Friday, March 8, 2024

Not Every Sam Was a Schloime or a Shmuel

For those involved in Jewish genealogy, the fluidity of given names often presents a brick wall. You can't find the record if you don't know the name. 

Jewish traditions have unique features, presenting both challenges and valuable clues for family history. Typically, a Jewish child receives a secular name and a Hebrew name. For Ashkenazic Jews, that name is usually after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. When several cousins bear the same name, you can assume that a grandparent of similar name probably died shortly before the earliest birthdate.  

Our ancestors came from another country where they had a secular name, a Hebrew name, and often a nickname. Then they Americanized their name and selected a new name that may or may not resemble their former name. Having made that leap into a new life, they often continued to modify their name, trying on new identities.  

To work your way back you will want to learn their Hebrew and Yiddish names. To follow their trail in the United States, you will need to trace name changes. So how do we do that?


Finding Hebrew and Yiddish Names

A unique feature in Jewish tradition, the tombstone, provides the Hebrew name. If you are fortunate, there will be Hebrew on your family tombstones that will reveal both the decedent's Hebrew name and their father’s.  You may be able to work from the Hebrew name to the secular Yiddish name found on the immigration manifest. Often the Yiddish name is shortened from the Hebrew. Yisrael becomes Srul, Ishaya becomes Shaja, Eliazar becomes Lazar. 


Certain names may be calques. A calque has the same meaning in a different language.  Often calques are associated with animals. Aryeh means lion in Hebrew and Leib means lion in Yiddish. While someone’s tombstone may read Aryeh, their secular name was likely Leib and, in the U.S., they often became Louis. Dov means bear in Hebrew, Ber in Yiddish. Sometimes the two names are combined, such as Dov Ber, but there are often unrelated double names. And don’t forget those nicknames. Dov often became Berek or Berel because of the Yiddish form of the word. 


After 1906, the naturalization record will show both the name they went by in the U.S. and if different, the given name and surname they held when they entered the country. You can now work back from that document to the immigration manifest. One thing you will quickly discover is that not every Sam was a Schloime or a Shmuel. They may have been another name with an “S” such as Shimon or Shaja. 


Trying on a New Identity

When our ancestors arrived, they discovered the popular names of the day and were quick to assume them if they resembled their Yiddish name. Batya often became Bessie, Chaim become Hyman, and Chana, Anna. But not always! And some names hardly changed at all. Binyamin became Benjamin 94% of the time. You may be surprised to know that in 97% of cases Ze’ev became William. Ze’ev is a calque meaning Wolf. Wolf to William makes more sense, but it would be puzzling if you didn’t know about calques.


There were no rules governing which name they took, and names often evolved. The best way to trace them is to review city directories and census records, tracing them in family groupings so you can continue to track them as names change. You may find small changes from Bertha to Bessie, Betsy, and Betty. Conversely there can be seemingly unrelated changes as I found with a Chaim who became Elmer and then Norman.


Never assume a name was static. Knowing a person’s name at a particular time will allow you to locate records from that period. If you have a gap with no records, consider the possibility that records are hiding in plain sight, just by a different name.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Ones That Stayed With Me

Each year I write a summary of some of the books that spoke to me throughout the year. By the end of the year I have a long list, but I am often hard-pressed to resurrect the threads of the books that I rated highly after reading. Instead, it is the ones that had sufficient force to stay with me that remain. This year there are several that met that test. 

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

I have always been a fan of Ann Patchett and her latest book Tom Lake did not disappoint. Central to the story is the play Our Town and a theater company in which Lara, in her youth, performed the part of Emily as she became involved with Duke, the actor who played her father. After their relationship ended, Duke goes on to become a famous actor while Lara, after a brief stint in acting, ultimately chooses a less glamorous, but satisfying life. The story moves between time periods with flashbacks to that earlier time— then a young woman, still forming and vulnerable, versus the mature woman relating the story to her daughters, as she chooses how much to impart. It made me think of the encounters of youth with all their foolhardy elements. Who we are in maturity contains all the layers of our past as we form the boundaries of our adult self.


