Saturday, September 2, 2017

Finding Fearlessness

Last evening, we were invited to a Shabbat dinner. It was the kind of Shabbat dinner that is properly done; a warm, inviting home, a gathering of interesting people, and an inventive meal for which one waits for each course with anticipation. And, of course, there were the blessings and songs that make it a Shabbat dinner.

I am always amazed when people know all the Hebrew words to prayers and songs. Raised as a Reform Jew, I only learned the critical lines.  When they come to them, I join in with gusto, grateful for that fragment of recognition. My husband, who isn't Jewish, knows even less than I do, but borrows a yarmulke and participates in the lively conversation.

We began the meal by going around and each of us speaking of something good that happened in our life that week. Normally my mind goes blank when faced with such a question. "What did I do this week?" I ponder, as I mentally retrace my calendar.  This week was easy. "I sent my book off to the printer," I proudly announced. I've moved from pre-publication worries to post-publication worries. I had spent a sleepless night the prior evening considering a last-minute change that I wasn't sure I could still do, only to quickly resolve it the next morning. Problems loom so much larger at 3AM.

I mentioned the name of the book, We Spoke Jewish, as I was seated at a table where its topic would be of interest. As I looked around the table, I realized that I have become part of a Jewish community.  As with most of my pursuits, I come at it through an unexpected channel. I am an artist, a writer, and an oral historian, but I didn't come out of art school, a writing program or a history background. I identify as Jewish, but don't belong to a traditional synagogue or temple and for many years did not participate in the Jewish community. In fact, the only pursuit for which I had proper credentials was my finance career. So here I am writing and painting about the stories of the Jewish community and frequently presenting to Jewish groups. What's up with that?

For years I have taken art classes and more recently, writing classes, but never for credit. I'm too much of a good student at my core and I knew I needed to be careful not to focus on satisfying a teacher. I had to keep my focus on satisfying myself. I'd take what was of value to me and leave the rest. I knew that the more rules I absorbed, the more fearful I would become of transgressing them. I function best when I wing it a bit, absorbing what I need, but not letting it tie me into knots that begin to diminish my creativity. It is my way of countering that good student rule-following part of my nature. Instead I wanted to dive into new directions with a fearlessness that I needed to find within myself. "What do you have to lose?" I have often asked myself. "What is the worst thing that could happen?" Then I plunge forward into a thicket of challenges that could seem daunting in mass, but tackled one by one they gradually fall away.

Now there are a few challenges to this approach. There are sometimes holes in my knowledge, just like those Hebrew songs and prayers where I only know the critical line.  Sometimes I just follow the melody until I hit something familiar. Someone who studies a discipline, in well, a more disciplined manner, might know more of the words. They would have less need to learn things the hard way as I often do. I know that my learning style is experiential and crosses boundaries. It is an exploration fueled by curiosity and it requires me to keep a certain fearlessness alive; to not let myself be bound by rules that strangle creativity and to trust that I can figure out what I don't know.

Sometimes my number-counting-self ticks off what I've done in the past on my book project to gird myself for the challenge of future tasks: 20 speeches, 17 oral histories, 17 paintings, 7 exhibitions, 3 grants, 2 organizational partners, 1 book . . .and a partridge in a pear tree. Oops, wrong list. But you get the idea. It sounds daunting in total, but when it unfolds step by step, it doesn't seem nearly as overwhelming.

I’ve got lots of talks and marketing ahead and many things that feel difficult, but one by one, I’ll approach them, perhaps not always fearlessly, but with courage and enthusiasm, confident that I have a powerful story to share.

photo credit: Paul Jacobson Shabbos candles in our previous home via photopin (license)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Surprise Packages
I had a friend in college who was Turkish and she introduced me to a Turkish puzzle box. It was an object with a secret, possessing hidden layers. The box surprised and delighted me, springing open only when I moved the right piece, revealing a hidden compartment. Puzzles have always drawn me, especially those that carry hidden meanings, inviting discovery. 

As much as I love deciphering meaning, I find I also like sowing it, and have had an opportunity to do so in the book I am publishing, creating layers of meaning like little surprise packages. I do that often in my paintings, hiding a deeper story in image. When I share the story, it often pulls people in, a shared secret that deepens the meaning.

So let me share a few layers of meaning from within the book. 

