Last week my daughter busted on me, saying that we had no right to celebrate Thanksgivingkuh. We’re not even Jewish, she said. She’s technically correct since my mom’s family hailed from the Baltics. And as for my dad’s side, it’s a mystery.
After my dad died, my paternal line was largely lost to me. I have vague memories of information that my grandmother had once shared. A Max Lewis, the last name Barsh. Time spent in Camden. They amounted to the barest shreds of a long disintegrated family fabric.
Last week, during a bout of sleeplessness I paid a visit to Ancestry.com. It makes sense. What else should one do during a dark night of the soul? Isn’t it all about uncovering who you are?
Lying there in the darkness I entered a few bits of information: my name and birth date, that of my parents. Within minutes little “hint” leaves began popping up left and right on the tree that was self assembling. My dad’s birth certificate led to the names of his parents. His parents’ birth and death records auto populated and led to 1910 and 1920 census records in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. These led to names of cousins and great grandparents and possible countries of origin.
In the dim illumination of my computer screen, I stared at images of reports handwritten by census workers in 1910 as they trudged up and down soiled tenement stairs, inventorying the names and occupations of my ancestors. I saw the names Isaac and of his brother Max and of their father and mother, Solomon and Rachel, bearers of ancient biblical names, but recently hailed from Poland and Russia. What did they know of their great grandson of the future who would use 21st century magic and technology to pull back the veil of the past to reveal some distant home?
On that day in 1910, they sat impatiently in some squalid and small flat, answering a stranger’s questions in broken English. We left that place, they may have said to themselves. It was done and over. And of this, what good would ever come of it?