Saturday, February 16, 2019

Loosening the Reins

This is the time of year when I inevitably assess whether I am going to maintain this blog. I suppose it is a form of writer’s block that strikes with the regularity of a winter cold. This year feels particularly significant as I began the blog in 2009 so have completed ten years and over 400 blog posts. Who knew I had so much to say? 

 While many blogs seek to have one theme to find their audience, I have to confess that one theme would bore me. As my life is multi-faceted, so is this blog. If one topic doesn’t interest you, hopefully another will. Over the past decade I have traced my travels through 13 countries and reported on 140 of my favorite books. I introduced you to my artwork, my various projects, my genealogy research and my exploration of my Jewish heritage. I’ve explored my life as I redesigned it post-career, dealt with aging parents, their ultimate loss and the reframing of my world in their absence. Just when I think I’ve said everything I have to say, the world tilts and new things appear on the horizon.

This blog began with six weeks in Eastern Europe where I went to study Yiddish. I wrote every day thinking it would be a travel journal as I explored the language of my ancestors and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. I had done a travel journal before when we spent a month in China, but it wasn’t public. This was my first time putting it before a wider audience and I was a bit shy about it. You know the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching?” Well I was writing like nobody’s reading. I must confess that I’ve often been surprised when people know unexpected details about my life because I forgot people were reading.

When I came home from Eastern Europe, I realized that I really loved the thoughtfulness that regular writing engenders. It deepened my experience. To cease writing would have left a hole in my life.

I remember reading a book by Barbara Kingsolver years ago. One of her characters in her internal dialogue beautifully captured a thought of mine. It was an odd moment of recognition, of being understood by someone who didn’t know me, yet expressed what was apparently a shared thought, that I had until that moment thought was unique to me. When I write, I hope that I will strike that chord in someone else.

When I first started doing life drawing, I began going to several drawing coops each week. It changed the way I saw the world. If we were speaking together, you might have wondered about how intently I seemed to be watching you. I was mentally drawing you, studying the shadows and lines, the nuances that made you who you were. When  I no longer went to the drawing co-op, that way of seeing receded. Writing regularly is a bit like that too. In the normal course of our days we observe small details that make us think, passing thoughts that might spark curiosity and a desire to contemplate them further. If we don’t write, they slip away into our busy lives. Writing causes us to dig a little deeper, to explore the underlying meaning and maybe have an insight that draws the world into greater clarity.

Up until last year I had been very disciplined about writing, targeting four blogs a month. Then I consciously abandoned some of my discipline and cut that in half to make room for other things in my life. I think we all need to learn different things in life and usually it is the opposite of what we know. As a highly disciplined person, at least in some spheres of my life, I half-jokingly called it laziness and sloth. In truth, I do need to loosen the reins. I’m still finding this new rhythm and balance, the necessary intensity to see the world differently yet make room for other things within my life.  I know if I said I’m closing it down, the next week I’d have some fabulous insight I’d want to share. So, you’ll continue to see this blog periodically when the spirit moves me. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Common Threads

Each year I write about my notable reading from the prior year. While reading on Russian topics dominated my reading last year, I wanted to share three additional books that were unusual and thought-provoking. It was not until I began to write about them that I realized they have many threads in common.  See if you can find them. 

I read In the Dark Room by Susan Faludi because she was coming to town and I was planning to attend her lecture.  I was intrigued by the intersecting themes, a difficult father, with a Holocaust history, who returned to Hungary where he grew up and then became transgender in his 70s. The author explores her relationship with this difficult man turned woman. Faludi is a bit of a detective in her approach as she explores Budapest, its history and that of her family, and of course her father and the complex and changing relationship between them. As a feminist who writes about the female experience, as well as the male experience, she brings a thoughtful and often compassionate lens to that exploration. 

