Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Fiction That Wowed-2020


In my prior blog, I took a look at my five favorite nonfiction books that I read in 2020. I measure nonfiction and fiction by slightly different yardsticks. While I want both to engage me in story, for non-fiction I measure its worth by whether
I learned something I didn’t know or a new way of looking at the world.

Fiction needs to engage me in story, but rather than validating or explaining an outer world, it often gives me insight into an inner world. It may open me up to someone else’s experience and perhaps allow me to recognize something that echoes in my experience as well. 

 

The Flight Portfolio (2019) by Julie Orringer drew my attention because I had read her earlier book The Invisible Bridge which was a past wow. The Flight Portfolio is both history and fiction, so it straddles the fence between fiction and non-fiction. It is based on the story of Varian Fry who undertook an effort to save many of the great artists and writers in Europe from the Nazis during WWII. It raises many questions, not least among them is how we value an individual human life. 
The core story is based on history and I found myself googling many of the people who played a part in this important historical chapter to learn more about them. 
There is also another significant plot which was in part imagined with a few invented characters. It explored the experience of being gay and closeted during the 1940s. I realized I knew very little about this experience and came away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the gay experience historically. While the folding together of these two stories results in complexity, it reflects the reality of our lives. We bring many experiences together to shape our impact on the larger world. Orringer reveals the layers beneath the public story.



Hamnet (2020) by Maggie O’Farrell is a beautiful book in both words and story. By judicious use of both, it becomes something more, an elegy on grief. Based on the outline of Shakespeare’s life, its focus is on his wife and the death of his son at age eleven. O’Farrell studies the white space around the few details that we know and enlarges the story, adding elements that support the rich emotional content of these events. The language is lush and evocative, achingly beautiful and often poetic. If it were just that, it would be enough, but it builds to an ending that releases that emotional energy in yet an additional level of artistry. 

 

Afterlife (2020) by Julia Alvarez is aptly named. It follows the life of Antonia after the death of her husband. The afterlife is both Antonia’s and that of Sam, her late husband, as she channels who he was in relationship to her. It explores the nature of a relationship where we each assume roles in relationship to those of our partner. Sam was the good cop leading with the charitable gesture, leaving her the part of the vigilant one, the bad cop, assuring that they weren’t taken. It was a role she resented a bit. “Why not two good cops, “ he had once proposed. 


Now alone, she is painfully aware of the actions Sam would take when she finds herself in a situation that requires extending herself to help a young immigrant woman. She feels for her familiar boundaries even as she considers how Sam would respond, trying his behaviors on as her way of honoring who he was. Part of her resists this unfamiliar way of being. Everything is now thrown into question without that counterbalance of Sam, as she begins to redefine who she is in this new moment.  There are wonderful insights in this book and Antonio invites us into her musings. In her moments of gratitude for a person Sam brought into her life, she muses “is there an expiration date on the tendrils of a gratitude after the mother root has expired?" In addition to Sam there was another story thread that resonated with me, the relationship with her sisters and the memory they preserve collectively of their late mother, yet another afterlife. 



I had enjoyed Homegoing by Yai Gyasi so picked up her newest book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020). This is a very different book, equally strong, but framed quite differently. While Homegoing is an expansive story following the story of two sisters through eight generations, this book tells its story in a much more limited space, one person as she makes sense of a family tragedy. Gyasi draws from her own life in at least the broad outline of being a Ghanian immigrant growing up in Alabama. In this story her main character, Gifty, is born in Alabama to a family from Ghana. The death of a beloved brother to opioids sends ripples through her family. She becomes a scientist and pursues the study of addiction, seeking to understand it and perhaps offer something back having been unable to save her brother. In addition to the core theme of addiction, it is also a reflection on science, religion and the immigrant experience. 


What is one to make of a book titled Monogomy? Monogomy (2020) by Sue Miller is the story of a relationship and the many satellite relationships that it creates as two people build a life together. The protagonist, Annie, would attribute that broad rich life  surrounded by friendships to her husband Graham, a larger than life personality who loves and relies on Annie to make it all possible. We are introduced to each of them in turn as they recount the story of their meeting and their life together. It is an exploration of a relationship and how two people fit their lives together while preserving who they are. It is what it appears to be, a happy marriage, and yet, upon Graham's death Annie discovers something which causes her to question what she had. How well do we ever know our partner and what does it all mean when they fall short? How do grief and anger co-exist?  While a very different book than Afterlife, it could as easily been titled the same as Annie comes to grips with life after Graham. 



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Non-Fiction Books That Wowed -2020

Each year I write a blog that addresses books that felt significant to me. It’s an interesting process deciding what goes on the list and ultimately an emotional decision. There are some books I’ve read that win lots of awards, but don’t make it to my list. I may have enjoyed them or felt they had an interesting concept, but when I put them down I didn’t say “Wow.” So, what draws a wow? Well, I know it when I see it and then I figure out the why. 

This year 50% of the books that made it to my list were nonfiction. Half are authors who I had read previously. With one exception they all were published this year.  They covered a wide variety of topics but all were ones that addressed an interest of mine or to my surprise became an interest after I finished the book. The common theme is often history and they expanded my knowledge and understanding. Some of these books bore a clear relationship to today’s events.


