BOOK REVIEW: The World of Our Grandmothersby Sharon Rosen Leib March 3, 2014
By Sharon Rosen Leib
Have you ever felt your ancestors beckoning you back to the Old Country? To visit the shtetls which they, with a blessed combination of Yiddish sechel and good fortune, fled to live the American dream? Judith Fein’s new book “The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands” serves as both a practical and spiritual guide to help you heed the ancestral call and embrace the past.
The San Diego Jewish Journal’s senior travel correspondent, Fein is an award-winning journalist who has contributed to more than 100 international publications. Her husband Paul Ross, SDJJ’s senior travel photographer, accompanied Fein on this journey into their shared family history. His photos document the people and places they encountered with affecting, stark simplicity.
Reading Fein’s evocative account of her travels through the Ukraine reminded me of author Jonathan Safran Foer’s words about his journey to his grandfather’s Ukrainian shtetl: “It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us … on the inside, looking out.” Our forebears had the courage to cut and run, thus escaping the sequential horrors of the Holocaust and a repressive Soviet regime. Do we all have a shred of survivors’ guilt rooted in our souls? Maybe. Do we owe our shtetl ancestors a tremendous debt of gratitude? Definitely.
Fein’s book covers the emotional terrain of searching for that lost past to honor our relatives and better ground our lives with empathy and appreciation for those who preceded us. As a young girl, the author peppered her bubbe with questions about the past, but her grandmother didn’t want to talk much about her shtetl or childhood in Russia. Undeterred, Fein extracted six “clues” from her bubbe: her family bought their food at the Jewish market on Tuesdays; she worked drying tobacco leaves; she lived at the bottom of the hill and envied the Russian girls who attended school on top of the hill; the floor of the family home was made of goat dung; and the biggest nearby town was Kamenetz Podolsk.
Fein clung to her grandmother’s clues and pursued them with a vengeance on her quest through the Ukraine. She proves an able detective aided by a mystical sixth sense for impeccable timing. The stars (or ancestral hands) align to put her in contact with the right people to breathe meaning and life into her grandmother’s clues.
She interviews several Ukrainian elders along her journey and reports, “Their memories were fading … It added even more urgency to my trip … to meet anyone who could connect me to the reality of life in the shtetls before it was all gone.” Fein’s book packs the power to enrich family narratives, as many readers will immediately want to inquire into their own family history after finishing a few pages.
But traveling to the Old Country is not just a benign, sepia-tinged nostalgia ride. Malignant Holocaust memories haunt every city and shtetl Fein visits. She struggles to overcome her anxiety about delving into this dark side. Yet she courageously confronts Minkowitz’s tragic past when interviewing an elderly village woman. This woman describes Minkowitz’s Jews (including a dear childhood friend) being rounded up, marched to the top of a hill and systematically shot by singing Nazi gendarmes.
As American Jews, our lives are more carefree when we tamp down the painful, uncomfortable truths of our Old Country histories. But Fein reminds us how crucial these truths are to remember. To help our children understand and appreciate the blessedness of their present lives, we have a cultural imperative to preserve the fading memories of our grandparents’ shtetls. Only then can we pass a torch from generation to generation and illuminate our world in the light of the past.
The “Spoon From Minkowitz” can be ordered from Amazon in both paperback and e-book forms. For more information about the author and her travels, visit globaladventure.us