The Last Palace by Norm Eisen took me from Faludi’s Budapest to nearby Prague where he views its history through the lens of a house. There is another lens as well, also a parent. Eisen’s mother, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, is interwoven throughout the book, the voice in the back of Eisen’s head.  Now this is not just any house, but a palace erected by Otto Petschek, a Jewish coal and financial baron, who built the home after WWI to express his artistic vision. Vision became obsession and the house ultimately took seven years to build and nearly bankrupt him. Petschek didn’t get to enjoy it for long, dying just three years after completion. His family then fled Czechoslovakia in 1938  as the Nazis came to power.  The next occupant was a German general who was captivated by the building. The Nazi ownership is still found in a small swastika beneath a table marking their presence. The palace became a home for US ambassadors, including Eisen, who takes us through the residents and the history, from Soviet domination to democracy. My favorite scene in the book involves Shirley Temple Black who was in the country during the time of the 1968 Prague Spring and witnessed its destruction by the Soviets. She returns in the late 1980s as the ambassador where she witnesses the shift to democracy through the “Velvet Revolution.” Black gathered her staff together and solemnly announced that she was only going to do this once. She then proceeded to sing and dance “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in joyful celebration.

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature over time, but as you can see, it often rears its head unexpectedly.  A third book also took me into those who were touched by the Holocaust. I was heading off to Warsaw for the International Jewish Genealogy conference. I noted on the schedule that Glenn Kurtz was speaking about his book Three Minutes in Poland and decided to read it in preparation for his talk. Kurtz found a film of his grandparent’s trip to Europe in 1938. Within it are three minutes that capture an ancestral town in Poland, on the cusp of destruction. Kurtz begins to explore the people and the place captured within those three minutes. A woman recognizes her grandfather in the film footage as a young boy. He looks amazingly the same. He connects to another survivor of the town and the networking begins.

 Now I found this personally interesting as I had a similar story on an ancestral town but had explored it in a different fashion. I do the website for Jewishgen on the town of Radom, Poland, home of my paternal grandfather.  In building the website I had run across a film of the community from 1937. I put stills on the website and then decided to do a series of paintings called a Hole in Time based on that imagery. I was asked to exhibit it in my grandfather’s town, coming full circle. I had searched for the story behind it and was initially unsuccessful in finding the owner. Ultimately the niece of the photographer found me and told me the occasion of the film was two family weddings. She still has the original film which has since been digitized.

So, what were those common threads? Each author brings investigative skills, a parent or grandparent plays a significant role and the history of their ancestral town is a presence as well. As each author has Jewish heritage, the Holocaust has become interwoven with their personal family history. In each book, layering complex themes with an unusual entry point results in a textured and interesting story.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Between the Pages: Reading on Russia

Each year I write a post on my reading from the prior year. Often, my reading focuses on specific topics and this year Russia took center stage. My Russia reading was in preparation for a trip we took there through the Museum of Russian Art. Our group included two authors, R.D. Zimmerman (Robert Alexander-pen name) and Douglas Smith. Zimmerman writes historical fiction and Smith writes about history in a manner that feels like an engaging novel. Their books had been recommended to me so I was quite delighted to learn that they would be accompanying us. They each brought a perspective to our experience in Russia that was especially meaningful, and you will note their books on my list. 

For anyone who is interested in traveling to Russia or just understanding this complex and often puzzling country, here’s the background reading that prepared me for our travels.

The Czars
I began with the Czars and particularly Catherine the Great who began the art collection now held at the Hermitage. I was surprised at how easy it was to relate to her as a person. She was intellectually curious, strategic, thoughtful and passionate about both learning and art. German-born, she stepped into Russian culture and accepted it as her own. I was also struck by the complexity of Russia, the enormous land mass and cultures within it, the economic and cultural divide between nobility, peasants and serfs. It was not an easy country to govern and Catherine, while initially idealistic, brought a steady hand and a realistic appraisal of the dangers it presented. 

