each day is a story, each person is a story. My mother wrote a book about her story, my father, upon my request, did so too, not a real book in his case, because he is a reluctant writer, so he chose to gather facts and piled them in a sort of chronology of how he went through his years before he got married for instance.

Then my mother also prepared fabulous photo albums after she retired. It is very time-consuming, so I am eternally grateful to her that she did so, and every time I visit – which is unfortunately only every other year – I enjoy going to those heavy books of pictures that she organized following some themes that are meaningful to her only in the beginning, but that I am ready to adopt to embrace her memories of her life, especially fascinating that I am in the stories of course! And that my recollections are tainted with another set of memories, or emotions, and that shows how we perceive events or reality through our own prisms always!

These are wonderful stories, sometimes painful stories too, that I participated in for the last parts at least (fifty-five years and counting!). The stories that took place before my birth have another flavor. I grew more fond of learning them as I am getting older: because I am more busy with my memories than when I was busy with my dreams and hopes. Because I have lost so many of the wonderful people who were building the possibilities in these stories also. Because I know better the value of the instant that I have let go so often, without paying enough attention to the story that was underlying and that was meaningful when it was unfolding.

Also, because I know how life can take it all in a split second: and what if no one was left to retell this or that story? I am a very anxious person, and my anxiety is growing with passing years, instead of subsiding into a more serene state of mind. I thought that working on building up memories that can last an eternity was a way to overcome the panic and the feeling that I could suddenly lose things forever.

I have come to believe that my profound anxiety stems in my history. There has been a lot of abusive events, enough to prove that I would be scarred and scared. I remember what a psychiatrist whom I had been in therapy with when I was younger had suggested to me, that being the daughter of holocaust survivor had certainly an impact on my psyche. Research has documented this since (see the footnote).

The thing with Jews, is that if you go back into their history, there is very likely a short period between succeeding traumas. The generations that lived before the Holocaust (or Shoah, as I prefer to call it – but that is another story – ) had gone through pogroms, or displacement, or if you go back again a quarter century, you’ll find persecutions, antisemitism, and destruction again, and again, enough to traumatize one generation over an other. This is one way of looking at the story. And then, there is the other way of looking at it: which is the incredible resilience, the everlasting rebuilding upon ashes that these families, mine, have accomplished in the face of these destructions and evil events. Yes, sometimes, I find a branch that goes dry, that is coming to a tragic end, but very often, another member of the same family has done differently and gone to recreate a burgeoning tribe. Also, some of the members who have been cut off from their roots, for different reasons probably, and lost their belonging to the Jewish family, often surprisingly resurrect their Judaism many years later and seem to go ‘back home’.

This is certainly the story that I would choose preferably to tell. How I feel profoundly and inherently part of a family, a very special family that goes back so far in time that I can’t exactly know when or where it really started. It gives me strength and solace, it gives me support and hope. It certainly depends on my belief system and faith, but even when I doubt and feel like I do not believe that much, it seems to have a way to catch me back, as if I was attached with a rubber band that is not drying.

I know that the best stories are stories with a happy ending. But when you talk about a family history what could be the ending? It is a never-ending story! It certainly is not a fairy tale, when we live happily ever after, after the events that took place dramatically in the tale, because there is so much unknown to what a family can become, but I am proud to be part of it, as little as my role could be in its unfolding, and as humble my words can be in their attempt to leave a trace in the sand for all to know about what we did and how we did it.

Footnote: Links in English on Trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors and their children

See my other posts of the series:

A sweet name

Genealogy and Family Trees

Three generations away

Generations

Random facts about my Judaism

Three Generations Away

This post is part of ROOTS – a series that originates on BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo.

Roots: they are the stories that ground you, the food that returns you, the music that comforts you, and the people who know you. Everyone has roots that influence them, even if they don’t consciously know them or can’t access them.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 – Prompt:

Go back three generations and tell us about where your family lived.

I was born in Paris, France.
My father was born in Paris, France.
His mother too.
My mother was born in Algiers, which at the time of her birth was a French department.
Her mother was born in Toulouse, France and her father was born in Algeria.

Algeria is more mysterious to me because I never visited, and also because the country changed so much after it became independant, in 1962.
My family had already left the land, earlier, already in 1953 or 1954 before the war there started. The land they owned was seized, and certainly all the hard work my grandfather labored there got lost, but certainly not his kindness, his patience and all the memories he left me, even if he passed on when I was very little.

Alger Pointe Pescade

My grandfather was a tanner, and I still have a satchel that I used when I went to grade school that I was told he made (I supposed he prepared the leather for it, but had it made by a maker). I am very fond of leather, its smell, its feel. I also have my grandfather’s desk. Actually, I am writing on it right now. I don’t know how old this desk is, but it must have been built more than a century ago…

On the contrary, my father’s family lived in a place that I am very familiar with.
I have walked the street they lived many times, and passed it driving even more.
I have looked at the door, a typical heavy Parisian black door, but I have never passed its threshold.