The Postcard by Anne Berest


When people come through my studio and view my artwork on cultural themes, they often recommend books to me. I am always intrigued that they think they know me so well as to know what I’d like. Even more so when I find they are correct. The Postcard came from such a recommendation. It begins with a mysterious unsigned postcard that arrives with only the names of family members who died in the Shoah. An unsolved puzzle then, fifteen years later, a chance barb at the author’s inconsistent engagement with being Jewish, launches her into a search for that lost family. And quite a search it is, with dead ends and serendipitous discoveries deep into the French experience of the Holocaust and the personal history of the author’s family. It is a search laden with self-discovery as she discovers a deeply personal connection to her ancestry.


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store-James McBride


Many years ago, I read the Color of Water by James McBride. I recalled that his mother was a white Jewish woman who married her black husband in the 1940s. When I first heard of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store which connects the black and Jewish communities, I thought it likely drew upon the threads of his own personal experience. My involvement with the Jewish historical community had also made me aware of the early beginnings of my local Jewish community which also existed as an immigrant community side by side with the black community. For a firsthand flavor of these joined communities, McBride is the perfect storyteller, bringing a warmth and tenderness to the relationships that connected the two communities. While sometimes separated by ethnic and racial differences, the two communities also interact and support each other. Each character is finely developed and an integral part of the larger community that surrounds it.


Foster by Claire Keegan

This novella packs a lot in. Foster is a quiet story, amplified by the quiet as it forces the reader to focus on each gem of expression and thought. Even the one word title implies both a foster child and  what it is to foster. A young girl is sent to spend the summer with a foster family as her family awaits another child. In this new home the child is nurtured and flourishes in a way we learn was not likely in her home of birth. The foster home has its own griefs, the loss of a son, a sadness that allows its hosts to open their hearts to this girl child in need. This quiet story was made into a quiet movie, quite true to the novella. On a flight back from London, I had the good fortune to watch the aptly named The Quiet Girl. I was left to wonder what happens to this glimpse of sunshine in a child’s life upon her return to a family that lacks the nourishment under which she thrived. Does she keep that spark alive within her?

So why these books? Each spoke to me in a unique way, touching aspects in my own experience. From the inward and vulnerable child, to the experimental period of youth, to the understanding of family history that connects each of us to our own roots and culture. Each topic of interest was explored by an author who is a master of their craft, capable of touching those common experiences in a manner that echoes our own personal experience.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

A Peaceful Journey

It always begins with a phone call, those things that rock your world. My niece, brave soul, had taken on the task of passing on the news of my sister’s death, still in disbelief as we both absorbed this unimaginable event.

It was indeed hard to believe. My sister, Andee, was so alive, such a vibrant person. I last saw her at Thanksgiving, the one time of year we gathered in person. We had a good talk. I recall the solidness of her hug. I never expected it was the last time. 

I had forgotten the ability of death to strike suddenly, lulled by the lengthy life and gradual demise of my parents, well into their 80s. I wasn't prepared for the unexpected disruption of our trusting assumption of day following day. Neither was she. Her menorah still sat out, candles beside it, waiting to be lit for the sixth night of Hanukkah. 

I have written about my parents and brother upon their deaths and often over time as they bubbled up in my memory. A sister is harder and this is the last and most difficult to write. I try to unpack it to capture the magnitude of the loss it signifies to me, and it feels like a matryoshka doll. I remove one layer only to find another. Matryoshka dolls, those dolls inside dolls, represent a chain of mothers carrying on the family legacy through the child in their womb. There is something about that image that is particularly apt. My sister embodied my mother, carrying her love and wisdom forward to her own daughters. As the only sibling who had children, she represents that carrying forward of family legacy, but an improved legacy as she took the best of each of our parents in a thoughtful act of parenting. She embraced that part of her life and did it with love and a full heart. 


My sister was the last direct tie to my family of birth. We could speak in unfinished sentences when we talked about our parents, we knew the subtext because we lived it. We often carried them into the future with us, imagining their reaction to new events in the world and in our family. When we found a new cousin through DNA we talked of how our dad would have responded to this new family member with delight. In each new accomplishment we heard our mother’s voice cheering us on.


