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by Hannah

And so I print out my writing onto paper.

The old fashioned way.

Creasing the edges carefully I put the papers into envelopes.
Lick each one, take my mother’s address book and search the pages for their contacts.

I write out each address with care.

I select and place my stamps, will I have the trust to drop them in the mailbox?

There can be so much value in simple ink on paper.
It is like letting fate take over, the unfolding of the future of this project cast to the winds of the US postal system.

When I send letters to friends in far off places I try each time to put a bit of myself within those fat looping words I scribble. I include little maps of time having passed and think that the papers which my fingers that have grown familiar with will become their familiars as well.

My mother’s mother had a silver letter opener. Sharp and capable, producing that quick ripping of envelope bits apart. So efficient it was.

My father’s father wrote letters. Brisk scratching on the backs of old receipts. So efficient it was.

I must go perform my tasks, get those letters off, sealed with courage and with love.

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Dear Family,

The summer I was eight years old my dad and I drove across the country. It was a journey of epic proportions. For the first time in my life I had my pops all to myself, and with miles of open road flying past the window we were comfortable in our mustard yellow Thunderbird, singing along to the Beach Boys and eating French fries as it pleased us. When we made our way east to South Dakota I remember marveling at Mitchell’s claim to fame, the corn palace. The time we spent in my dad’s hometown was short and in truth superimposed with some fuzziness. I wish I could say I remember every second of it- but indeed my memories are limited to just a few sharp moments. To the dark and somewhat damp safety of the family fabric store- being told I could have my pick of the many pieces of lace fabric that would serve as my much needed dress up clothes for the rest of the journey, to sitting in the hot tub of the hotel feeling the bubbly contrast of cold soda as it slid down my throat, and to peering shyly at my Uncle Simon as the two brothers spoke behind mostly closed doors and I waited in the living room of their childhood home, not knowing the worth of that space, not knowing all that those walls had witnessed. Already I have begun to fill in some of the gaps between those memories. Call it a vivid imagination, but I have always had a talent for creating memories based on photos or stories told to me- I can’t resist this human instinct to make my narrative more fluid.

Like the Rabbi involved with the interpretation the Torah, I have begun to take a closer look at what I “know” (or think I know), what I don’t know, and I have been creating my own Midrash, an interpretation, in the hopes of transforming this fuzziness into meaning. Perhaps because Jews are the “people of the book” time and time again we look to our history as a people (recorded, oral, imagined) so that we might learn about how to live in our contemporary world. In following this precedent I want to look at our more recent family history to help me to find my own way. “Le’Dor va Dor” (from “Generation to generation”) is a reoccurring theme in Jewish practice. We are constantly looking from where we came, seeking out what is to be learned from our past, and telling and re-telling our stories.

As I am growing older, 23 and out of college, having seen more of the world than ever before, even having a bit of history myself, I have grown to value the family history that I have been told.  However, I find myself wishing that I had asked more questions, paid more careful attention when those stories were being told to me. I feel like I want to know where I came from. I’m wondering what experiences are unique to our family? How has that difference helped to make us, and then me who I am?

For a long time I have been thinking about our family. I have been wondering about Sam and Edith, our grandparents/parents and about the realities of what it was like for all of our parents to grow up in Mitchell, South Dakota. Our family has many stories. Perhaps you have been at a family gathering and have heard some brothers reminiscing about that time they had to walk up hill in the snow both ways to get to school and back, how in the summertime the boys used to all sleep out on the porch or that winter my pops was dared to stick his tongue to a telephone poll and ending up getting stuck- having to pour hot water on his tongue before ripping it off. There are also stories of Sam’s trip to the US, of what he did upon arriving in San Francisco and how he made his way to South Dakota. Then there is the story I’ve only heard more recently of Edith’s father, and how he homesteaded by Chamberlain on the Missouri river then traveled to Sioux City, Iowa to meet up with wife and family there.