Past Informs Present

 

A book that falls within this category is The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History published in 2005 by John Barry about the 1918 flu epidemic. I read it soon after our pandemic began and was struck by some of the lessons that we failed to learn. One of the big spreaders of the 1918 flu was the movement of soldiers and the downplaying by the government of its seriousness in order to not adversely affect the war effort. Over 100 years later our government also was playing down the impact lest it adversely affect the economy. In 1918, science was in a much earlier stage and they lacked many of the tools we have today. Even given the progress since, we too lacked the tools to respond immediately to today’s virus. We were forced to rely on many of the same mechanisms as they did in 1918, quarantining and masks. The book looks at the pandemic through many lens, exploring the science, the efforts to understand and prevent the spread of this illness, the response of the government, the public and the scientists who led the exploration. Realizing we have been here before and how little we learned was sobering but gave me a framework by which to evaluate the response of our government.


Isabel Wilkersona favorite author of mine for her prior  book Warmth of Other Suns, made my list with her newest book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). In this book she frames racism through the lens of caste, then broadens the lens beyond America to include examples from Nazi Germany and India to show its reach beyond race. In looking at our personal responsibility, she uses the metaphor of an old house which we have inherited with its uneven floors and leaky roof. As owners we take responsibility for rectifying those flaws, just as we must do for the structure of caste. A caste system determines who benefits at the expense of others lower in the structure. It freezes a structure in place and limits movement within it. “Like a cast on a broken arm, like a cast of a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.” Much of the uproar we have observed through this election is due to beneficiaries of that caste system feeling their perch slipping away. Wilkerson has a gift for metaphor and story that makes her concepts accessible and her text engaging. During the same period of time, I was reading the book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee which traces the history of immigration in the United States and the inherent xenophobia that frequently reared its head. It echoed and complemented many of the themes addressed by Wilkerson.


 

One of my genealogy clients introduced me to The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) by Jonathan Kaufman. I had read his prior book A Hole in the Heart of the World and been wowed. Now I was wowed once again. I especially like the work of journalists as they seem particularly adept at telling a story.  Two Jewish families from Baghdad, the Sassoons and the Kadooris created business dynasties in early China, surviving the Japanese occupation, building relationships with Chiang Kai Shek and losing much of their property when Mao came to power. They succeeded by creating relationships with the Chinese, taking advantage of advances in communications and transportation and focusing on education and training for their workers. 


I was familiar with stories of Jews coming to Shanghai as refugees escaping the Nazis. Often there was a mention of the Sassoons and Kandooris who eased their way, feeding, housing, training and employing them. I had known of their generosity, but I knew nothing of the history of these families and how they came to wield such an outsized influence. 


Of particular interest was the impact their efforts had on modern-day China. While the Sassoons lost much of their fortune in Shanghai when Mao came to power, the Kandooris retreated to Hong Kong. They would later renew political ties when Deng Xiaoping rose to power. In Hong Kong  they built the light and power company, providing electricity to China as well, and played a significant role in turning Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan city.



Presenting a Bigger Picture

 

I recently read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020), which explored the role Winston Churchill played during the war. Churchill is one character, the war and its story yet another. Then Larson adds the British people and their interrelationship with both Churchill and the war. The story lies in the juxtaposition of these three elements. I realized that I had known pieces of the story, but never had knit it together into a comprehensive whole. I had seeds of that story from disparate sources, a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, the historical fiction of Connie Willis during the Blitz, the play Breaking the Code on cracking the German code. All of these captured elements, aspects, each stories within themselves, but it was only after this book that I came away with a fuller sense of the broader story. It captured the experience of those who lived in Britain whose lives were upended and sometimes ended, the challenges of warfare and the creative ways in which they fought back against new technological developments, and the relationship with the US in supporting the British war effort. Churchill oversaw and drove these efforts. Most importantly, he rallied the support of the nation in a war which threatened every person where they lived.


An Unexpected Find

 

My last non-fiction book Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl (2020) by Jonathan Slaght is a bit of an outlier. I was led there through the artwork of one of my fellow artists in the Jewish Artists Lab. She had created artwork around the environmental challenges for the survival of the Blakistons’ owl. I had never been aware of the fish owl and suddenly there was a one-two punch designed by the universe to draw my attention to this topic. A book had just come out on the owl and The Museum of Russian Art was hosting a talk by the author. I was charmed both by the owl itself which is a rather whimsical-looking creature and the author who had such a passion for this creature and its survival. His story encompasses the story of the owl and its historic habitat, his efforts to learn the key elements that support its existence, the crew of rather colorful Russians with whom he builds relationships to pursue this exploration and the challenges and beauty of the region itself. This seemingly niche book has deservedly attracted a broad range of literary recognition.

 

Stay tuned for my future blog on the fiction that engaged me in 2020.

 

 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Delight and Surprise


I've written little this year, not for lack of thought, but perhaps because there are so many threads that I've been thinking about. I wade through the tangle of ideas and realize that perhaps the most predominant is that this is a year of unexpected reinvention, some seemingly frivolous, but also significant ways. 


Suddenly we were largely confined to our homes and neighborhoods. My car feels unfamiliar when I get behind the wheel because most of my journeys are on foot. My auto pilot reactions still operate, but my trust in them has dwindled. I have often circled back to my house after departing to make sure I closed the garage door only to find that I have.  It is no longer a familiar ritual.


My initial challenges were figuring out how to get groceries delivered and what to do for an exercise routine with the gym closed.  There have been some byproducts of those challenges. We are eating meals at home with rare takeout on special occasions. That gives me greater control of my diet. No lunches out with friends, more planning about what I purchase.