I contemplate how birth order affects the parent with whom we most identify and who we in turn become. My brother, the oldest and the son, identified with my father. As the middle, I am an odd combination of the often-contradictory parts of both parents. My sister, the youngest and the one with the most solo time with our mother as a child, identified most closely with her. And for me Andee’s loss represents a loss of my mom-proxy. When I had something that I wanted to tell our mother after her death, I used to call my sister. She understood the significance through our mother’s eyes.


My sister was three years younger than me, not a long time in adult years, but just enough in child years that we lived different lives. We shared a room growing up. I recall the argument at bedtime about the radio, on or off. I liked silence. She, music, perhaps reflective of her more gregarious nature. As the youngest child claiming her space, Andee honed her wit, a talent she carried throughout her life. It was a quality that drew people to her. She developed and nurtured deep relationships with friends and strong bonds with family. 


For much of our lives, our lived experience wasn’t in sync. When I was married, she was single. When I was single, she was married and raising a family, a foreign world to me at the time. We came together in times of crisis and could talk easily, but mostly we were busy living our own very different lives.


Ultimately, what brought us together and deepened our relationship, was our mother, an extraordinary person for whom we both felt a deep love. We had different relationships with her. I often would say “my mother” and Andee would correct me with “our mother” and I would advise her that we connected with different parts of our mother, hence my phrasing. I shared travel and art. Andee enlarged her life with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


As we came together to assist her in her final years, we discovered a new relationship with each other in the process. I trusted Andee completely to do the right thing. I trusted her to act out of love. And I trusted her to be incredibly capable in whatever she took on. It was a mutual trust and it made us great partners. When our mother passed away, I didn’t want what we had built to end. We had been talking every day, working together with a common goal of supporting our mother. We did dial it back a bit after that, we weren’t talking every day, but when we talked it was a three-hour conversation. It changed how we understood each other, and it allowed for a deeper relationship than we had had up until then. And I wasn’t ready for it to end.


On her deathbed our mother told us she saw her late mother. It felt comforting as we faced that impending loss.I liked to think of her going from our love to her mother's love.


At the time, Andee and I had looked at each other, both recalibrating what we thought came next. We liked this version. They say it is a common experience as our brains assist us in a soft landing through our transition from life. In a world of so many marvels, I’d like to believe there is more to it. I have been thinking of that moment in recent days, picturing Andee with our mother in whatever form energy survives in the universe. 


When I lit my menorah that night, I said the Hanukkah prayer. Then I said another, wishing Andee a peaceful journey.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

A Life Well Lived

I learned the news as I drove to a nature center to meet friends for a walk, a phone call telling me that my dear friend Dora Eiger Zaidenweber had passed away. Now this shouldn’t have been a surprise. She was 99 years old and in home hospice, mainly because of her advanced age. While she had many aches and pains that accompanied that age, she had a will that sustained her. Enough so, that even knowing that none of us get out of this alive, her absence still felt like a very strange concept to grasp. 

Dora was an unusual and impressive person. A Holocaust survivor and Holocaust educator, at age 99, she testified at the State Capitol on behalf of Holocaust education and was still presenting to classes on Zoom, an intelligent and well-educated woman with a graduate degree in economics from a time when few women pursued such paths, an immigrant to the United States who carved out a new life with purpose, a world traveler, the nexus of a close-knit

extended family and a person with a network of deep friendships. She faced obstacles and surmounted them, whether it was surviving the Holocaust or losing her sight. In typical Dora spirit she responded to this later loss by studying the Talmud by telephone, listening to the Economist on tape and with the use of a magnifying device successfully translating her father’s memoir from Yiddish.

There are people who we encounter in our life who shape us, take us in directions we didn’t anticipate. While we all are shaped by parents, sometimes we are fortunate enough to encounter people who play a pivotal role in our adult life. It is a different kind of shaping; we are less malleable, and it often requires sustained interaction to take root. Dora and I met almost every week for thirteen years. Long enough, consistently enough, for a deep relationship to evolve. 


