Unearthing My Grandfather's Ambiguity About Our Jewishness...
How I’m Usually Going to Post:
Since some of you are also writers exploring reclaiming family history, I’ll start each post talking about any particular tools, craft elements, or research techniques that apply to that particular post. Then I will get into the stories themselves, and explore how the revelations in each impact what I’ll be researching next and how I understand my own family’s past.
The following is made up of excerpts from an interview I did with my mother on Dec. 9, 2021. To capture this, and other, interviews, I’m using the transcription tool Otter, which I’m finding invaluable. (This isn’t a paid product placement, I just really like how it works, and think it might be useful to some of you also doing interview work toward writing your own family stories.) It both captures the audio and transcribes it, so that both elements are available, and stores everything “in the cloud,” but you can also store things locally. This is what the transcription looks like:
One of my favorite things about it is that it highlights the part of the transcript that corresponds with the audio, making editing fairly easy. It’s also very easy to navigate, and while I’m not finding the keywords particularly useful, I suspect that for many of you they will be. (I keep getting the same ones, because I keep talking to people about the same things. If you’re interviews have a broader range of topics, I bet they’re great.)
The Truths I Learned:
I always thought of my grandfather as, well, very Jewish. This is no doubt because he was my only Jewish grandparent, and my tie to Judaism. (In another post, I’ll get into the issues that arise because I’m the daughter of a patrilineal Jewish mother, but know that I come from the Reform tradition which recognizes both matrilineal and patrilineal Jews as Jewish and I claim my Jewishness.) But it’s also because he looked Jewish, as did most of his brothers and his sister. Both in their dress and in their features, they looked different from the grandfathers of my friends in our small West Virginian city. My grandfather wore suits most of the time, and when he didn’t, he wore collared shirts and linen pants, all crisply ironed. I don’t know that I ever saw anyone from his generation in a pair of jeans.
So, I was surprised when I began exploring our family history to discover that my grandfather would probably have been just as happy—or, perhaps, happier—if my mother had chosen to raise in one of the more mainstream Protestant faiths.
Here are some excerpts from my interview with my mother:
Me: Okay, so I have a couple of questions that are things I think I probably am wrong about. Okay. So you should expect that I expect that your answer is going to be you've made that up, Sarah. Okay. Is it true that at one point granddaddy either went or were supposed to go to yeshiva? No. Okay. Why do I think that?
Mom: Because his mother wanted him to be a rabbi, because he was the oldest
son. So there was at least the expectation that he was going to do that,
but it did not suit his wishes.
Me: And did she die before he would have had to go if he died when Aunt Josie was six, how much older was Grandaddy than Aunt Josie?
Mom: I think maybe 12 years.
Me: Okay, so he would have had to say no to his mother rather than just getting out of it because she died.
Mom: No. Probably was a senior in high school.
Me: Okay, . But she had expected him to be a rabbi.
Mom: That was her wish. I don’t know that she expected it, but that’s what she wanted.
Me: And so was Granddaddy raised in a religious home?
Mom: His mother was religious. She kept kosher. I would not say that his father was religious. And none of the boys really turned out to be deeply religious. Nor did Aunt Josie. So religious children did not flow out of that.
Me: Granddaddy had no interest whatsoever in raising you Jewish.
Mom: Right. I did go to Sunday school but I think he just thought people should go to Sunday school.
Me: I think I remember Grandaddy getting the Jerusalem Post?
Mom: Well, that might be but that was for intellectual reasons.
Me: He married three non-Jewish women, but never just like went to church with them and, and, and certainly stayed a member of B'nai B'rith his whole life, even if he never went to a meeting and was a member of the temple. So why do you think he maintained those parts of Jewishness if he had really no interest in any of the other parts of Jewishness?
Mom: Because he was a Jew.
Me: That's enough, right?
Mom: It is.
Me: But he was sort of disappointed that you named me Sarah.
Mom: Well, yeah. And he said, “Well, if her name is Sarah Einstein, they'll certainly know what she is.”
Me: So do you think that he would have wanted his grandchildren to think they were Jews?
Mom: I think that he would have been very happy had we all been Episcopalians or Presbyterians. I think that he thought we'd be safer.
I’m struck by how much my grandfather—and, I think probably, his father—believed that the path to safety was assimilation, and how much I grew up thinking this, too. I’m not at all certain that I think this now, but I understand why they believed it, and why safety was a greater concern to them than identity.