The name of the book is We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories. It explores the stories and experiences of those who grew up in early Jewish communities, survivors who came to the US in the 1940s and 1950s, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came in the 1970s-1990s. So what does that title mean? One of the people I interviewed spoke of speaking Jewish, meaning Yiddish. "There was no such thing as not speaking Jewish," she said as she described the early Jewish community of the North Side. I was used to the term Yiddish to represent the language, but many of those I interviewed used the words Jewish and Yiddish interchangeably. And it wasn't just for language, but also identity. You could be Yiddish and speak Jewish. The phrasing surprised me, inverted from what I expected.

But not everyone spoke Jewish in the sense of Yiddish. Certainly survivors I interviewed from Germany did not.  Some of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union had vague memories of a grandparent speaking Yiddish. Was there perhaps another meaning for "speaking Jewish?" Could I expand it metaphorically?

When I thought of survivors of the Holocaust, it occurred to me that they had a unique role in the larger community, that of memory. They carried deep within them the memory of lost family and of a lost world, a world in which many of us had ancestral roots. A close friend of mine who is a survivor often speaks of her ten cousins who did not survive. Her commitment to sharing her memory is in part on their behalf. Each of the survivors spoke the Jewish of memory.

The immigrants from the former Soviet Union spoke a different kind of Jewish, the Jewish of culture. Unable to practice their religion, they shared their heritage through culture. They sang songs they had learned as children, spoke of recipes passed down by their mothers and told stories of the holidays once celebrated. 

These three groups spoke the Jewish of language, memory and culture, all ways that identity is formed, expressed and passed on.  The title began to carry a certain resonance, initially an inversion of Yiddish and Jewish that startled me, and a new and broader meaning ascribed to the term to encompass all of those whom I interviewed.

More layers of meaning are hidden in elements of the design. The designer wanted a form to repeat in each section. The original form that she selected was composed of curved shapes, but not with any specific meaning. I decided I wanted something that would hold meaning in its folds, but what? I began by exploring the meaning behind different Hebrew letters and settled on the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I remembered something I had learned in the Jewish Artists' Lab, of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face and perhaps in that of another person.

I believe it is through story that we form powerful connections with each other. When we truly look at another person, when we hear their story, we see ourselves and perhaps a little piece of that which connects each of us. To really see another person and to listen deeply to their story is what this book is about. It is also an exploration of identity. As I interviewed each person, I found elements of myself and of our shared humanity. What could possibly capture that better than an aleph? 

The stories themselves also offer surprises, little bits of knowledge that deepened my awareness in unanticipated ways.  Within the paintings are still more layers of meaning, often the result of some free association as I considered the stories of my interviewees and how to share them. Free association, metaphors told with both word and image, hidden elements that inform and surprise, layered meaning -- all are elements that enrich storytelling and form important aspects of my book.

Read more about the book at

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Fragile Nation

I have always taken my country for granted.  My mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, had a much more heartfelt response, aware of how different her life would have been had she not been born here.  Her mother as a girl had not been educated. Boys were educated, but not girls. That had always disturbed my mother and she in turn was deeply grateful to be an American, especially because of the education that she had received in the United States.  She had a special fondness for the American flag and the Statue of Liberty, symbols of that opportunity.

As for me, I was an American, but a jaded one. Aware of our less seemly history from our treatment of the Native Americans, to our Jim Crow laws, to the blatant antisemitism of the first half of the 20th century. I brought a certain skepticism to flag waving. I never was a pep rally kind of gal, finding that rah rah approach pretty hollow. And I view nationalism as dangerous, the petri dish out of which bigotry is perpetuated. "I belong, you don't" is its inherent message.

Still, despite my skepticism, I believed that we as a country had made progress and had become a better nation. I believed that our movement in areas of LGBTQ rights suggested the growth of the people of this country. I looked at former President Obama as an indication that we had moved into a new era of greater openness to differences. Our country felt pretty sturdy to me throughout all these changes. Unshakeable I thought.

And then came Charlottesville. I knew there was a dark underbelly, but it remained largely unseen, no longer acceptable in public.  I watched as Trump stirred the pot, inciting racists and anti-Semites, opening the Pandora's box at the fault-line of civil society. With Charlottesville, I saw the unleashing of those demons. 
I suddenly realized that we are still a fairly young experiment in history, a country that is not defined by one heritage, but many, a country that has benefited from its immigrant history even as it has struggled with it. For every step forward, there is a backlash and I think that is especially true right now as minorities become majorities. Hopefully there will in turn be a backlash to Charlottesville as others too look on with horror.