 

Similarly, my workout routine has changed, but also gotten more consistent. When I roll out of bed and into my yoga pants, it is easier to think about a workout, whether it is a walk, an online class or my recumbent bike on those cold winter days. My husband got me an Apple watch and I find I like the routine that it encourages. I have nicknamed it “the little f***er” because it annoyingly tells me to stand up every hour. I dutifully jump up and do three laps around our kitchen and living room to earn my stand. As someone who can sit at my computer for hours at a time, engrossed in a genealogy project, I find that it actually helps my back to listen to this creature on my wrist.


Now, I am not an exercise junkie. Unlike my husband, I don’t bike the 34 mile roundtrip journey to our studio. I work out because I realize it affects my quality of life and I do a moderate amount each day. Much to my surprise the modifications to how I eat, consistent exercise  and the little f***er’s exhortations have resulted in a steady weight loss. I found myself pulling clothes out of my pile for Goodwill realizing that their fit had miraculously improved. Now many people have indicated the opposite result of the pandemic as they began to bake and do a bit of stress eating. For me, it has been a delightful side benefit.


Perhaps the greatest change has been the decision to let my hair go grey, well actually silver. Now I don’t know if this is a permanent decision or a pandemic based temporary exploration of identity. Every so often I used to ask Jeffrey, my hair stylist of 30+ years, if it would make me look older. “Yes,” he solemnly replied and that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes he would comment that he thought I might have a cool white streak in front like Susan Sontag as he noted the silver hiding beneath. I was curious about my hidden cool streak, but wasn't quite sure how to expose it. I was due for a visit to Jeffrey when the salons closed down.  By the time they re-opened, I was intrigued by the person who was emerging beneath the color. She looked kind of interesting and I wondered who this new person would be. I decided to let it grow through those awkward stages. Where did I have to go anyway?


Susan Weinberg-blogger

When I looked at a picture I had submitted months ago for an on-line conference presentation, it no longer looked like me. I took my first picture of me with silver grey hair and re-submitted it. Then I changed my Zoom picture. I was slowly stepping into this new identity. This new me. 


Billie Eilish

Oddly enough it didn’t make me feel older. Quite the opposite. I felt like a fifteen-year-old playing with her hair. I pulled out the pretty hair clips and hair ties that I used when my hair was long. I put it up on my head, pulled portions of it back and tried it with different earrings. I flashed back on times when that felt familiar, a time of playing with identity, deciding who I would be. Apparently I'm still deciding.

 

Just as the weather turned, my husband and I went out to a nearby sculpture garden to meet some friends from out of town. With wide paths it offered an easy way to gather in relative safety. I had used a clip to put my hair up with strands escaping around my face in my two- toned hairstyle. We sat spread out around a table at an outdoor cafĂ© when a woman approached and said, “I have to tell you I’ve been admiring your hair. I just love it. You're really rocking that  Billie Eilish look (an 18-year old singer-songwriter). “

 

I laughed in amusement at my new-found hipness, as I welcomed this new me with both delight and surprise.

 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Absence and Presence: A New Appreciation

In these times of COVID, my husband and I have carved out a two-mile walk through nearby streets that has become part of our routine as we avoid the gym. It has become a well-worn path and over time I have identified landmarks that I check off mentally as we pass. I carry my phone and take pictures of our sightings of the albino squirrel and the reflections of golden leaves on water that conjure images of Klimt paintings. My favorite images warrant many photos, capturing them in a different light or a new angle. I have a new appreciation of Monet's studies of haystacks as the light changes.

With our spate of warm weather, I’ve been walking that route frequently, a chance to savor the sun’s warmth before we descend into winter. One of my favorite landmarks has been two trees juxtaposed that I named the sentinels. 

One was half dead with a hollow where once branches emerged. It wore a necklace of growths, perhaps fungal, but had an odd beauty in its irregularity that had first attracted my attention. I first discovered it in the spring and rediscovered it many times as the light and the seasonal changes drew my attention again and again. I have almost 20 images of it on my camera roll. Along the way I attempted a painting of it.

This week I set out on my route and suddenly stopped short when I approached the sentinels, those stalwart trees that stood guard. Did I have the right spot? Something was not right. Then it hit me like a gut punch. Where my necklaced tree had once stood in dialogue with its companion, there now was a stump. I was surprised to realize that what I was feeling was grief. Something was not right with the world, my world.

 It occurs to me that absence and presence is a theme that keeps knocking on my door. I first began to paint it when my mother passed away. Each morning she would create collages at the kitchen table. After her death I took a photo of her chair with its well-worn cushions and her sweater hanging over a neighboring chair as if she were going to return shortly. And I painted it. This time the idea of absence and presence had begun to enter my awareness as I realized how present she felt in her absence.