In the almost 500 blog posts I’ve written over the past fifteen years, Dora is mentioned in 7% of them, obviously a significant presence. I met her in a surprising way. I was doing a website on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland, one of my ancestral towns. A friend in Israel told me that he knew a woman from Radom who had a close friend from Radom who lived in my community. He sent me her contact information. It languished in my email box for several months. I then gave a presentation on artwork I was doing on Radom, drawing from a homemade film from 1937, a snapshot in time of the pre-war Jewish community. A woman in the audience told me that she had sat next to a woman from Radom at a dinner the prior night. She later shared that woman’s contact information. Of course it was the same person to whom I had not yet responded!  When I get information in stereo, I have learned to pay attention.

Dora and I had a bit of a comedy routine in how we retold the story. She teased me about hesitating to call her, imagining this old woman with a thick Polish accent. She put on the croaky voice of an old woman as she offered this version. I protested that I had been totally focused on preparing for an art exhibit of my work in London. The truth may lie somewhere in between. I was distracted, but I do hesitate to call people I don’t know, it’s an introvert thing, we introverts much prefer email. The one thing we both agreed on was that it was bashert (Yiddish for fate) that we met. I pantomimed fate tapping me on the shoulder as I looked the other way, then jabbing me in the ribs for not paying attention. We later discovered that my great-uncle lived at the same address as her grandmother in Radom, fate indeed!


We spoke on the phone for an hour and then I went to her house later that week and we spoke for five hours. Thus began a friendship with many late evenings of conversation. At first, I sought her input on the Radom paintings that I was doing. This was somewhat impeded by the fact that she couldn’t see them as she had limited vision. I described the images to her and asked what she recalled about a water carrier or young men playing chess in the street. As I completed that series of artwork, I contacted a friend at the Arts and Culture Center in Radom who I had met the prior year. I mentioned the work to him which resulted in an invitation to show it in Radom. Now I had a show in London followed by a show in Poland to plan for, it was my year of international exhibitions. As the paintings were small, I needed to build out the show, so asked Dora if she would be willing to show photographs of her pre-war and ghetto life, pictures that had been hidden in her family members’ shoes during the camps. She agreed, then noticing a wistful tone in her voice I asked if she would like to join me there. “Maybe,” she replied. It then dawned on me that I had only known her for three months. What if something happened to this then 86-year-old woman during our travels? The maybe became a reality in a way that assuaged my concerns when her son who lived in Boston agreed to accompany her one way if my husband and I could accompany her home. In Radom, I met more of her extended family who took the opportunity to join us there as well, to hear her stories first-hand in the place where they happened. 


Now that wasn’t our only trip together. Some years later I was making regular visits to my hometown in Central Illinois to see my late mother. To entertain myself while there, I did a genealogy talk for the local Jewish Federation. When they mentioned a need for a Yom HaShoah speaker, I suggested Dora. I had only to figure out how to partner her with her grandson in Chicago for the event and agree to accompany her on the flight home. Dora used to tell me that I made things happen and I guess I did. She appreciated that quality, a quality she too possessed and it formed part of our connection. We recognized parts of ourself in each other. One evening we sat in my car in front of her home. Speaking into the darkness, she confessed that she had been pulling back from her more public life, thinking that part of her life was over.  

Then she turned to me and said with a rush of emotion, "And then you came along and pulled me back in! " I wasn’t sure at first if she viewed that as a good thing, but she quickly assured me that it had given her back a sense of purpose. 


Dora, in turn, played an important role in pulling me back into the Jewish community. I had grown up in Reform Judaism but had not been engaged in the community for many years. Suddenly I was accompanying her to events within the Jewish community, meeting her extensive network and attending lively seders at her daughter’s home. While I had begun to step gingerly back in through family history and artwork, she pulled me into the center of things. Just as I made things happen in her life, she did similarly in mine.