For the first time I see the fragility of this country, as I watch the floodwaters rise, hoping that the bulwarks of courts and our system of checks and balances hold them at bay, hoping that the people of this nation have clarity and purpose about who we aspire to be and in turn demand it from the politicians who serve us. For the first time I feel a tenderness towards the beliefs which underlie this nation, as if it is a delicate seedling that I want to nurture and usher to safety.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Nature Museum

We are driving east across Montana on our way to Bismarck, ND. We pass fields with black cows, then expanses dotted with round hay bales.The rolling hills of gold have diminished from the the rugged cliffs of Billings, the layered geological forms of the Badlands, and the vast mountains of Glacier. As the land flattens, the world is sky and clouds. Soon the land will flatten still more. The road spools out before us, drawing us into the changing topography, so different than being delivered abruptly to our destination by plane.  

We are returning from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier where we met up with family; one daughter's family from California, the other Minnesota, meeting in the middle. It is satisfying to have most everyone reunited, a dozen of us, missing but one. This is not our typical vacation, usually transported by plane to a foreign city and immersed in museums.

In some ways it was not so different from our museum jaunts. I found myself considering color and line as I viewed the thermal springs of Yellowstone. The rich yellows, ochers and blues arrested my eye and the steam rising from the springs enveloped the scene in mystery. Lines were etched into the ground and ghostly white trees emerged from the depths. Yellowstone was rich in the elements that appeal to me as an artist. 

Glacier was immense in scope, but of such magnitude, that I found it difficult to visually frame its grandeur. When we went for a hike through the woods, I found myself focusing on more bite-size elements, the way light fell on trees and their sculptural forms, the mystery created by the interplay of light with shadow, the color of rocks as the water moved above them and the sun sparkling upon the surface of the water. 

I am not a landscape painter, but I found the abstraction of forms captivating. When I go through museums, I always am inspired to paint. The landscape inspired a similar response.

One day we stopped at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, curious what a museum in this part of the world might offer. We were pleasantly surprised. A painted river led the way into the museum which was housed in the old jail and still preserved its facade. There were a number of pieces by significant contemporary artists as well as work by artists who were inspired by the landscape. A juxtaposition of Thomas Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone with an installation by contemporary artist, Rosane Vochan O'Conor, also inspired by Yellowstone, was intriguing. O'Conor explored the imagery of Yellowstone through glass, ceramics and image, using the bacteria that create its rich colors as part of her source material.

As we went through the museum we heard the excited  pitch of children's voices. They soon filed in as their parents waited to collect them. 

We eavesdropped long enough to learn that they had participated in a program combining art and science. It obviously had been a success as they took their parents through the exhibit and excitedly shared what they had learned. We listened in amusement as one little girl enthusiastically explained to her mother the role of the bacteria captured in hanging glass forms. As we departed we followed the painted river to a nearby building called the Visible Vault which allows visitors to observe work on the holdings not currently on display.  We were impressed with the way the museum amplified our experience in the landscape and its successful engagement of children and their families. 

And now we return home, eager for this last leg to conclude. We have bid farewell to our Californians and caravan behind the trailer of our Minnesota family. It is a long drive, the reversal of the topography that unspooled on our drive out adds a certain closure to our experience as it slowly returns to the familiar.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Thank You Universe

I've mentioned in past blogs that I've been working on a book, but haven't shared too many details.  In those in between stages I've been reluctant to say too much, perhaps out of superstition as much as anything else.

The book is the final stage of a project that began six years ago called The Jewish Identity and Legacy Project.  It began quite by chance when I contacted Sholom, an organization that provides a continuum of care to elders across the Twin Cities. My purpose was to explore showing artwork in their facility. As we spoke, I found myself considering that Sholom was filled with stories and in an impulsive moment I blurted out how interesting it would be to interview elders and develop artwork on their stories.  They took me seriously and soon I did as well.  
I wrote and received grants for Sholom to fund the interview project and did a series of seventeen interviews. I videoed them, transcribed them and edited video. Then I did paintings on the stories and began to exhibit them and give talks, playing short video clips from the interviews. The theme was identity and legacy, but it also was an immigration story, encapsulating the stories of the three groups of Jewish immigrants who came to the US in the 20th century. The topic was well received and I enjoyed talking about it, weaving together history and story to bring it to life. 

Eventually I was ready to move on to new work and considered setting this series aside.  Over half of my interviewees had passed away and I had gone to a lot of funerals.  Something in me balked at ending this work.  It felt like yet another death. The interviews were in the Jewish archives at the university, where they were most likely to be seen by historians and archivists.  After talking widely about these stories, I realized that they were meaningful to the broader public. I decided a book was the final step in this project, one that shared history through the personal, the way I have often wished I learned it in school.