Massey’s Catherine the Great is a good foray into this period and introduces the reader to Catherine and her evolution from a young girl in a troubled marriage to a powerful and respected Czar.  The Pearl, by Douglas Smith, explores the love affair and marriage between the richest Russian noble of the time and his serf, something which was unthinkable at that time in history.  In doing so, it paints a picture of what life was like as a serf. Serfdom encompassed 23 million Russians when it was eliminated in 1861. Its history created a fault line within Russia that may still reverberate today. Both of these books are nonfiction but read like a novel.

The Russian Revolution
Catherine lived from 1729 to 1796. Her husband was the grandson of Peter the Great and was a Romanov by birth. The Romanov reign concluded with Nicholas II, their 3rdgreat-grandson.  Nicholas was born in 1868 and murdered along with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918 after the Russian revolution. Three books paint the picture of this era. The non-fiction Nicholas and Alexandra, by Massey, explores how the Russian revolution came about and the actions of Nicholas and his wife that contributed to that destabilization. The Kitchen Boy, by R.D. Zimmerman, is a fictionalized account, beginning at their imprisonment and telling the tale up until their deaths. Former People, by Douglas Smith, takes a look at the fearsome losses suffered by Russian nobility who were lucky to escape with their lives.

These books took me up to and through the revolution, but it was in a book of historical fiction that I began to get the flavor of what it was like to live in a totalitarian regime, particularly as an artist. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes takes you into the mind of the composer Shostakovich in Soviet times. He is alternatingly feted and condemned by Stalin. Shostakovich struggled to use his talents in a totalitarian regime that dictated what was acceptable, offering rewards if he conformed and terror if he didn’t. How he strikes this difficult bargain is the material of his life and this book.

Also in this category, I would recommend a prior-year book that I've previously written about by one of my favorite authors, Masha Gessen, Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace.

The Fall of the Soviet Union
At first, I found myself thinking in terms of two Russias, Czarist Russia and Soviet Russia, forgetting that there is yet another Russia, the one that exists today after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two books help to paint the picture of the Russia today, one from the perspective of an American-born British financier, the other from that of an ex-pat Russian.  You may have heard of the Magnitsky Act, legislation that can freeze assets of human-rights offending individuals and prevent them from coming to the United States. Basically, this law closes off the avenues by which they can hide or enjoy their often stolen money. In retaliation, Russia forbade adoption of Russian children, the purported subject of the Trump Tower meeting. See, it all connects to politics. Author Bill Broder was the key person lobbying for this act after his lawyer was imprisoned and murdered by the Russians following the theft and looting of Broder's investment fund by the Russian oligarchs. His retelling of this saga in Red Notice is a gripping story.

The other book that rounds out the picture is by Masha Gessen who was born in Russia, but has since moved to the United States. Gessen does a thoughtful exploration into totalitarianism through multiple lens in her National Book Award winner, The Future is History. She follows the lives of several protagonists who were born at the time of Gorbachev's reforms as their search for personal autonomy collides with the political environment. I learned that many Russians, viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a loss, weakening their place in the world and creating instability in their life, hence the broad support for Putin. At the conclusion of the book, Gessen explores totalitarianism and I found myself reflecting on today’s push towards totalitarianism in the US.

The Art of Russia
I rounded out my reading with two books focused on art in Russia. The Empress of Art by Susan Jacques looks at the various collections that entered the Hermitage under Catherine’s reign. While interesting background for scholars, it was a lot of detail that I found challenging to retain. What I found more interesting was the book My Hermitage by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the museum, which explores collections, but adds the most important element, images of the actual work.

You will find a listing of these books below. Stay tuned for other books that I recommend from my past year of reading.