Dora knew how to build friendships. She often told me that as you get older, you just need to find younger friends. She was the poster child for that approach. When we returned from our trip to Radom, I didn’t want our relationship to end, but it had largely been built around a project and I wasn’t sure how to reframe it. Dora took charge and suggested that we could go out to lunch together. Thus began a weekly get-together where we shared the events of our life in our deepening friendship. One day I mentioned an art exhibit and she expressed interest in seeing it. 

“But how will you see it?” I asked.

“You’ll describe it to me,” she replied matter of factly.  I learned that approach added a dimension to my understanding of the artwork as well. 

We exhibited her photos with my paintings in several venues and I created a series of paintings called Dvora's Story based on her stories from the Holocaust. They became the structure of new talks where she told those stories. I assisted her in talks, putting together slides and imagery to tell her stories, often interviewing her to provide a structure to her presentations.

 When her grandsons worked together on her father’s memoir Sky Tinged Red, about his time in Auschwitz, I sometimes functioned as a go-between, serving as her eyes for information that she needed to review and comment on. As I’ve written in this blog, I later interviewed her during the Covid years to capture her own story spanning seven generations of Eiger women. She extracted a commitment from me, to work on her story. In her final months, she reminded me of that regularly. In true form, Dora gave me a final gift with that assignment, a way to give back to my dear friend. And so, I will soon turn my attention to shaping her story, as I work with her family members to turn it into something to share within their family, and perhaps beyond. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Roadmap to My Evolution

As I approach a milestone birthday, I realize that one of the advantages of getting older is that you have a roadmap to your own evolution. You have enough history to understand who you are and the confluence of events that has led to the you of today. Often you find there are major themes that consistently drove your decisions, be it in careers, partners, or interests.  You may have had a glimmer of that earlier in your life, but hindsight has a way of underlining it with a head slapping Duh! I think this is what they mean when they say older and wiser. 

As I revisit my history, I recognize my parents within me and how fundamental their influence was. I also am surprised by my younger self. How did she know that I wonder as I view my former self at arm’s length. I’m a bit awed at this somewhat foreign creature I see in the rear-view mirror. I think more and more that we start out with a package of skills that we hone over time, but it is all there earlier than we realize. We really don't change much; we just get more comfortable in our own skin.

Usually, we are relying on memory as we assess our past. Of course, memory can polish up many a failing, but sometimes we have the benefit of documented memory.  Recently I had the opportunity to revisit former self at less than half my age. It came about in a rather unexpected way.

A local history museum recently promoted their Memory Lab. The lab allows you to digitize media that is now obsolete, such as VHS tapes. I knew I had a drawer full of videos that had been languishing for many years and there was one that I had always wanted to digitize. This tape was of my mother with my aunts. It was at a time, when my parents used to travel down to Florida to visit my mother's sisters. I had prepared a list of questions about family history and asked my mother to pose those questions to her siblings. My father was enlisted to video the discussion. My mother diligently posed her questions as the conversation rapidly spun out of control. She fruitlessly tried to coax her unruly sisters back to their assignment.

I took the VHS tape into the lab and was surprised to see that the date on it was 1992, ten years before I really did a deep dive into family history. It was a time when I was doing oral histories, which sparked my interest in this effort. I also realized that 1992 was ten years past the maximum period (10-20 years) before a tape starts to degrade. While not in perfect condition, it was usable, and there was my mother a few years younger than I am today. I felt a yearning to leap into that video and ask her thoughts on getting older, a topic that I often discuss with contemporaries, one of which she suddenly appeared to be.


I was delighted to have that tape and began to gather other tapes to digitize. Next on my list was a tape that dated back to the 1980s when I had made a career change from running nonprofits to banking. I had finished an MBA in finance, and by then had spent a few years as a lender at a large bank. The bank was known for a controversial contemporary art collection that was unusual in the corporate world of that time. I had been interviewed in 1987 about my perception of that project and its impact on employees, but also my view of the workplace and my place within it. I set the tape aside with the intention to digitize it when time allowed. 