The process has been quite fascinating and I've learned a lot about myself along the way.  What I've learned is that there are many books one can write on a given topic, so first I had to decide which one this would be. It is not unlike paintings where you must choose a direction and let go of other paths, at least for the moment. They are small deaths of opportunity that we must accept in order to move forward.
 The path I chose was to combine oral history and artwork, each telling the story in complementary ways. 
In the process, I've learned a lot about my personal style, the kind of writing that reflects me. I read my work aloud and realize that I love the rhythm of words, that certain words feel natural to me and others don't. As I work with my editor, I am surprised at my clarity about what works for me and what doesn't. Things come out of my mouth like "that word is too foufou for me." I'm not even sure what foufou is, but it somehow describes something I'm not.  I like clean language, direct and uncluttered. When I met with the designer, I realized that I have visual preferences as well. Yeah, I know, duh, I'm an artist, of course I do. "I'm not a pastel person," I told them.  I seemed to be clear about what I was and what I wasn't.

I'm relieved to be through the final edit stage. I went through the video interviews again to make sure I transcribed them correctly and suddenly wanted to add things back in that I had let go of previously. It is a bit like when I clean out my closet and then dig back into the rejects, unwilling to let go.
 Now that I can no longer edit, I literally have dreams of errors that need correction.  Because the book also includes artwork, I reworked several paintings. It is not just words that consume me.
It occurs to me that everything we do builds on what came before.  Had I not been writing a blog and exhibiting artwork over the past ten years, I would probably not be doing this. Learning to put myself out there has been my biggest life lesson. Virtually every time that I hit publish, I had a moment of hesitation. Will anyone care? Is it too me focused? There is a moment before every art exhibition where I decide that several paintings aren't quite done, even as they are framed and hanging on the wall. There is risk in being public and it isn't always comfortable for those of us who are more inward in our nature.  It is much easier to stay in our private bubble, but we pass on so many opportunities if we do that.  My most rewarding experiences have come from taking that risk, as well as my most sleepless nights.

Writing is an in-your-head experience, unveiled upon completion, as is exhibiting artwork, another  experience where you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Public speaking is easier in some ways because you get immediate feedback. You can have a real-time dialogue and adjust as necessary. Of course the real-time nature of it allows for public fiascos also.

A big part of writing a book is marketing, something I think I will enjoy. I've already done lots of public speaking on this topic so I've had a chance to test market. I know I can share this passion of mine in a way that reaches others.  Just bringing this to print has required some marketing. I am publishing through the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, an organization that works in this subject area and was an early partner in the project along with Sholom. It is an appropriate home that shares my objectives.
Along the way I wrote a successful grant to the Minnesota Historical Society to publish. As part of that process I had to have historians write critical reviews of my work and I was encouraged by their responses. It is easy to get so close to your own work that you no longer have the perspective of fresh eyes and thus quite affirming to have others find it of value.
There have been times in my life where I felt as if I was in sync with the Universe, doing what I am supposed to be doing, the right things for the right reasons. The Universe has a tell. Maybe that's on purpose so it can clue us in when we are on the right path. What happens is that lots of good things start to happen unbidden at just the right time. Lately I've been invited to speak at conferences, teach a series of classes, do exhibits of the work.    Opportunities to talk on related subjects are presenting themselves everywhere. Manna doesn't just rain down from heaven. You have to do a lot of work first to make it happen, but sometimes that work gets recognized with new opportunities and the timing does feel suspect. My pal, the Universe, is lending a helping hand. Thank you Universe.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Finding Our Wings

This week we had the opening of the Jewish Artists’ Lab show.  It is the fifth annual lab show and I’ve created work in each of them.  My work has changed and evolved with each one, but the one constant is that I always try to eke out more wall space and air time. I am used to working in a series and if I find a compelling idea it often begs to burst the bounds of just one artwork.

We each get a limited amount of wall space, but we also have a presentation opportunity.  There is a performance and those who write stories or poetry can do a reading.  I started the lab, not fully defining myself as a writer or a poet, but have gradually stepped into that space, in both performing and doing a blog for the lab as its Resident Writer.

For many of the shows, I have combined painting and poetry. By the third I couldn’t restrict myself to one painting any longer so I deemed my two complementary paintings a diptych and set up a memory jar for attendees as part of an interactive exercise. This year I went all out and did a triptych with five paintings, a central one, two panels on the front that open with paintings on the back as well. It is a layered piece in both concept and execution. I’ve shared a bit on the work's development in this blog previously. Since then my husband built an amazing frame for it, so I could assemble all those pieces. Of course, I wrote poetry, still greedy for more.