Every ten years the Minneapolis Institute of Art does the Foot in the Door show where artists are invited to enter an artwork with dimensions of one foot by one foot. Ten years ago, I waited in a long line streaming out the door during the winter to submit my entry.  I remember finally gaining entrance and slowly winding my way up the stairs. This year it was much simpler as a virtual show. The piece I entered was yet another one on absence and presence. It was part of an environmental series on the many ways our environment is changing. Remember when you used to capture fireflies in a jar as a child? They’d come out at night and the sky would be filled with them. This piece was dedicated to those fireflies that I now seldom see. Also, in the image is an elm tree that we had to take down this year because of Dutch Elm disease. I had seldom noticed it until it received its death sentence. My appreciation grew as I realized how it held our yard in an embrace, curving around the outskirts, defining its contours, once again in dialogue with its companions. It now feels quite barren in its absence.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about absence and presence this week as our 46th president was selected. For much of my life I’ve taken democracy for granted. I failed to appreciate how it held our lives in its embrace, defining the contours of a world which we assumed was the norm, until it wasn’t. The past four years I have learned a lot about that democracy I never much noticed until it eroded. I think we all have.  Absence and presence. It relates to many things, people, insects, trees, even democracy. We take many things for granted, only deeply appreciating them in their absence. Sometimes we don’t get a second chance. Often we miss something in dialogue with something else. I always thought of my sentinel in conversation with its neighboring tree. When I saw the neighboring tree without its companion, that was the moment it struck me that something was missing. We too exist in conversation with each other. We are not isolated beings. We are all sentinels of our democracy, partnered with each other. This week I have felt particularly emotional because it is the beginning of a national conversation. I am not the only one who took democracy for granted and I am not the only one who reached out to grab onto it and hold on tight.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Safe Place

 Do you have a safe place?  That may be a silly question to ask when so many of us are largely quarantining, ordering our groceries, isolating with our spouse and family and seeing our friends over Zoom.  For most of us, home is our safe place, or at least our safest option. 

But I am not talking about physical safety. We also are in an environment of emotional threat. The country we have taken for granted for most of our life is under siege. In a world that reeks of corruption, lies and blatant power grabs, concepts like moral responsibility and fairness do seem rather quaint. I am surprised to realize how much I trusted in a shared understanding of fundamental rules that no longer seem to apply.

I woke up in the early morning hours filled with anxiety. I had been dreaming about the Supreme Court. It was not the first time I had that nightmare. No doubt this was induced by a discussion on Zoom that I attended the prior evening. Sleep was not going to return any time soon so I reached for my ipad. Soon I was immersed in an essay by Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who evaluates the history behind our politics and helps me to assess the threat level. One of the symptoms of feeling under threat is to constantly monitor the environment for where the next threat is coming from.  No one will be able to say that I wasn’t well informed if our democracy craters.

 

I wasn’t the only one awake. A message streamed across my screen inviting me to a word game. I felt strangely comforted by that. Like looking out the window and seeing another light on, a silent SOS from another troubled soul.

 

I’ve been thinking about what my safe place is. What do I retreat to in times like this? In many ways I am fortunate; no financial woes, no school-age children or parents to worry about. Merely a country to preserve while horrified at a significant portion of our population and government.  The world divides into friend or foe. We once would have spoken generously about acknowledging others' opinions. When the alternative is so reprehensible, there is no room for acceptance of the unacceptable.

 

Under normal circumstances, I have a number of pursuits that fall between two poles, creative or analytic. I paint, write and do genealogy work. Recently I spoke with an old friend. She asked me how these times have affected my creativity. In fact, my creative pursuits have been abandoned for long stretches. I have posted few blogs and completed few paintings over the past six months. Creativity requires me to get to a place of openness and receptivity and that’s hard to access when under threat. Instead I’ve gravitated to the analytic pole, absorbed in a search for answers to puzzles. Whether it is word games or genealogy puzzles, I need something that will absorb my focus for a time, because I can’t live in a state of threat continually.  Perhaps it is also a search for control in a world that feels out of control. 

 

It is a short window of time until we know if democracy will survive. I remain hopeful because it is all that I have. The Jewish Artists’ Lab that I participate in has a new theme this year. From brokenness to wholeness, a rich theme appropriate to these times. I only hope we are moving in the direction of wholeness. I stopped by the art store recently and replenished my paints, looking forward to renewing my efforts. It is time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Finding the Tendrils of History


 I was first drawn into genealogy when the immigration records went on-line. There was something about imagining that journey that fascinated me. It can become pretty frustrating however, when you can find no trace of it, as if family miraculously appeared, leaving no tendrils of history trailing behind.


I’ve learned the key to solving puzzles is addressing the blind spots created by our assumptions. We can test our assumptions, but if we consider them to be givens, they block our path to the true story.  I’ve learned to approach every puzzle with skepticism, especially when evaluating what we think we know. 

 

Recently someone asked my help with an immigration dilemma. He gave me the name the family went by in Europe, Svirnofski, and the name of a well-known relative. He suspected that his family members might have come on the same boat as that relative. If we could find that manifest, we might find his family members or at least a likely trajectory to the United States. One of the common approaches in genealogy in breaking through brick walls is to look at cousins. That is easier when they are well-documented cousins. In this case his relative was David Sarnoff, a well-known figure in broadcasting who headed RCA and founded NBC. When I begin a search, I want enough information to verify that I am looking at the right family. Dates and names were often fluid so you don’t want to spend your time chasing the wrong person. I figured the biographical data should be available for a well-known figure like Sarnoff.

 

I looked him up on Wikipedia where I confirmed that his father was Abraham and his mother Leah. The same names showed up in his 1917 marriage record on Familysearch.org. He was born in 1891 and came over in 1900. I always search within a band of years, knowing that memories are often imprecise and even dates reported by the participants are often incorrect.