The Universe soon kicked into gear in a surprising way, one that makes you wonder who’s pulling the strings. Two weeks after I located that tape, I received an email from the co-founder of a nonprofit working with exhibitions of contemporary public art in Los Angeles. His email harkened back to the visual arts program at the bank where I had worked so long ago. He had received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation to explore that project and learned that I had been interviewed by a videographer as part of a series of interviews. He expressed interest in my recollections of the program and that video project from thirty-six years earlier. That old video had been elevated to archival status. Should I agree to share it, it would be the first one to which he had access. 


“You’re a good researcher to track me down,” I replied. I went on to explain the unusual fact that I had that tape, newly unearthed, sitting on my table to digitize. I agreed to consider sharing it after I viewed it.


It was a shock to see my younger self, complete with those 1980's shoulder pads, emerge from that video. My first thought was that I hoped I didn't embarrass myself saying anything stupid now that I had an interested audience. I was relieved to find that former self passed my scrutiny. I liked that she considered each question carefully and pushed back on conclusions with which she didn't agree. I regarded her with almost a maternal eye, as if she were a unique being with a connection to me, and yet, not me. 


On the tape I spoke of my decision to go into finance a few years prior, when I had been approaching the much earlier milestone birthday of thirty. After a degree in social work and experience running nonprofit organizations, I had been weighing my next step. I explained that I had chosen finance because I had encountered a financial person who I felt was skewing the facts, manipulating the numbers to their benefit. Ultimately, I went into finance to protect myself, to be able to challenge with knowledge and authority. And I wanted credibility in the world, that for women often comes with degrees in “hard” subjects–– all uniquely female motivations. 


Both my choice of finance and my later choice of banking were driven by the same desire for options, both were broad areas that would offer a range of future paths. Control and choice, big themes that repeat in my decisions. Once I arrived in banking, I found I was rather ambivalent about being a banker. It was a very different world than what I had done previously and the culture that surrounded me seemed quite foreign to me. I spoke to the interviewer of a duality in me, what I would today call my analytic and creative sides, both well developed and sometimes competing for my time and attention. My friendships and interests outside of banking fed my more creative side. I knew clearly even then that I would never fit well into a narrow track.


I went on to explain the bargain that I felt I had struck with the bank. “It’s like I don't buy wall to wall carpeting in my home, I have rugs, I'm coming to the bank, I give the bank certain things, certain skills that I have to offer. And I hope that when I leave the bank, I can roll up the rugs and take them with me. I'm developing certain skills that I will carry away with me. But I'm not setting up residency here.”


Thirty-six years later I look back at a time when I didn't know what would come next but was carefully charting my path. Something that resonated with me was a comment I made about banking being a job which didn't absorb all my energies. I went on to reflect on an early job running a nonprofit which I had created that did absorb all my energies. I noted that I liked that in many ways. . . And missed that. . . And I wouldn't mind being in that again, I added, but I wasn’t sure about the stress that accompanied it.  Today I seem to have come full circle, working with several organizations and projects that do absorb my energies, embracing the stress and finding the engagement of that effort satisfying once again. 

Of course, former self knew that long ago.

And by request, here is a brief excerpt from the interview.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

An Accidental Collection

As a genealogist, I am a keeper of stuff. I would hazard a guess that most genealogists are pack rats, as they know that gems are hidden in the materials that others with a less historical bent would blithely discard. 

With this orientation at my core, it is not surprising that I have recently become enamored by the Cairo Genizah. In a few days I head off to an international conference on Jewish genealogy in London. They will be showing the film From Cairo to the Cloud and Dr. Ben Outhwaite, the head of the Genizah research at Cambridge will be at the conference. I’ll have an opportunity to visit with him over dinner so decided it was time to learn more about this topic.


So, what is a genizah? The word comes from the Hebrew word ganaz which means treasure house or hiding place. In Jewish tradition, holy writings are held within a genizah when they have been retired from use. Holy was often taken to mean containing the word "God." As was the custom at that time every document contained the words "with the help of God," hence many secular documents found their way into the genizah as well, painting a picture of bygone centuries.  