My work is called Stepping into the Chrysalis and is about the idea of liminal space, about how we re-invent ourselves, stepping into new space and redefining ourselves as we cross internal boundaries to become someone new. That first time that we say, I am an artist, or I am a writer, we feel as if we are masquerading. We’ve left our familiar world behind and taken that first step into the chrysalis, a place of transformation. As I read about the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, I learned that caterpillars actually digest themselves and turn into a kind of caterpillar soup. I thought of how we struggle with change, "eating ourselves alive with worry". Within the chrysalis are cells called imaginal discs that house the wings and antenna and legs of the butterfly. If you open the chrysalis of my painting, and enter the ark-like form, you find imaginal discs that house the wings we carry within us, even in our caterpillar stage. I loved the metaphoric possibilities and began to address them in poetry.

Inside the Chrysalis

Did you know,

That caterpillars digest themselves?

Dissolving their very being

In this torturous act of growth.

Seeking change,

Shedding skin.

A caterpillar soup

Of which Creation comes,

But first, Destruction,

We boil ourselves down to essence,
A stew of anxiety and worry

Of what comes next,

Accompanies us 
into our chrysalis,

Our private dressing chamber

Where we shed our skin,

open our being,

Tiny wings tucked within,

you would never know by looking,

Legs and wings,

Antennae yet to form,

Spun from discs of imagination,

Gold spots glimmer

On our new home,

A tiny mezuzah

A Flash of Orange

I crawl out on my liminal limb,

Testing its sturdiness

For support,

Testing my new wet wings,

Gently wobbling in the breeze,

More used to crawling than flight.

I cling to my branch tightly

With six new feet.

I used to have sixteen 

To keep me firmly grounded,

The world feels more tenuous,

Less anchored,

Still wet behind the wings,

I flap them once,


in a flash of vibrant orange.

I spoke about that first time we venture into something new, still feeling like an imposter. What was interesting was the response of the audience. I had many people who I didn’t know, come up to me afterwards and tell me how it spoke to them, often echoing their experience. That helped to confirm that I was speaking to a shared experience and making the connection that I sought, always a satisfying aspect of being an artist. An acquaintance who I used to work with in the financial world, who has also since left it, was at the show.  She spoke of observing me in what I think of as my past life, we live many within one. She was curious about me, in part because of my Jewish name which was uncommon in the firm, something I had never thought of, having grown up in a town with a small Jewish community. She then watched me as I went through this transformation, exploring artwork and writing along with identity. It was interesting to see it through someone else’s eyes, to think of someone else trying to puzzle out who I was even as I was finding my way.

I think the female experience with entering a new space and identity is different than that of men.  We tend to feel we have to get credentials first before we can legitimately acknowledge our desired change. We live in a world where women are not always taken seriously without those outward trappings. Perhaps I am only projecting from myself, but I think that women often aren’t as good at the bravado and pretense that often accompanies that liminal stage. It is a stage where you leave the familiar, but haven’t yet arrived at a comfort level with the newly defined you and it can be quite uncomfortable.  I used to look disdainfully at the bravado that men seem to slip into so easily, but have come to appreciate the role it plays in helping us venture into new and foreign territory.  Sometimes we must live as if we are what we want to be, until we grow into it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Charting His Own Path

It has been five years since my father passed away and I thought I said everything I had to say.  Then something happened that got me thinking about my father and a blog began to take shape. I picture him throwing prompts in my path to get my attention.

Recently I got an email from a development professional with Bradley University, She and the dean of the college of engineering were going to be in my community and wanted to meet.  Now I have a unique tie to Bradley and especially the engineering college. My father started the electrical engineering department and I grew up on the Bradley campus.  

As we sat outside at a cafĂ©, enjoying our pleasant weather, the current dean commented on the rather eclectic career my father had. It was eclectic because he spanned different disciplines, letting his interests carry him from one to another all within the same university.  He began in engineering, started a public television and radio station and became the dean of communications and fine arts, returning as dean of engineering later in his career.
Throughout his life he crossed the boundaries that we often build around career paths. He was considered a visionary in his day and among his many talents was communicating his vision which of course translated to fundraising, a skill that is quite appreciated on a college campus. He also had a definite philosophy of education that argued for not channeling students into specializations too early in their careers. The current dean was very interested in his philosophy and had heard tales about him.

“Were his parents academics?” the dean asked, trying to figure out this sometimes puzzling man. 