 

With that information, I did a search for a naturalization record which after 1906 would tell me the name he entered the country under, when he came and on which ship. The 1920 census said he was naturalized in 1915, but that record wasn’t coming up. Instead I found a good substitute, a passport filing gave me an arrival of July 1, 1900 from Liverpool and the ship’s name which appeared to be the SS Agentic. 

 

I started with stevemorse.org, a website that provides a more efficient search engine. I did some preliminary searches looking for a name that “sounded like” the pre-Americanized version we believed it to be. I also did searches with the ship’s name. I wasn’t meeting with much success. Did a ship of that name even come to the United States? I knew I could find out.

 

Stevemorse has a ship lists search that pulls up the manifests if you input the dates and ship’s name. I put in the dates with a range around them and looked for a ship name that resembled what I had found on the passport file.  No such ship appeared. It occurred to me they may have come in through Canada, but was there something similar to the stevemorse search for Canadian ships? I don’t have to know everything, just how to find it. I googled “ships from Liverpool to Canada 1900” and it took me to a Government of Canada Library Archives Page with Passenger Lists from 1865-1922. My knowledge base had just expanded!  I went to “search database” and entered the information I was fairly sure of, Liverpool and 1900.  The page returned the names of ships and the dates of arrival. One of the ships was Lake Megantic, named after a body of water in Quebec.  I was pretty sure that was the ship as I weighed that name against the Agentic that he had recorded when applying for his passport. I could imagine him digging into his memory trying to surface that name that was just beneath the waterline. 

 

 


While the site had passenger lists, it is tedious work to go through a manifest line by line and there was a ship on June 1st and July 5th. I guessed that Ancestry would have it indexed if I could get to the right ship and they did. As I wasn’t sure how they spelled the name, I searched for David as the first name and S* for the last. I soon found David Swenowsky age 9 along with his brothers Mosche and Salomon coming to America with their mother Lena. Not exactly Szirnofski, but then neither is Sarnoff. Names were indeed fluid. So where was Abraham? Typically, the men came to America first, found work and a place to live and then sent for their wife and children. Often older children came first and the mother stayed with younger children until they were old enough to travel. The Swenowsky children were 6, 7 and 9. In fact they had been separated from Abraham for some time. A newspaper article noted that father Abraham had come six years earlier. Most families don't have the luxury of a bio in the New York Times. Abraham left Lena with a newborn and two toddlers. Travel would have been most challenging for her at that time.


We were curious about when the name change occurred. We traced David's father from his immigration, through the birth of two more children and up to his death in 1910. He died with his original name. By 1915, David Sarnoff had emerged in the 1915 census, reinvented as an American with a new streamlined name. His family had later followed suit.


I am always intrigued with the paths that lead to solutions and frequently retrace my steps to follow what is often intuitive logic. We have a tool kit that grows as we do research. Then we need to know what tool to use when and the interrelationships between them. And there is a sequential nature to solving a puzzle, so we need to understand that as well. When you can combine all of those elements, magic can happen.


In this case, we started with uncertainty about names and spellings and with the usual assumption that they came to New York. It wasn’t until I gathered more information on the date and ship, then tested whether that ship existed in the universe where we were looking, that another path presented itself. I learned something new when I googled the Canadian ships and discovered I could check the names. And I didn’t commit to one name option until I could see what presented itself, realizing that people’s names were especially fluid during this time. While we didn’t find the other family members, we now know that the Canadian path is likely to be the doorway for other family members.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Teasing Out the Story


My stepdaughter and her family are moving to California. In the twenty-five years my husband and I have been together she has always been here. Weddings, babies, homes and holiday celebrations  leave a trail of memories. Some years ago, her sister’s family left Minnesota for California and they have built a satisfying life there. My husband worries a bit as fathers do. I remind him that they are competent adults with family there to cushion the adjustment. We have learned that relationships change, but also deepen with moves. Longer visits create time for the casual, but often important conversations. 


And what does this mean for us? We no longer have parents or children anchoring us to Minnesota or the Midwest. Do we visit for extended stretches or pick up roots ourselves in time? For now, we’ll see how they like it and plan a more extended visit when the world is a safer place. 

 

My thoughts are colored by our experience with the pandemic. The world does feel more connected across distance. Despite months of isolating physically, I’ve remained connected with friends around the country and in my own city via Zoom. Would some of that continue if we were to move? For now, It is strange to say goodbye in the midst of a pandemic. How do you do that when socially distancing? It is an oddly dislocating experience. 

 

As a genealogist, I find myself considering the ways families once spread out around the country. Often it echoed the chain migration of our ancestors, the pioneers ventured out and were followed by others emboldened by the success of their adventurous family members. That began with coming to America, but it continued as they explored cities outside of New York. It is not too unlike my present-day experience, but without the instant communication we've become so accustomed to.

 

I’ve been deeply immersed in genealogy consulting this year and a case I am working on has given me new insight into how our ancestors moved from New York  to clusters of family within the country. We tend to think families used to always live nearby and the divisions of geography are new.  I’m not so sure it is. About seventy percent of immigrants entered through New York. Many of them remained there where they were often the first contact for subsequent immigrants from the family. Others dispersed across the country forming a nucleus around which others gathered over time. After one leaves one’s family behind, perhaps to never see them again, a second move may seem less daunting.

