Writing blogs often leads me to questions that I just cannot answer. My family roots, and routes, often are unknown to me — and to any other living person. Those who experienced life 100 or many more years ago always are gone. Dead. No one survives life. Therefore, unless they left written memoirs, their stories are not known to me or the rest of their progeny. This leads me to surmise, but surmising is a fragile method of learning and teaching and writing. It lacks a certain nuance and its imputed information is often — or probably —incorrect.
Thus, when Zayda came to America, for instance, and left my Bubba Rifka and the three very young older kids back in Poland, when she was in late stage pregnancy with my father and his twin sister, was there an argument where she screamed at him that this was an inopportune time to leave her with such an overflowing plate, which included a little grocery store to manage? Or did she quietly encourage him and acknowledge that this was the time to go and not to worry about her or the kids or the poverty or how she would possibly manage labor and delivery on her own? I do not have a clue as to the answer. But she was my grandmother, and I know that if I take after her at all, I would not have agreed calmly to such a plan.
Yet that plan was put into action and he went to New Jersey where he stayed with some of her Zaentz relatives in Passaic, not his own Litwaks. Why, I cannot say. And throughout my childhood it was the Zaentz family events that we attended, never the Litwaks. Why, I cannot say. This is just one small example where skeletal information is not nearly enough.
But what about all those many generations, and human lives, who came even before Zayda and Rifka, hundreds and thousands of years before? I know nothing. None of them were written about in the world history books, or the Bible for that matter. At least I don’t think they were. I’m not even sure of that. We Jews always say we know each other from Har Sinai. Truthfully, I don’t think I know anyone from there at all.
I really wish I knew our own family stories. But I know our progeny will learn about us. This is due to an important activity that we fell upon the other day. We hadn’t planned it ourselves, but now that we’ve done it, I can’t understand how we possibly hadn’t sought it out on our own. You have to read this and then you too have to do something about it. It’s not optional!
Even though we spent a Shabbat weekend at Camp Ramah in New England many years ago learning about ethical wills from a brilliant scholar named Rela Geffen, and proceeded to write our own on that Sunday morning, we still had not conjured up the idea of doing interviews. One step should have led us to another but that’s not what happened.
So we wrote the wills and they were beautiful, and my husband, a gentle soul, was crying, and driving, on the long road from Palmer, Massachusetts, to central New Jersey, as I read him mine. And then, I read his, and it was beautiful and meaningful and touching and loving, and I too cried. And we never shared them with anyone else and they lie amongst our important papers, I hope!
But, surely, in today’s technological era, where computers and videography are ubiquitous, there is more to do. And now we have done it, although the idea did not germinate from either one of us.
Our old friend Shmu, a prominent Jewish historian, a writer of books about the Shoah, a brilliant researcher, and an all-around scholar and mensch, called and asked if he could interview us. We agreed without even asking why, assuming it was for some study he was engaged in where he needed to investigate the lives of elderly American-born Jews. It would be done on videotape, each of us separately. We asked no questions other than would he eat bagels and lox for lunch. He would!
I’m still not sure who put him up to this but whoever suggested it has earned our eternal gratitude. It is an absolutely wonderful — and obvious — way to communicate with future generations.
Each interview was done in a quiet, private place. We were not privy to what we would be asked but it was clear from the start that he wanted to ask about our Jewish lives, our thoughts, and what we did with our precious gift of years. Shmu is a professional. He probed gently. He listened carefully. He followed no script but he always climbed the next step, the deeper level. In about an hour with both of us, he learned what was important to us and led us to a clearer understanding of our own drive, decisions, and dreams. It was remarkable and it is a gift to those who follow us. Everyone, of a certain age, needs to create such a simple, easy, legible legacy.
When we discussed our ancestry we were both ill prepared, but even the history in our own generation was not elucidated sufficiently. Living through the years of the Holocaust was not enough to scorch our memories with its horrors. No. We were among the generation that grew up ignorantly unaware, except in the most superficial ways. I remember my mother telling us to finish the food on our plates because the children in Europe were starving. I did not get her thrust then and she never expanded it. Was I too young to understand? Undoubtedly. But, then again, when I got older and it was long postwar, I still wasn’t made to understand, by parents or teachers. Is this relevant to the lives of our progeny? I don’t know, but I think it was fairly typical, and I also think it’s a spin on our lives, that our children, without the tape, would not believe or expect. They would have thought that we, Jews comfortably settled in a nice home in Newark, far from the winds of war, would have experienced fear. The truth is that we had no idea at all that our cohort was being exterminated in Europe. While they were dying we were playing in the backyard. Our children have no obligation to make heroes of us at all.
I discovered that my most significant Jewish value is in-marriage. This is a topic that I have not written about, but in the interview, hypnotically, it emerged. It was my red-button issue, more than antisemitism, more than religious observance. I referred to the many cousins in my generation, my own cousins and their children, who have left Judaism, or ignored it, and who do not even have any remnants left to return to. It makes me tremble to think how easily my own direct family line could be similarly challenged, and it makes me think how abused and depressed my grandparents would feel with the knowledge that their descendants are simply and sadly no longer Jews. In my extended family there is not a single convert to Judaism. I made clear to Shmu that when serious converts are serious Jews, they are among my favorite people.
We delved into love for Israel, and the animosity that I feel towards the present government and its fomenting of sinat chanim, causeless hatred. I hope that those reviewing the tape will wonder, at some future date, what I could have been referring to, and that they will need to be reminded of these terrible days. I hope to be remembered as a fervent, life-long Zionist!
I shared my commitment to Jewish education and the hope that my progeny will always find it possible to assure that their children benefit from comprehensive lifelong Jewish learning.
There is much more. It is amazing how much such a short period of time, an hour, can include. I was gently nudged into thinking about my life, my Jewish life, and blessedly being able to communicate to those who follow me, my descendants. And the same is true for my husband.
No doubt we each left many things unsaid. The take-away must be to dwell on what was said, what was urgent and important enough to be said, rather than on what wasn’t. I owe huge debts of gratitude to those who led us to embark on this very intense, but incredibly easy, interview. It is a wonderful gift to the future of our family.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!