"No, they were immigrants," I replied. "His father ran a surplus store and didn’t really understand his desire for education. When my father was away at the University of Denver, going to school on the GI Bill, he got a letter from his dad. 'Why don’t you get a little shop off Main Street. I’ll send you some inventory. See what you can do,' It was signed, Ole Man Weinberg." As I think about it now, it occurs to me that he was indeed influenced by his father's profession.  Whether it was gathering equipment to start the department or setting up the TV station, my father was known for outfitting his creations economically with surplus equipment.

I related the story of the career counseling he received as an undergrad that suggested electrical engineering might not be the right fit and suggested he explore a career in social service as he had very high scores in that area. Those career counselors might have been right if they were looking at the profile of the typical electrical engineer, but my Dad most certainly wasn't typical. Needless to say, he continued into electrical engineering, but married it up to community service in his creation of the public television station. His pattern was to link different pursuits as he charted his own path. Of course, he opposed specialization in education, it was diametrically opposed to how he created his own career, moving between a wide range of interests that often informed each other. He modeled that for me as well.

As I talked about my Dad, I thought about his irreverence. That meant I couldn't share some of my best "Dadisms" which were seldom appropriate. He did things his way and with attitude. He was his own person and didn't see the world through the same lens as everyone else.

The dean told me about a new center on the Bradley campus called the Convergence Center.  I could hear my father chortling in my ear.  “Well it was about time they figured it out.” The Convergence Center brings together both business and engineering, moving away from specialization and into collaboration.  I could feel my father itching to jump into the conversation. We were talking about something that he cared about. "Yeah Dad," I thought, “Sometimes you’re just ahead of your time."

Friday, June 16, 2017

It's all about the Puzzles

Suppose someone asked, "What aren't you?" How would you respond? Now I don't mean the obvious.   I mean the things a person might reasonably assume that you are if they observed your life, but that don't really fit the internal you. They are the stereotypes that you can get easily placed within. They aren't necessarily negative, they just aren't you.

I ask the question, because it occurs to me that I have spent a lot of my life saying what I'm not. When I was in finance, I used to protest that I'm not really a financial person, never mind that I had years of experience and lots of credentials. You could be forgiven for assuming that I was a financial person.  But that was the point. Just because I appeared to be something, didn’t mean I was.  What I was saying with my disavowal was that I was passing through, I don't really live in a financial world. On some level, it didn't really matter to me in the way I assumed it did to those who seemed so immersed in it. Perhaps they might have felt the same as I did, but were just better at concealing that part of themselves. Now that is not to say that I didn't work hard or want to do the best job possible. I lived as if it were important, but at the end of the day it didn't take up a significant space in what really mattered to me. I was there for the puzzles.  I liked solving things and finance gave me a world in which to use that skill.

Today I often find myself saying "I'm not a religious person."  In terms of religious practice, I'm not, but I am engaged in exploring my heritage and understanding the impact of religion on it. That can create a misperception of who I am.  It is no surprise that I got drawn into this trying to solve a puzzle, that of family history as I delved into genealogy research around my family. That led to artwork, study of Yiddish, travel to ancestral towns, creating websites on those towns, exploration of the Holocaust, interviewing, a book and lots of writing and public speaking. This blog is called Layers of the Onion because I am constantly peeling back layers in my search for understanding.

So, if that's what I'm not, what am I? I have no difficulty saying I am an artist, a writer and a genealogist.  There was a time when I was still wriggling into those skins, but now they fit me quite comfortably. I like the multiplicity of roles, I am many things and I bristle at being placed in a narrow category. In my pile of detritus from my career life, I have a document that my former employees once filled out anonymously. It was a survey from a mentoring group I participated in, one of those tools designed to give us insight into how others see us. I have always been intrigued with the ways we try to better understand who we are, whether it is the Myers-Briggs or astrology. In fact, after I finished my MBA I took an astrology class as if to cleanse my palate between courses. It too was a denial of sorts. I may have an MBA, but I'm not an MBA.

What I found interesting in this survey is that each person identified the same trait in me, curiosity. They had all witnessed my enthusiasm for solving puzzles. Now, I am hoping that when they said I was curious, they meant inquisitive rather than the other definition, strange. The multiple definitions of curious aroused my curiosity so I looked at the derivation of the word. The Latin curiosus is akin to cura or care. Curiosity does imply that one cares about understanding. Old French lumps together both inquisitive and strange, perhaps finding it a bit strange that one would care.  