 

I’ve been studying records of the Industrial Removal Office, a service designed to move Jewish immigrants outside of New York in the early 1900s, assisting them with transportation and jobs. It is a rather odd name for the purpose. Companies contacted them with jobs to fill, individuals with pleas to help with the costs of sending family. In the 1907 records, I found my client’s great-grandfather born in the 1850s. He was sent to Minneapolis three months after his arrival in the United States. Accompanying him was his soon to be married daughter, already trying out her new name. One week after arrival she and her fiancĂ© got their marriage license and she remained in Minnesota where she had five sons. Her father returned to New York where we find him in the census, both 1910 and 1915. He died soon after and by 1920 his widow was in Minnesota living with one of her children and in 1930 with another. "What should we do with mom?" I could hear them debating.

 


I knew of the younger children who came over on the boat with their parents, but older siblings had come earlier. One of the ways that I often learn of the broader relationships is by tracing the person that a new immigrant goes to upon arrival. Often it is an uncle, a sibling or an adult child. I had begun exploring that ancestral couple I referenced earlier, the great-grandparents of my client. I was looking for a possible Lithuanian marriage or birth record that linked their two surnames, Katz and Jaffe. In the process, I stumbled across a young man whose parents shared the same two surnames. In following his path I discovered two young men traveling to America, each carrying one of those names. Who were they and was there a relationship? In fact, they were going to a common uncle who lived in New York and shared the maiden name of the great-grandmother in Minnesota, likely a brother. Now I needed to determine if there was a Minnesota connection. 

 

My starting point had been an immigration record, but vital records and tombstones helped solve the puzzle. Death and marriage records frequently have parents’ names, even maiden names. Jewish tombstones will frequently have the Hebrew name of the father as well as the Hebrew name of the decedent. These names often clue me in on the name they went by in Europe before they Americanized it. That's the name I search for when looking for immigration records.


In this case, I knew the name of the great-grandmother's father was Itzaak from her tombstone. Now I just needed similar information for her possible brother, the New York uncle to the two young men. I knew that stevemorse.org, a very efficient search engine, was a good source for access to New York records. I also knew that familysearch.org, a free data source, typically listed parents’ names if available. Armed with this knowledge I went to the stevemorse.org website and found the section on birth, death and marriage records that searched the familysearch.org database. At the top of the page, I could toggle between them as I tried each one, tracing people through their various life stages. When I found the death record for the uncle, his parents’ names did indeed match his sister's parents. Ultimately I was able to match two additional siblings by examining people who shared the same surname in New York and comparing their parents’ names. Soon I had confirmed the great-great grandparents and four of their children, not to mention those two young men in the next generation, one of whom moved to Minnesota while the other stayed in New York. Often I trace them through obituaries to validate the ties.

 

This is the part of genealogy that I find most fascinating. Teasing out relationships and connecting the information, reuniting families if only on paper.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Interrelated World

Sometimes the idea of starting a large painting feels a bit intimidating, especially because I often am not sure where I am going with it until I am well into it. There is frequently a lengthy process filled with "false" starts before I find my voice. In actuality there is no such thing as a false start as it is really just a necessary step in the process of finding our way.


















I've been doing small paintings as a bit of an experiment, kind of like tackling an essay rather than a novel. I thought that I was telling a smaller story, but as I continued working I discovered that all of the stories are interconnected. I've been continuing to work with the theme of global warming and the environment which gives me a broad playing field. I am discovering that means just about everything is fair game.

I began with the two paintings above and wrote about them in Embracing the Risk of Loss.  When I walked with friends pre-pandemic, I frequently took pictures of what spoke to me visually and used them in collages. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, I've been doing even more walking and I find that I am much more aware and appreciative of the environment that surrounds me. And not just the environment, but the changes in it as winter moves into spring. I loved the skeletal structure of trees during the winter, their forms silhouetted against the sky and only grudgingly accepted the beauty of their budding branches.


The image in the upper left is based on water reflections and the idea of clean water as a necessity for our environment. The one beneath it has a bee and honeycomb hidden within it. and addresses the risks faced by the bee population. Whenever I paint a subject, I type into Google, "___ and global warming." Fill in the blank-- bees, fireflies, crows, mosquitoes, whatever you wish. Surprisingly something always comes up. It is through that process that I have learned of the projected demise of all of these creatures save mosquitoes who are expected to thrive.



Sometimes other concepts I have painted re-emerge in a different context. When I painted Presence and Absence about my mother, I was thinking about how absence makes a person much more present. Well that is true of trees too. When we had to take down an elm tree due to Dutch Elm disease, I felt like I was at its deathbed, taking pictures of it as if to remind myself of the space it occupied. It made an appearance in the firefly painting, perhaps both slated for extinction.

And tree rings!  I love tree rings, the witnesses and messengers of our climate changing over time. When I began to create a tree ring collage, I kept flashing on images of records and old-style telephones, all vehicles for conveying a message. It also reminded me of American Indian iconography and I began to picture arrows, albeit with the arc of tree rings. I half expected one to shoot into a tree with its tail quivering from the force of impact, accompanied by a message.


When my husband and I went to the Grand Canyon, we watched the sunrise each morning over the canyon. One morning I found a crow perched rather royally in the sunlight,  His black feathers glowed golden in the morning light. I decided to paint him just because I like images of crows, not because I associated him with global warming. Of course once I did my usual search, I learned that global warming will create a climate conducive to mosquitoes who spread West Nile virus. Crows are especially susceptible to it. That then called for a mosquito painting as well.