I love how the actual discovery of the Cairo Genizah unfolds. The surfacing of the genizah was due to two Scottish twin sisters, who were respected scholars. They purchased manuscripts in the Cairo marketplace in 1896 that they identified as possibly significant. They in turn shared them with their friend, the scholar Solomon Schechter, who identified them as writings of Ben Sira, better known in the Christian world as Ecclesiasticus. This was no small thing, the Hebrew text of this had not been seen since the 10th or 11th century. 


As I read newspaper accounts of this discovery from 1898, I stumbled across a rather delightful interview with one of the sisters, Mrs. Lewis, who reports, “The author of Ecclesiasticus was a woman-hater. The names of Deborah, Ruth and Judith do not occur in his list of national heroes, and one of his aphorisms runs, ‘Better is the wickedness of a man than the goodness of a woman.’ It seems therefore a just judgment upon him that the Hebrew text of his book, the text that he actually wrote, should have practically disappeared for fifteen centuries and should have been brought under the eyes of a European scholar, I might say a scholar of his own nation, by two women.” (Cambridge Independent Press 12/2/1898)


Solomon Schechter studying the Genizah documents

Schechter believed these papers likely came from the genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo and promptly paid it a visit where he charmed the community and was invited to take what and as much as he liked. He reported that he “liked it all,” boxed it up and brought it to Cambridge. Today, the collection consists of 193,000 fragments that have been mined for over a century. Historian, Simon Schama, termed it “the single most complete archive of a society anywhere in the whole medieval world.” 

This was no orderly library he walked into. In a colorful description Schechter talks of "a battlefield of books... Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big, unshapely lumps." He described the resulting odorous grit of this centuries-old deterioration as genizahschmutz.

It is not just the mass and deterioration which catches his attention, but the juxtapositions and contradictory nature of its contents. He reports that "In their present condition these lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody."


A letter signed by Abraham, the son of Maimonides

What I find fascinating is that it is a collection by accident, not carefully curated and created with a specific point of view filtered through the eyes of the historian. It is a jumble of direct source documents, both secular and religious that capture a cross-section of society for 1000 years of Middle Eastern history. Precisely because it doesn't have a specific focus, there have been scholars through time who have made this collection their life's work, plumbing its depths from their own unique vantage point. For some, the emergence of a new form of Hebrew poetry drew them in. Others focused upon the evolution of Judaism that is revealed within documents ranging from 4th-5th century CE to the end of the 19th century. I think perhaps my favorite was the holistic approach taken by the scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein. Rather than focusing on one aspect, he attempted to join the disparate pieces to recreate the community between 950-1250. To this end he identified 35,000 individuals, including 350 prominent individuals and the interactions with each other. Archives of entire families found their way to the genizah. He looked at professions, goods and trade to paint a picture of a community where Jews worked side by side with their Arab neighbors. It was a bit of a golden age for tolerance.

Within the collection are documents in the handwriting of Maimonides (who lived in Cairo and attended the synagogue) as well as marriage contracts, leases, shopping lists and even young children practicing their letters. Since paper didn’t emerge until around the 10th century, early documents were on parchment and as writing surfaces were precious, they would often scrape away prior writing to replace it with something new. While much of it is written in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, other languages literally emerge from beneath the surface text, a palimpsest echo of the old providing yet another work of interest. Beneath an 11th century Hebrew text, hides a 5th-6th century Greek translation of the Book of Kings. Often palimpsests were Christian writings originally purchased for their writing surface and resulting in documents of importance for Christian scholars as well. The genizah is also credited with being a treasury of Arabic literature.There is something for everyone.


The Friedberg Genizah Project is now digitizing the manuscripts making them available to scholars around the world –– A little crowd sourcing is likely to open up new pathways and understandings.

To learn more about the Genizah, I highly recommend the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.

There are also several YouTube videos on this topic. Here's one to get you started:

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Pieces That Surprise

Each year, Northeast Minneapolis hosts Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. Thousands of people come through  studios over a three-day weekend. For the artists, that means 18 hours, sitting in our studios and interacting with our visitors. This year was the first year that began to feel more normal after Covid. Many of us have begun to unmask as we welcomed visitors.