My grandmother was arrested by the Gestapo and deported as a Jew in 1943. She never returned home.
certif  arrestation  Thérèse

On April 27, 1946 the building caretaker, wrote this note to certify that my grandmother had been arrested on July 30, 1943 at her place of work and never reappeared nor gave any news until that day.

This piece of paper probably entitled my father to some rights. Eventually, my grandmother was declared “dead for the motherland”.

I wear her wedding band. Because she was divorced at the time, she was not wearing it, and this is the only memory I have left from her, that I carry all the time with me. Inside the wedding ring there are her initials and her estranged husband. LH TG: the first two initials happen to be also mine. There is the date May 17, 1925. I can hardly take it off my finger now.

The desk and the ring are part of my surroundings, and they keep reminding me of those who are not here anymore, and places and stories I barely knew, and certainly never lived. They have a lot of power though, and they do shape who I am.

See the other posts of the series:

Generations

Random facts about my judaism

Generations

This post is part of ROOTS – a series that originates on BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo.

Roots: they are the stories that ground you, the food that returns you, the music that comforts you, and the people who know you. Everyone has roots that influence them, even if they don’t consciously know them or can’t access them.

Monday, June 3, 2013 – Prompt:

How many generations can you go back in your family?  What do you know about your oldest ancestors?

On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a Sephardic Jew and his name can be found in Chronicles (Chr I, 23-11) which kind of makes me pretty vain about it (being able to say that you trace my Yiddishkeit back to the Tanach, who would not feel a little proud about that anyway?). My maternal grandmother was coming from a prominent Lorraine family (ashkenaz) and they were already settled in Paris, France when citizenship was granted to the Jews right after the French Revolution(9/28/1791), so you can trace her family in the civil official registars back in 1792.

Random facts about my judaism

These are facts that I seem to have known always.
They are part of my family’s folklore, and being aware of the “mixed” origin (part sefardic, part ashkenaz) came later in my knowledge, when I became really interested in what my Jewish heritage was. Because it was not something that I remember being important when I grew up.

Obviously, generations before WWII did not mix up as much as they did after.

It feels like many generations lived in the same place for a very long time.
For instance in Paris.
And often in the very same area of the city, too.

Then, some of my ancestors, who were from Russia at the time of the czar, were probably forced to leave, as antisemitism was fierce and often deadly, but what transpired from the family folklore was never stories of pogroms, but rather the fact that this particular ancestor was a peddler, a very typical activity for an askenaz Jew of that time. I wonder what language he spoke when he made it to Eastern France, and if this is where he founded a family, or had left one behind.

Captain Dreyfus at the time of his rehabilitation
I know more about my great-grand-father from my maternal side, who had been a Colonel in the French army at the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). For those not familiar with French history, there had been a war between France and Prussia (at the time) prior to that period, and my family (that part of the family) was already established as Parisians, where the war had created a famine. The family folklore says that they had to eat rats for protein. I do not know if it was true or a myth. What I remember is my grandmother boasting about it for her father like if it was heroic. Seems pretty intense rather. But I am sure it was also a way not to speak about politics, which had been such a painful and sensitive topic. It definitely shaped a lot of our political sensitivities and outrage.

On the paternal side, I know of the ancestors who had to opt for the French citizenship: there was a time when residents of Alsace and Lorraine where caught up in territories claimed back and forth between Germany and France. They chose the French citizenship, because the Jews could have it. And they seemed to feel happier in France: there even was a saying “As happy as God in France”, because Napoleon was favorable to the Israelites, and obviously they were supporting him back.

Folkloric stories seem to stop at the beginning of the XIXth century for me.
My imagination goes back much further though, and I sometimes have very vivid visions of the village my ancestors would have lived in back in the XIth or XIIth centuries! These memories were created by my readings, of course, and a propension to invent or believe that it comes from memories passed in the genes, who knows after all?

18 Random facts about my being Jewish

Starting with eighteen

because 18 is a significant number in Judaism: it has the value of the word “life” in Hebrew חי

Hebrew chai symbol
Eighteen in Hebrew – also “‘hai” = living
  1. I was raised in a very secular Jewish family, my father being from an old French Jewish background on his father’s side, and Ukraina from his maternal side, but both parents born in Paris, France. You can trace my paternal family back to very far, thanks to the works of a member of this family who went back to the craddle. I think I am the 7th or 8th branch on the 5th generation from the first ancestor he traced back to the eighteenth century, before the French Revolution.
  2.  On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a Sephardic Jew and his name can be found in Chronicles (Chr I, 23-11) which kind of makes me pretty vain about it (being able to say that you would trace one’s Yiddishkeit back to the Tanach, who would not feel a little proud about that anyway?). My maternal grandmother was coming from a prominent Lorraine family (ashkenaz) and they were already settled in Paris, France when citizenship was granted to the Jews right after the French Revolution (9/28/1791), so you can trace her family in the civil official registrars back in 1792.
  3. I grew up with absolutely no religious education. My parents were very liberal, and my mother pretty free spirited. Most of my extended family that had any kind of religious practice were attending liberal shuls (would be called “conservative” in the US although it does not exactly match the definition).
  4. My first recollection of being in a synagogue is being the flower girl at a wedding. I clearly remember the blue ribbon that was holding my bangs (I probably kept it for many years). Being on the bimah made the whole experience very memorable, and the only thing that struck my mind was the breaking of the glass. I was 7 or 8.
  5. Therese
    My grandmother, z”l 1900-1943

    I look very much alike my paternal grandmother, who was assassinated in Auschwitz in September 1943.