I tend to work in blues and oranges so my paintings all work well together. I began to group them into various groupings and arrived at the one atop this blog titled An Interrelated World. It is the concept that sums up global warming, but it could just as easily be applied to COVID-19. We are not isolated beings. We live in a broader world and what we do affects not only each other, but the environment that surrounds us. The loss of any element has a cascade of effects that threatens to set still other losses into motion.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

What Kind of Artist?

I’ve been thinking lately about what kind of artist I am. Every year we have a huge open studio event, Art a Whirl. This year of course it will be virtual beginning May 15, so I need to succinctly present what I do in video. It is much easier to have hundreds of people traipse through my studio for three long days and chat with them.  

I don’t think I am a typical artist, but of course there are many kinds of artists. By atypical I suppose I mean that I have many traits that are not associated with artists. I am analytical and “wordful.”  Yes, I know that is not a word. Lest I be unaware, Word underlines it in squiggly red, but I am full of words and I use them to explain and make sense of the world. To paint and experiment, I have to shut that part of me down temporarily and play. I was never very good at playing even when I was a child so it is work for me to play. I need to trick myself into the zone of free association by painting and repainting, by not thinking of anything I do as too precious to paint over again. I have learned to view the seemingly false starts as part of the story of my evolving painting. It is through that process that I discover things I could not find through an analytical process. But then, ah, but then. . .I dust off my words and my analytic side and make sense of what just happened. I write about it. I follow the thread of my process. I use all of me to complete a painting fully, just not simultaneously.










I am an artist who is intrigued with story. Story is just a way to make sense of the world. To take the things that happen to us and around us and view them through a different frame. My artwork is about story and ideas. I love when there is a idea that a story illuminates. Even better when the story is housed in a painting. One of my favorite examples was when I painted about transformation, Stepping into the Chrysalis. I learned about nature’s story of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, first consuming itself to turn into caterpillar soup, then drawing on its imaginal discs (stem cells with a very apt name) which contain the wings of the future butterfly. Not too unlike us consuming ourselves with worry as we face change and then finding our wings within. Then I had to find visual imagery to quite literally frame that amazing and metaphorical story.

 When I think of the thread of my work, I realize I started with a puzzle. I began with a series on family history and the cornerstone was a self-portrait called Piercing the Veil. It was of me unveiling my family names with a paintbrush. Using art to tell the story of solving a puzzle. Of course, that’s what I do. It only took me twelve years from that painting to figure that out. 

I followed that series with a body of work called the Silence Speaks Loudly as I tried to make sense of how Lithuania dealt with the Holocaust. I connected stories I gathered and observed while in Lithuania. Again, making sense of this often inexplainable world.

My interest in genealogy is a quest of sorts too, to understand the lives of my ancestors, of people who lived in a different time, but contained within a body, mind and emotions much like our own. What would it be like to live in a different environment? How would it change who we are? How would we experience the tides of history as they lapped up against our life?  I have often wondered about the family members of mine who died in the Holocaust. Who were they as people? What was their day to day life like? What of them echoes in me? I began to explore that when I painted a Hole in Time, an exploration of the Jewish community in Radom, Poland.

Similarly, when I sought to make sense of my own Jewish identity, I interviewed Jewish elders. And after those interviews, I created artwork and then a book as I drilled down further into their stories to figure out how I fit within them.

When my mother lost memory and later when she died, I painted on memory, trying to find a way to make sense of first her loss of memory and then the loss of her. It was one long meditation on a wise woman who I carry within me. Absence and presence occupied me. Absence occupied me with her presence. 

For the past eight years I have participated in a Jewish Artists Lab that takes a topic to explore and then creates artwork on that theme. That has proven to be a powerful engine, introducing me to ideas I might otherwise not have discovered.  Through all of it I explored ideas that I translated into artwork. Memory palaces, transformation, imaginal discs, liminality, illuminating through parallel  stories, identity as a river finding its banks, wisdom of the mothers. 

I bring this lens to everything that I explore. Now I am working on the environment and I explore it through absence and presence, the idea of a 4700-year-old tree sounding the clarion call on global warming, arboreal ghost towns. It is a system where everything connects, a puzzle that we can solve if we can only focus on all of the pieces and each and every piece. And so, I wade into the immense puzzle of our world equipped with my paintbrush and my words.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The New Normal: Frustrations and Gratitude


It is amazing how quickly we adapt to a new normal. A week ago, it felt strange to me when we approached a man on the sidewalk and he stepped out into the middle of the street to give us a wide berth. We’ve begun to do the same now, although I keep picturing a car taking me out as I try to dodge this amorphous virus.

I live in yoga pants as I am far more likely to do yoga or go for a walk if I’m dressed for it. When I have a Zoom meeting, I change my top from my workout clothes to preserve the illusion. I am guessing in a week there will be no illusions. We rearranged the furniture in our living room to make room for two yoga mats which appear to be taking up permanent residence.

We are at a point in time where grocery shopping can be the most dangerous activity we will encounter.  I realize I’m not going into the forest to kill wild game that might decide to attack me, but the same concept applies. In some ways this is more dangerous in its seemingly innocuous and familiar nature.

Ordering groceries online remains an incredibly frustrating experience. I waited all day for a window to open up at Whole Foods and when it did, it had closed by the time I completed the required options. I get that they are filled up for the next two days, but why can’t I order for next week? And Target seems to have toilet paper set up as unavailable for pick up or delivery which means you need to go into the store. What’s up with that? Trader Joe’s which has some of my favorite foods really needs to figure out how to deliver before I go into almond biscotti withdrawal. 