It is that curiosity that takes me in many directions. I have always resisted being categorized and thus stereotyped into someone else's version of who they think I am, but curiosity I'll accept as a descriptor. I have indeed always been curious. Curiosity seeks a subject with mysteries to solve. The world at large provides that with its complex web of interrelationships. Change one thing and it affects something else. Systems are a universal puzzle. If we can understand them in all their complexity, we can make sense of politics, economics, organizations, families or people, maybe even ourselves. Curiosity is the key to my personal puzzle, what makes me tick.  As always, it is all about the puzzles.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Safecracker's Work

“My father and I are planning a day trip to Radom” began the email asking for some guidance for their trip.  She went on to note that she'd had difficulty finding much on her grandmother who came from there. 

Some years ago, I took on a volunteer task for Jewishgen, creating a website on Radom, Poland, my ancestral town. Now I often get emails from people planning trips to Poland to visit the town where their ancestors lived.  I advise them how to do research in foreign archives, of meaningful information on the site and often direct them to resource people in Radom.

Although it is a volunteer activity, it has paid many dividends over time. I met one of my closest friends through the project, a survivor from Radom, now in her 90s. I obtained source material to develop artwork on the town and later exhibited it in Poland, and of course, I learned how to do websites, a skill that I’ve drawn on many times. None of that would have happened had I not volunteered.

Along the way, I often help people solve their family mysteries. Truth be told, I like when I can solve a puzzle and this one promised to be a challenge.  The name was unusual and had many varieties, but I knew exactly where to look. Much to my surprise the name didn’t show up in any of the usual places. I began to wonder if this was the right town. I went to the naturalization document and verified that Radom was indeed noted as the town. My curiosity drew me in further and I did a search for the name in Yad Vashem. Again, a record came up under Radom, but when I went to the original testimony and studied the handwritten form, it appeared to be Radun, a city that was 243 miles away. There are often errors in transcription which is why it important to see the original document.

A few e-mail exchanges and a bit of research and I told my correspondent that the town was actually, Radun, a town in what is now Belarus, once in the Vilna Gubernia. I could see how the confusion arose as more than one of the records confused the towns. As the trip was fast approaching, I was asked to do some genealogy consulting.  Our starting point was the grandparents who came to America and got married in New York.  Our objective was to cross the ocean to find where they had lived and who their parents and siblings were. Quickly! 

Marriage records are the gold standard to crack such a puzzle. They have the names of those who married, but also their parents’ names. If I could find that, then I should be able to work backwards to the towns of origin. had the summary of the marriage record with the date and the certificate number.  That was sufficient information to order it, but that meant a wait when we didn’t have much time. Most searches have alternate paths and I decided to go in through  I knew his search engine tapped Italiangen for NY marriage records, but I saw it also offered a linkage to Family Search. I had used Family Search for many things, but I had never compared them to another source for the same item. To my surprise, the Italiangen site offered the certificate number, but Family Search offered a much richer record with both sets of parents’ names, everything that would be found on the document itself. I felt like a safecracker who just heard a satisfying release of the tumblers.  In addition to the marriage record, I pulled immigration, draft and census records to gather information that I could cross-check against European records to verify a match.

Now the names weren’t exactly consistent, they seldom are. One name read Sreida which I quickly surmised was probably Freida.  The Elowitz of the record was originally Ilutowich and Sadorwick was actually Slodovnik.  So how did I find that out?  My client was familiar with the married name of Ilutowich so that was my starting point.  We start with what we know and look for a bridge to what we don't know. I did a search for Nechama Ilutowich on Yad Vashem and lo and behold it came up with Nechama Ylutovicz nee Slodovnik.  Once again those tumblers released. I was in the vault.

Much of genealogy is about moving between different sources looking for bridges to the next data point. That's why familiarity with available sources and alternative paths is valuable.  Yad Vashem had given me the key, now I had to explore the names in the All Lithuanian database. Why Lithuania? Although Radun is in Belarus today, it was originally in the Vilna Gubernia. Part of that region is now in Lithuania and the rest is in Belarus. I knew from my own research in Belarus that many of the towns that were once in the Vilna Gubernia have records at the Vilnius archives. And about those records, you no longer have to go to Lithuania to get them.The Lithuania database is linked to the original records of the Vilnius region through Familysearch; however I was to learn that records are not always at the image number where they are listed. I put together a finding aid using to learn what the names look like in cursive Cyrillic Russian. Then I used that to locate the missing records among pages of Cyrillic. You don't need to speak Russian, just be good at pattern recognition.