The Czars
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massey
The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith

The Russian Revolution & Soviet Rule
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massey
Former People by Douglas Smith
The Kitchen Boy by R.D. Zimmerman
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace by Masha Gessen

The Fall of the Soviet Union
Red Notice by Bill Broder

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Art of Russia
The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

My Hermitage: How the Hermitage Survived Tsars, Wars, and Revolutions to Become the Greatest Museum in the World by Mikhail Piotrovsky

Monday, December 31, 2018

An Annual Ritual

As one year comes to a close and another begins, I consider how I’ve done this past year. It is an old habit from my career, a performance review of sorts but a little different than when I was meeting a company’s objectives. Now it is more personal as I ask myself if I am living a purposeful life, one with personal meaning and broader contribution.

I consider four key questions: What do I do? How do I nourish myself? How do I give back? What groundwork am I laying for the future?  The underlying goals may vary, but those questions are relevant at any stage of life, especially so for those of us who have “retired” and are reframing our life.  So consider your goals and follow along.

What are the primary components of my life? What do I care about? What do I do? Does what I do line up with what I care about? Do my interests have interrelationships that feed them?

This is the output part of the equation and for me it occurs through exhibitions, public speaking, genealogy consulting and writing.  It is the visible part of what I do. Each of those areas has interrelationships, forming a constellation through which each informs the others. Those interrelationships have allowed my pursuits to grow organically. This year I’ve been active in exhibiting, speaking and consulting, but writing and creating new artwork are the areas in which I need to bring renewed focus.  Both are creative pursuits which move on their own schedule. Sometimes being too focused on an endpoint can trip me up. I’ve learned that the driven part of me is not of much use here, I can only create an environment which invites creativity in. I’ll be thinking about how best to do that in the year ahead. 

Am I taking in new inputs that enrich my understanding and allow me to see the world through a variety of lens?  

 I can’t continue to offer new outputs without new inputs. Travel often forms the backbone of those inputs while study through classes, conferences, reading and museum-going complement it.

Most years I go to two conferences. One is the Council of American Jewish Museums which was in DC this year. It got me thinking about the role of museums in fostering dialogue and promoting truth in these tumultuous times. I considered that role as I went through the Presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery along with their very candid appraisal of their subjects. Similarly, I considered the truths of history at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Read more here.

In May we went to New York where I presented to the Jewish Book Council. While there we made the rounds of our favorite art museums including a stop at the Whitney in Chelsea adjacent to the High Line.

I left a family trip in Colorado a bit early to fly out to Warsaw for the IAJGS conference focused on Jewish genealogy. There I saw two remarkable museums, the Polin Museum on the history of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum on the Warsaw Uprising. Both informed my understanding of Poland in new ways. I tagged on a trip to my Polish ancestral town where I did research in the archives on the Jewish community. As I work through the information I gleaned, I hope to add it to the website that I do for that ancestral town.

Our year concluded with a trip to the Baltics and Russia. I had been in the Baltics previously on a trip that had explored the Holocaust. This trip was a bit lighter with a focus on artwork. I am always intrigued by the excellent artwork which didn't receive international attention, particularly that which was hidden behind the Iron Curtain. The Russia trip gave us an opportunity to explore many museums and an array of Russian artwork as well as to consider the underlying history that influences Russia today.

I started the year with an enthusiastic focus on writing and took three writing classes. I also renewed my study of Russian prior to my travels. Realizing that a bit of rebalancing was called for, I gave myself a reprieve on my annual goal of 60 books. That allowed me to dive into some quite lengthy books on Russian history prior to our trip. As I look back on the year, I realize there is much that I didn’t know and I feel a bit smarter about the world around me, always a good measure of a year.

How have I volunteered my time over the past year? What organizations have I worked with? In what way?  Do they reflect my values? Am I using my skills well and in a balanced way?

I volunteer with six organizations. They support business development for minorities and immigrants, women’s health and Jewish history, genealogy and values. All are accurate reflections of what I am committed to.  I don’t just attend meetings.  I also do websites, co-edit newsletters and do presentations. There is a flip side to doing a lot of volunteer activities; learning to say no. As someone who tends to step in to do what needs doing, I’ve begun to define what I will do and what I won’t, where my skills and interests lie and where they don’t. It is hard to draw boundaries, but necessary to use my energies wisely and in a targeted way.