When the Seder we typically attend went virtual, I realized I had something new to stress over. Now I actually had to get Seder food when I can’t even get regular food.  Do I have to go into a liquor store to get a bottle of Passover wine when the 11th plague could strike me as I pick up that wine bottle. And how do I get a shank bone when my husband is a pescatarian? I have concluded that rabbis through time have offered reprieves from such matters under unique circumstances so this certainly qualifies. I could have paper cut-outs on my Seder plate and it would be the thought that counts. After all this is a virtual Seder.

On the brighter side, I have become a big fan of Zoom. When a talk I was to give for the MN Jewish Genealogical Society could no longer be done in-person, I began to review web platforms to figure out how to do it on-line. I settled on Zoom and did it as a webinar this weekend. It was very well-received and played to an audience many times larger and broader than our usual events. I figured out how to pre-record on Zoom to reduce the stress level of a new medium. Later in the week, my Artists’ Lab met on Zoom. We began with a larger meeting and then broke into small groups which actually felt quite intimate and workable. Our use of these mediums is likely to continue even when in-person meetings are once again possible. 

Every change spawns yet another one. That ability to record gave me an idea. I set up a member web page at MNJGS.org to house my presentation and I’m thinking of shorter presentations that I and others could record for the genealogy group’s membership. This may be a perfect time to take on such a project.

So, life goes on, albeit in a much smaller physical sphere but a much larger virtual one. I have new frustrations and new satisfactions. I am grateful for the ability to live my life in a more restricted physical way to preserve safety, even as I  expand my world and reach out to others.

Stay home, stay safe and embrace gratitude. Namaste.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Reshaping Our Lives

This morning my husband turned to me and said, “This really hasn’t been so different from normal except you’re around a lot more.”  That is essentially true for him. We live in a household of two, both with lots of interests that much of the time involve only ourselves. But unlike my husband who is content to paint, bike and play guitar, I’ve normally got a lot more on my calendar that has now fallen away.

It was only a week and a half ago that I had a meeting with several members of a family for whom I am doing genealogy research. It seems a lifetime ago. Since then, except for a brief venture to the grocery store and to pick up carry out, my only face-to-face interaction has been with my husband.  The week’s events began to cancel. One by one, the emails appeared. Soon I was up to nine cancellations and was wondering how my schedule ever got so crazy in the first place. The gym was the last place to close and I must admit I was glad they made the decision for me. I felt as if I was entering enemy territory whenever I entered its doors, washing my hands continually, fearful of inadvertently touching my face. I didn’t want to think that hard about how I functioned in a space.
So, what have I been doing since then? The activities that I enjoy are largely solo ones, reading, writing, painting and genealogy research. But after I engage in those solitary activities, I come up for air. Then I exhibit artwork, do presentations and visit with people at open studios. I enjoy those interactions, but now I was faced with reshaping my life with some major restrictions.

Working out and getting groceries have proven to be the activities requiring the most thought. I’ve settled into a routine of doing yoga most days in the living room and walking with my husband around our neighborhood park. I find new appreciation in my local surroundings. On one of our walks, I saw an ornament with a tag announcing Joy and was reminded of the beauty just blocks from my home. And of course I take pictures along our walks, hopeful that I can incorporate them into collages.

As I do yoga, I face our shelf of art books. I fasten my gaze on Bacon or Leger as I hold my tree pose. I can’t recall when I last picked them up and vow that I will study a new art book regularly, not just in tree.

A few days ago, we went to our regular grocery store. We showed up at 8AM which is a feat in itself as neither of us are morning people. It was at least as busy as it normally was midday and this was supposedly the lowest traffic point of the day. The delivery service seemed quite inadequate, but we ruefully concluded we might have to make it work. 

As much as the stock market has tanked, we are aware that our crisis is of a smaller magnitude than that of many. We considered the restaurants around us that we hope will stay in business and committed to occasional take-out orders. We’ve also contributed to support the efforts of medical caregivers and to a fund for artists whose income is  especially vulnerable to these circumstances.

I have a good friend who is a Holocaust survivor and I have been meeting with her weekly to record her story. We’ve moved that to the phone and are trying to do it a bit more often, a touch point between us. I’ve also been working on how to do a genealogy presentation via Zoom and have that scheduled for later this week. I’ve been finding new ways of doing things and am pushing through the discomfort that accompanies that newness. Along the way, I am seeing new practices that I may want to maintain even when this crisis ends.

There is also unease underlying these efforts. There is a reason for this slowdown and it is frightening. I am suddenly in the age group where risk begins to rise, a rude shock for those of us who are active and engaged in our world. Age is just a number until it isn’t and you feel as if you have a target on your back. I read today that the virus affects one’s sense of smell and taste. I must confess I pulled out a minty shampoo as a test and was relieved to inhale its strong fragrance. We walk in the park each day, eyeing fellow walkers cautiously as they approach, nodding hello, but moving on. We are still trying to figure out this new way of being. We are all in this together, yet others can pose a threat to our health. How do we integrate these two opposing concepts?  The world feels more precarious and more precious. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of my neighborhood park, for the friends with whom I stay connected in this virtual world and for my husband who is my companion in this life raft I call home.