As an introvert who has interacted through a Zoom screen for several years, it felt both exhilarating and exhausting. So much of creating artwork is a solitary pursuit and suddenly there are people, so many people! It was fascinating to watch them respond to my work, and to engage with them about my work and about life, for the human experience is often a theme within my work. For three days I get to channel my inner extrovert. I turn into a performer and a storyteller. And I have new insights into my work and my process, as I answer my visitors’ questions.

"What is the piece that feels most important to you?" one woman asked. I tell her that the pieces that surprise me are most dear to me. Sometimes I start out thinking I’m going in a particular direction but if I listen carefully, I end up somewhere entirely unexpected. It feels rather magical. The separation between me, and the universe, feels quite permeable in those moments as our energies align. 

I came out of a career where I was very good at getting results, driving to a conclusion. That doesn’t serve me very well in creating artwork. It is all about letting go of the process and letting it guide me, learning to unlearn. The work that I do revolves around story, often difficult ones. I paint about family history, which takes me into the Holocaust. I’ve painted about both loss of memory and of cherished memories. Through an Artist Lab, I have painted on themes of change and transformation, brokenness and wholeness, often using nature as a metaphor. 

Stepping into the Chrysalis

The story I tell most often is of a triptych I painted called "Stepping into the Chrysalis" which tells the story of transformation and change. Oddly enough it evolved in a similar manner to its subject matter. I tell of its evolution, then dramatically open the doors as I talk about how we too often go through change with trepidation, eating ourselves alive with worry, much as a caterpillar dissolves into caterpillar soup within that chrysalis. They laugh ruefully, acknowledging this shared experience. 

People often bring friends to my studio after hearing me tell a story that they then want me to tell their friends. Sometimes I watch them retell the story themselves, tickled that it touched them and that they remember the details. One young woman told me that this story of transformation had stayed with her and she often thought about it.

I painted about my mother’s loss of memory in her later years and I post stories as well as the related artwork. I’ve had people respond with tears about subjects that resonated in their own life. Many have loved someone who lost memory and my work touches those raw places. 

Those with Jewish heritage, and many without, respond to artwork based on interviews with Jewish elders or my story of traveling to Poland with a friend who is a survivor to show my artwork about the one-time Jewish community from which both my grandfather and my friend came. 


And many respond to a tall painting of the forest of Ponar with Yiddish text beneath the trees. It is from an old series, but too difficult to store in my loft so stakes its claim to wall space. Ponar is where the Jews of Vilnius were murdered during the Holocaust by their Lithuanian neighbors. The painting has a certain beauty that attracts people to it and when they ask me about it, I always hesitate for a minute, unsure about bringing them into the dark story that underlies it. I tell them about the Polish journalist who lived near the forest and saw the Jews brought to the forest, who afterwards heard the stories of their murder- the woman who hid her child in a pile of clothing, the chase through the forest after someone who fled. Each day he wrote about what he saw and heard, burying his words in jars in the forest, as if the forest could speak. In time it does, those pages surface in archives, then a book, painstakingly pierced together. He reports, “It was a beautiful day,” then writes of the horrors of that day. It is the juxtaposition between beauty and horror, that is the coda to the story.

Ghost Trees

Sometimes I have a story to tell that reads in an entirely different way to a different viewer. A painting titled “Ghost Trees,” that I did shortly after reading The Overstory, has trees separated from their stumps, a reflection of the way in which trees exist in community and the impact of deforestation. It drew an excited response from a young woman who exclaimed “It’s a Minecraft tree!” I soon learned that floating trees are a feature in Minecraft. And here I thought I had been channeling Magritte. 

When story is your creative engine, it makes for interesting conversations,  ones that touch on shared experiences that have deep emotional roots.  I may never know someone’s name, but I often learn their story as well as sharing mine. Sensing a kindred spirit they often suggest books and movies they think I would enjoy. 

To share stories with those who were once strangers is powerful. It builds an awareness of how we are all connected and reminds me of why I do what I do, in precisely the way that I do it. I ended my weekend with that mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion, with gratitude for the opportunity to share stories and artwork and to make those very real connections with others.