Have I reached outside my comfort zone? Am I building a base of experience from which to launch new endeavors?

My comfort zone is a moving target. As I master new skills, there are always new situations to test me. My priorities have largely focused on promoting my book and that involves a more public self. As an inward person, that often involves swallowing hard before I launch myself into the universe. I push through internal barriers every time I venture into a public role, but it becomes easier each time.

This has been a year of public speaking. I’ve crafted a variety of talks on subjects such as immigration, storytelling and using artwork as a visual voice. I’ve learned that writing a book is just the beginning. Talking about it is a rich experience that allows me to go deeper into issues that it raises.  Immigration has been an important and timely topic and next year I am taking it on the road to a number of other states. The public speaking I’ve done over many years has built a base that allows me to move forward into new territory with some measure of comfort. Each time I venture beyond my edges, it opens new doors.

So how did you do with your goals? 

*photo by Pippalou

Friday, December 7, 2018

In Search of Family

I sometimes wish I had a bigger family. Now that is not because I am especially family-centered, but as a genealogist I am envious of those with many genealogical branches to explore.  I satisfy that desire by doing genealogy consulting for others and temporarily adopting their family as my own. With Jewish roots we often originate from the same region and our ancestors spoke the same language and shared the same customs. Who’s to say we aren’t family. 

I am currently working on one family history from Lithuania and another from Latvia. I have to work at keeping the common Jewish names separated between the two. Often, they bump up against each other in my mind and I sternly order them back to their respective tree.

One of my clients is curious about my process. I do have one, but each search often has unique elements. I draw on hunches that I’ve learned to trust. Part of what helps me is knowing the range of possibilities. For example, double given names can be used interchangeably or be swapped for one with the same meaning, birthdates were fluid, people often gave the nearest big town as theirs even though they may come from a small nearby shtetl. All these learnings guide me. There are many assessments I make, considering possibilities, discarding some while forming hypotheses from others. My process is relatively consistent when I begin, then diverges depending upon what information is available.

1897 Russian census
One client has a family tree that was put together thirty years ago, just names without dates and lots of missing maiden names, but a good starting point to fact-check and expand. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to put it together pre-Internet.  While more recent births are usually accurate, the further back they go, the more family folklore comes into play and inaccuracies can arise. As I fact-check, I build my own tree. I’m a firm disciplinarian as to what I allow into the tree, supporting documentation is required.

I often reference my tree to clarify relationships as names will tend to repeat through different generations. I also begin to create organizational tools as the list of names becomes unwieldy.  One of my most helpful tools is a spreadsheet with names down one side and data sources across the top. I check off my sources by each person to cross-check my process. I look for several sources to validate that anyone on my tree belongs there. I look for linkages between people and cross linkages across both place and person. It is like weaving a tapestry that connects the various elements, people to place, people to people. It has to weave tightly together with no weak links that can introduce errors. To that end I also identify those with the same name and time period who are not related to assure that I keep incorrect data out. You can’t be too eager to add new names.

One of my strategies is to work back from the US to ancestral towns.  I look for links between people from the ancestral town and those who came to the US. There are many ways to find those linkages. If family members immigrated after 1906 the immigration record notes the nearest family member in their place of origin. It also notes who they were going to in the US. Census records will reveal when they immigrated so I use them to work back to immigration records. One of my key linkages with my Lithuanian search is an immigration record of an entire family. Each name and birthdate ties precisely to the Lithuanian records and later to the US records. This is a rare occurrence at a time when birthdates were rather fluid. I steam across the ocean with them, picking up the threads of this family as I disembark the ship. It is a connection woven of many threads, offering me a level of certainty that I’ve found the correct family.

