Friday, July 31, 2009

Reflections on Our First Week

I was following lines upon the ground. The lines moved apart slightly as I stepped upon them. Then I realized that they were the edges of interlocking puzzle pieces. I was not alone. In front of me and behind me, walking in a line, were other people all walking with bowed heads in a meditative calm. The line of people swayed slightly as it moved along the path. I awoke this morning, startled by my alarm, but still in a dream-like state. Part of me pulled back wanting to stay in the dream and make sense of it. The other part knew I needed to begin to prepare for the puzzles of the day.

I often describe myself as a puzzle solver. Whether it is finance, genealogy, art or language, those are the skills that I bring to bear. Apparently I even do it in my dreams. I’m very much in the midst of solving multiple puzzles so it is no surprise that it is the subject of my dreams. Language is a puzzle, but also a key to solve other puzzles. I’m trying to build a framework to absorb a new language that may provide some understanding of the culture from which my family came. At the same time, I ‘m trying to solve genealogical puzzles as I synthesize data and find connections. There is a process to solving puzzles. You don’t get everything all at once. Sometimes you come at the same information at a different point in time and see something significant that you totally missed previously. I often find in my genealogy work that organizing information allows me to recognize patterns and connections that otherwise would be obscured in disarray.

We are seeing some parallels in learning Yiddish. We’ve just finished our first week of classes with two different instructors, each with a very different teaching style. While we’ve spent 15 hours in actual class time, we’ve spent an equal amount doing homework as well as taking advantage of various cultural events. We’ve actually learned quite a bit in a week. We can quickly take notes in cursive Yiddish. We’ve learned pronunciation, verbs, sentence construction and a whole new vocabulary. We’ve spent hours perusing a Yiddish dictionary searching for words that often look like hieroglyphics and it has been a challenge to learn a new alphabet with a different ordering of letters. When we come upon Yiddish plaques within the city, we feel a sense of satisfaction when we’re able to decipher them. Tonight we translated one which marked the spot of Theodore Herzl’s visit to Vilnius in 1903.

While we’ve learned a lot, we are swimming in information which cries out for organization to integrate it into our knowledge base. One of the tasks that we plan to do this weekend is organize our information into an easily accessible structure.

Today was a rather amusing lesson as we discussed responses to the question of “ Vos hairt zik?” which is the equivalent of our “What’s new?”, but actually translates to “What do you hear?” The responses ranged from “the grandmother gets older” to “the brain spins”. The time when we feel most competent in our Yiddish abilities is when we read Yiddish sentences in a 1947 first grade primer where Sarala and Berala play the roles of Dick and Jane.

This contrasts with our feeble attempts to formulate Yiddish sentences in actual conversation with others.

There are a few things we did this week that we haven’t yet shared. One evening we attended an outdoor film, “The Partisans of Vilna” shown in a monastery courtyard in what was once the old ghetto.

The film told the evolution of the partisan unit as they struggled to survive and resist the occupation by the Nazis. It brought to light the daily struggles of the ghetto. It also highlighted the battles the partisans fought on multiple fronts. When aligning with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, some saw them as enemies of the Lithuanians. On the other hand they had to literally watch their backs to protect themselves from friendly fire. Given the fact that today’s Lithuanians had filed charges against well-known partisans, we were curious about the response of the audience, but didn’t have the opportunity to find out.

Today was a very rewarding day on the genealogical front. The records that I found at the archives and had shared with other researchers received warm and appreciative responses. I am a firm believer that good genealogical deeds create good karma. I never expect anything in return as it is satisfying just to share information with others. Nonetheless it is especially exciting when they are able to provide information to me in return. This week I received a number of translated Revision (census) list documents for one of the shtetls that I am researching. I had sent photos of the original records to a fellow researcher and she in turn shared her information with me.

This afternoon we saw the film Ivan and Alexander which portrayed life in Poland in the early 1930s. It reflected how stressful economic conditions can fray the fabric of relationships across national and religious boundaries. Later this evening we attended a Shabes Tish (Shabbat Table) at the Jewish Community Center. The prayer over the Shabes lights was recited and then a young man from our group chanted the blessing over the wine and challah. His voice was strikingly beautiful and made the occasion feel very special. We had a small meal and the group soon moved into Yiddish and Hebrew songs which increased in energy as the bottles of Lithuanian vodka diminished. Our evening ended with a fireworks display over the red tile roofs viewed from our living room window.

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