For as long as I can remember I have had these stories in my head and they serve as clues as to who my ancestors were, where they came from and ultimately, who I am.  These clues are the shards of identity that form who I am…the grandchild of Russian immigrants, the daughter of a first generation South Dakotan, a Jew.  However it is not enough, I feel incomplete…There is so much that I don’t know and I am asking you to please help me find out where I came from so that I can move into my future with a more solid sense of who I am.

It is important to me to ask questions now. I know that each of you has your own memories and thoughts. I feel the need now to find out about our shared past. I am afraid that if I don’t ask questions now I will loose my chance and everything will fade away.

What I want you to understand is that each of you has something to contribute to my endeavor, whether it is through memories, thoughts, or stories passed down from your parents.  I want to hear it all, to immerse myself in it…even the most mundane details delight me!

With this email I want to reach out to you and let you know of my desire for connection with you and with our rich family history.

Please let me know what you think about all of this. How would you feel about sharing more with me about your and about our pasts? I would love to talk to you about all of this and if nothing comes out of this but us getting to know each other better then, Dayenu (that would be enough)!

Much Love,

Hannah

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Hannah

I am up to my ears in bits and pieces. I am immersed in parts of my family’s story, in clues to follow-up on, in tales that must continue to be reinvented, imbued with life. But because there is so much, so much, so much time gone by and so much family I must consult with before the opportunity to know my story is carried downstream, I am just treading water.

TREADING WATER 2

Remaining stagnant is not sustainable. My legs rotate, kicking swiftly so that my head can burst through the surface. Greedily, I gobble oxygen, my sustainer.

The weather gets choppy and I tire from this constant scramble. The heaviness of these thoughts, the unforseen barriers push down on me and I sink slowly.

hands

But with all of that salt around me, how could I forget the tears of my ancestors? It is just this heaviness that surrounds me that will also help me to float. The ocean is a force much greater than just a person and even rocks can be broken down to sand by the waves that lap persistently.

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incomplete stories

Yesterday morning while walking to Yom Kippur services I spoke with my father about his father’s death. I heard some strands of story about a trip to New York to visit a specialist and my grandfather’s decision not to do chemotherapy. In my father’s trademark bittersweet tone- one that brings both a smile to my mouth and that  heaviness so familiar to my heart-  my father suggested that his father, always a business man, weighed the options of a couple more months of life versus all the thousands of dollars he would have to spend and just chose not to.

Perhaps there was some guilt at being one of the few of his Russian family members who did get the chance to come to America, who got to build a life, and survived through it all. Apparently my grandfather used to always say “You can sleep in the grave”, perhaps he was just sick and tired from working so hard all of those years. And so my grandfather, at the approximate age of 45, decided it was his time to die. And now (perhaps inspired by the spirit of Yom Kippur) I know more about his death, but I wish to know about his life.

Here is a half remembered story about my paternal grandfather, told in the only style I’ve ever known it, incomplete and wandering- with familial dissention that interrupts the narrative and of course with plenty of bias.

Samuel went to University in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was in the Russian army and was put in the front, because the Jews always went straight to the front. But he spoke seven languages and so he could tutor the son of the captain. Because of this he was kept from fighting for some time. There was Russian Traina war going on. At some point he injured himself and while on the train (being transported to a hospital?) he deserted the army. He went to his brother’s house, he asked him for help. It was very dangerous to be harboring a deserter of the Russian army. Sam’s brother got him the passport of a dead goy. His brother was a tea seller, he gave him money for boat fare to China on the condition that he send tea back to Russia. Upon getting to China Sam got the tea and was able send it the day before trade was closed. Sam got a job on a ship bound for Angel Island and worked his way across the ocean. When he arrived in San Francisco he spoke seven languages but not one of them was English. That first week he slept in the movie theaters and learned English from the movies and cartoons that played. He got a job working in a factory,  stamping grade A USDA approved on packages of beef. Apparently he wasn’t so good at this, not quite fast enough. (I imagine this a little like that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ in the chocolate factory with the conveyor belt, but less humorous). Sam’s foreman went to speak with him and Sam told him he had some kinsfolk in the mid-west who were in the grocery (more…)

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