I have sometimes found marriage records in the US that note parents and sometimes death records will also provide that information. Death records will also say what cemetery they are buried in. Findagrave or Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry often have tombstone pictures which will provide the father’s name. I have cracked many puzzles by starting with a tombstone. I read those tombstones carefully hoping for a double name. If I can make a match to two given names, a surname and a place then I have an additional level of certainty that I have the right record. In both of these projects I had the good fortune to find double names. 

From there I tap into the transcriptions of the Lithuanian or Latvian records, both of which are at least partially on-line. If I am lucky, I find birth, death or marriage records and sometimes census records. Sometimes there are links to the actual handwritten Russian records, often not properly linked so a bit of knowledge of Cyrillic Russian is helpful to find the correct record. I know enough Russian to find the record before I turn it over to someone with greater fluency for confirmation. Pattern recognition will often do when fluency is lacking.

Many hunches later, I will have solved the puzzle which had seemed so insurmountable at the start. Then I will hand over the tree to its rightful owners and bid a fond farewell to this family that has invited me in, a guest to their home and their family. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Lives We Touch

photo by Diana Karchevsky
Do you ever find that everything you encounter seems to be pointing the same direction? My theme song of late seems to be aging and with that its corollary, purpose. Now that should not be a surprise as this is the year of a milestone birthday. It is a reminder that time is limited and the need to use it well. With both parents gone, I have a marker on my age, a likely timespan that seems relatively short when I measure it against the time that has passed. 

My birthday early this month was also a reminder of both the limits of our time on earth and the richness of memory. I began my day being serenaded by my late parents. They had called me on a past birthday and sang Happy Birthday to my voicemail which in turn sent me the recorded message. My father died just three months later. For the past seven years my birthday has begun with their birthday song. What once contained sadness has now faded into a happy memory and their voices raised in song warm my heart and make me smile.

I was reminded of raw loss, untempered by time, when later that day I attended a funeral for a very talented man with whom I had worked through a volunteer engagement. Over a decade younger than me, he had died quite unexpectedly. As I watched his young family, I reminded myself to be grateful for the extra time I’ve been given. There are no guarantees. The priest talked about the fabric of the community that we touch and that touches us, how it sustains us and contributes to who we are. I thought about that later in the day as we awaited guests at an open studio weekend. It is often through artwork and storytelling that I have an opportunity to touch others in ways I often don’t always realize. 

That was driven home later in the month when twenty teens gathered in my studio to learn about my journey and my work. They were the children of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and part of the RAJMN Teen Fellowship. I was struck by their genuine affection for each other and the energy that entered the room with them. Much of my artwork relates to Jewish themes and my interview series and book deal with the stories of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. My interviewees had been of the generations of these teens’ grandparents and great-grandparents. Here before me was the reason they came and we are richer for it.

So what could I impart that would have meaning for them? In addition to my artwork I talked about reinvention, how we reinvent ourselves throughout our life. They were at an age where they are beginning to think about career paths. After dramatic changes in my own life from where I began, that choice seems far more temporary. I encouraged them to think less about specific careers and more about the things that excite them which can be found in many disparate careers. Telling stories and solving puzzles were my gateways to many interesting directions. 

One of the things I’ve found in public speaking is how important it is to let your authenticity show. That means sharing the moments of vulnerability that make us human and relatable.So often we only talk about our successes, but not about our path which may be littered with things that didn’t happen as we hoped. We step out with uncertainty in new directions, we figure out alternate paths when things don’t work as planned. We finish one project and have to figure out how to begin anew. How do we start in a new direction? Take a risk that might not pan out?  Those are the questions and challenges that shape our life. We don’t have to have all the answers. Much of my story is about saying yes and then figuring it out, stepping out of my comfort zone and having opportunities open up. 

The following day I got one of my favorite kinds of notes. The director of the program reported that she had gotten quite a few phone calls from kids’ parents with rave reviews. Apparently some of what I said stuck and they continued to discuss it with family. You never know for sure who you touch and how, but sometimes you get hints.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving with gratitude for those who have touched your life.