  6. I started to be interested in religious matters when I was in 7th grade. Of course, the majority of my class (being in public school and in a dominantly catholic country) was involved in their solemn communion that year, and the only girls left behind in class in June were either Jews or communist-atheists! My best friend at the time was a Muslim and she shared with me some things that made me read a small book about Kuran, while I had her read another small book from the same collection about Zohar.
  7. My next encounter with religion was much later. I met an orthodox Jew whom I dated for some months and he introduced me to the beauty of Shabbat, which I started to observe. At that time we had started a Talmud Torah group, we were meeting every week and would study the parsha together. The group lasted until most of the participants got scattered around. Two of the initial group of five (it became more numerous at times, but started with 5) made Alyah eventually. A third one who joined the group later out of curiosity became b.teshuvah, although you would have never thought that she was one to ever embrace shomer neguiah!
  8. My interest in Judaism certainly stems from this study group, and the nearly kibbutz-like life we developed at the time spending all the main religious holidays together. I should have been even more serious and marry the guy (see 10) instead of the other one…
  9. I didn’t know that my soon to-be new boyfriend and eventually husband and father of my children was Jewish. When I realized he was, that’s when I actually pursued him more seriously. I had in mind that I would only marry a Jew for a long time ago although I have no recollection that it had been a spoken instruction in my family. I am actually the only of the three siblings to have married a Jew.
  10. I did not have a religious wedding. At the time, I felt like my father would have been really upset if I had done so. My husband and I had discussed that we would eventually do it… later. It turned out to be a pretty abusive marriage and later, he divorced me, and left me behind anyway. I was kind of relieved that we did not marry religiously because I doubt he would have given me the get, out of spite or whatever was in his mind at the time of the divorce. Although I haven’t had any inclination to date again, one never knows.
  11. I discovered a totally different approach to secular Judaism through my (ex)family-in-law. There was some tension when my father-in-law told me I was “not a real Jew” because I had never been to Israel. Out of respect I said nothing, but it hurt my feelings badly, and it showed me that bigotry could lay in all sorts of prejudices. I learnt how to overcome his adverse opinion of me when I tended to his wife when she was terminally ill.
  12. I learned a lot by myself, and I learned the Jewish mourning rituals on that occasion. My family-in-law was totally at a loss when she died and would not know what to do, but they were very thankful that I arranged things in the most Jewish fashion. I had learnt about it at the time we were studying (see 8) and one friend had lost her father. Putting it into practice was very meaningful for me. It really fortified my confidence that Judaism was the right answer for me.
  13. Although it was a tradition for me to spend Passover sedarim with my friends, on several occasions I decided to go to a seder in my extended family, and it turned out that once it was at my uncle’s who passed away the year after, and the other time it was my second-cousin’s father’s last seder too. I am very thankful that I had a chance to build a memory that stays as a link with my cousins until this day now.
  14. When I arrived in the United States in 1998 I had no idea what the different Jewish denominations meant. The Jewish culture is very different in France and in the U.S. anyway, so I didn’t really mind what shul I would attend. I did not “shop” as I understand it is the custom, now that I have accustomed to the country. My first encounter with the local synagogue and its congregation and rabbi was pretty awkward. In everyone’s eye I was an “orthodox” Jew, because my observance was different and they were reform. It was kind of useless to explain that I came from a secular background and that my observance was certainly very far from being orthodox!
  15. I did not have a Jewish name. When I asked my mother what she would choose now if she had to give me a Jewish name, she couldn’t come up with anything, so I chose for myself. My Jewish name is Hadassah bat Rachel (Rachel is my mother’s hebrew name).
  16. Because he is severely autistic, my elder son didn’t get any formal Jewish education in religious school, and was not able to speak for himself for his bar-mitzvah so I gave a drasha myself on his parsha. It can be accessed for whoever would like to read it here (download .pdf – 220 ko)
  17. I simply love being Jewish. The more I study, the more I enjoy it. I started learning how to read first in 1993, then had to stop attending the class when I got pregnant. I started again in 2009, although the class turned into a conversational modern hebrew class rather than biblical hebrew. On a religious point of view, my main focus is on shemirat halashon.
  18. I still haven’t been to Israel yet. I can picture myself living there permanently however. One never knows.