While I had found entrance to the inner data sanctum, I still had a few bears to battle in this quest. The groom's father in the American marriage record was Berel, yet he showed up as Dov in the Lithuanian database. Dov is the Hebrew name and Berel is the Yiddish and both mean "bear".Sometimes it is written as Berko and this was indicated in the Lithuanian records after Dov. I had run into something similar in another case with Areih and Leib, both mean "lion" and were used interchangeably.  Understanding the derivation of names and related names is valuable in working with European records. Without that awareness, it would have been easy to conclude these records weren't what I was looking for.

Several of the bride's siblings showed up in the birth records with both of the parents' names in the town of Radun, but where was the bride?  A quick look at the site for the Radun records, told me that her birth likely preceded the period for which records were available. Knowing what is available can save you some time in fruitless searching.

The Lithuanian database is quite robust and includes birth, marriage and death records as well as revision lists which are the census of the time. They are revised periodically with updated information, which is likely how they got their name. If you're fortunate, you may find an 1850 revision list followed by an 1858 one and note how the families have matured in the intervening years. It feels a bit like a holiday letter across the ages as you watch children grow up, marry and have their own children.  Extended families frequently lived together and revision lists will show the head of the household and every person's relationship to him. It will also note each person's father. Many of the vital records show the subject, their parents and their grandfathers so revision lists are useful when you are building out a tree.

I concluded this project with almost 70 new relatives and a few remaining mysteries. Just in time for my client to head off on her travels.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking for One Thing, Finding Another

I wasn't planning on writing a Mother's Day blog, but something happened last evening that prompted this. It is the second year since my mother died, and in that time I have felt her presence every day. Last night I was looking for a file, trying each flash drive in my computer as I tried to remember where I had recorded it. In the process of looking for one thing, I ran across something else, kind of a metaphor for life, looking for one thing, finding another.

It was a folder titled simply Mom. Within I discovered a video that I had recorded of her with a memory jar I had given her long ago. Originally it had been a gift at a time when my mother's memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. She had once told me that she always tried to create memories for us, her children, to carry forward into our lives. It was one of the reasons I took her on trips to Europe, I wanted to return the favor and create memories for her. The memory jar was an amalgamation of both of our efforts, an acknowledgement of the value of shared memory. It was a litany of what I loved in her. 

The jar sat on a shelf, high on the bookcase, until I noticed it on a visit. I took it down and had her draw out each memory and read it aloud. Together we remembered. I've written about this before in this blog, but a piece of the story that I don't think I shared, was the fact that I recorded it. I was just beginning to acknowledge that my parents would not always be there and this felt significant. I knew I would someday, when my mother was no longer with me, cherish this recorded moment,  even though I could not fully conceive of a world without her.

I've told the story of the memory jar many times. Somehow watching this video felt different than the retelling. It was the first time I had watched it, six years after I recorded it, both parents now gone. In it my mother and I sat at the kitchen table, the familiar turquoise blinds of my childhood to the side and the wall behind her with just a glimpse of some memorabilia from our travels together.  My father sat nearby in the gold chair in the living room. That chair now resides in my studio. It was just my mom and me interacting together in a world of our own, my father at the periphery as was often the case. Her smiling face, her voice, all the expressions and nuances we take for granted in another person, the things that create their essence and the essence of a relationship. What struck me was that each memory was an offering, a love letter to my mother, not only mailed, but received and reciprocated. If I ever doubted whether I had let her know how deeply I cherished her, I had only to watch that video.

It was 2011, both my parents together, but the cracks in memory had begun to show. My father had been losing memory for a long time, but we were just coming to terms with the fact that my mother was as well.  At the time, I remember being shocked when she could not recall some memories that I would have expected to be deeply embedded. Now as I viewed it with hindsight, I felt her largely intact, just a few gaps beginning to show. 

As her memory loss progressed over the years, I again went through the memory jar with her. She no longer remembered the story behind it and now gave me that sweet apologetic smile that indicated she really didn't have a clue, this was all new to her. Nonetheless she was happy to play along if I wanted her too. Fewer memories struck a chord the second and third time through. That meant I told her more of the story, reminding her of our shared history. "Thank you for helping me remember," she said. 

I understand much more about memory now than I did then. I understand how someone we love can be housed in our vision, in our heart and in our understanding. I understand how they can become part of the fabric of our being even in their physical absence. I understand how the mere act of writing about them can cause my eyes to fill with tears, not of sadness, but of deep gratitude.

I've included a very brief excerpt from my video.  I encourage you to try a similar exercise as a gift for a parent with or without memory loss.