My parents left the United States in 1973 to retire in Bat Yam, Israel, the country in which they met and married in 1934, and where my brother Norman was born. My father left Poland in 1925 and went to work for his brothers in Paris and then left to compete in the first Maccabiah games in the breast stroke only to learn that there was no swimming pool. (I learned later that there was indeed a swimming event, so I can only assume that my dad may have not made the cut and may have been too embarrassed.) My mother left her home Bulgaria as a young woman on a group visa and settled in Jerusalem, where she met my father in the fur shop where they both were employed.
One day while browsing in a used bookshop in Tel Aviv after his retirement to Israel, he came upon a book titled During the Russian Administration with the Jews of Stanislawow During the Holocaust by Abraham Liebesman. My father, Sigmund Graubart, no trained scholar, was always interested in history. And he had a keen interest in Stanislawow, Poland (today Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), the city of his birth, because his older sister and her family were killed there. After determining there was only this edition, which was in Hebrew, my father began translating the book into English.
At the same time, Pat Conroy was working on his novel Beach Music and a portion of the book dealt with the Holocaust. He wanted to place his character “Max Rusoff” in a small city and as is usual in Conroy’s fiction, he wanted to write in great detail. Pat loved my parents. He wishes we could have switched our families at birth. I told him that would have impinged on our friendship, as I would have been dead. I couldn’t have survived “The Great Santini.”
Pat began work on Beach Music in 1986 and would take 9 years to publish the novel. My dad finished his translation in 1990 and I published it, distributing it free to anyone who showed interest. Pat read it and was so moved, he used it as the primary reference to describe life during the Holocaust in the novel. He was surprised at how good the translation was. He knew my father only had a high school education. During the Russian Administration had the detail Pat was seeking and he decided to use it to help him draw the picture of “Kronittska.”
In a note to the reader in Beach Music, Conroy gives thanks to Sigmund Graubart, and because of that acknowledgement and because the book was translated into scores of languages, I have received requests for the 49-page booklet from all over the world. There is no charge, and there are still some available.
If there is one consistent theme in the ongoing discoveries of my family history it is meaningful coincidence. Some people call this synchronicity. Our sages call it hasgacha pratit, Divine providence.
In 2009, I received an email from David Abitbol, whom I had met the year before when I presented at the Jewlicious Festival he co-founded in Los Angeles. David had made aliyah and spotted a vintage photograph of a Jerusalem couple named Alcalay displayed near his apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. He asked if they were my relatives. I didn’t know. My mother didn’t know. My grandparents were no longer living so I couldn’t ask them. Months passed and the question lingered. If I could find more details about the image, I might discover how we are related.
If hobbies can be Jewish, genealogy certainly is. It’s a way of reclaiming our past despite centuries of persecution and loss. It’s also popular among “Holocaust families” like mine who dream of discovering a lost relative. Before the proliferation of genealogical sites on the Net, I consulted an Israeli professor of Sefardi history, Yom Tov Assis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, about my mother’s family. Yom Tov told me all Alcalays are part of a large clan that left Spain at the time of the Inquisition and dispersed across the Mediterranean. While he was still alive, my grandfather, the son of a Jerusalem rabbi, told me we are direct descendants of an early Zionist thinker, Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, the chief rabbi of Sarajevo. In his writings, Herzl credits Alcalay with many of the ideas for a future Jewish state. To honor that history, I inserted the montage of delegates at the first Zionist Congress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland into my first book, Cool Jew. Two delegates were both descendants of Rabbi Alcalay, a granddaughter and a great nephew, who were married. Their names are David and Judith Alcalay; she was one of the relatively few women in attendance.
Months after David Abitbol sent me the image of the unknown Alcalays, I was invited to present at Limmud UK. Since I was traveling all the way from California, I added on a visit to Israel and recruited another friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, for help unraveling the mystery of the photo. I had met Yitzchak years earlier when we both taught in a Jewish spirituality retreat in Maui. Nachlaot’s labyrinthian streets easily swallow up newcomers but Yitzchak, who studies kabbalah in Nachlaot each night—all night—was happy to help. David had told me the image is one among many historic portraits embedded in Nachlaot’s walls; these displays honor early residents of one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City with weather-protected photographs that represent a Jewish twist on “Lincoln slept here.” On one wall, there might be the image of Tevyeh the Milkman. On another, Rachel the seamstress.
We wandered the neighborhood in an impromptu tour, carefully reading every caption, enjoying the charming stories, but there was not one Alcalay among them. The sun began to set and soon, Yitzchak had to leave for his evening routine. I asked if we could quickly try just one more street before we gave up. We picked up our pace and turned another corner. There, we discovered a series of about 20 images, the largest yet, but one drew me directly to it and I began to cry. The photo features a family, including one young woman I immediately recognized as my grandmother. She had a stroke early in life and I barely knew her, but I “happened” to have visited her a week before she died and attended her funeral in the same cemetery as the Israelis martyred at the Munich Olympics.
My aunt had given me a copy of her family portrait soon after my grandmother passed away. I love it so much that I keep it on display in my home. By the time I discovered it in Nachlaot, I had already published it in Cool Jew. It accompanies a section on Jewish blood ties.
My grandmother, Yehudit Levy, z’l is shown seated in the far right corner, with her parents, siblings, niece and nephew.
It was only because I was searching that I found what I wasn’t seeking, a bond to Nachlaot I didn’t even know existed. This amazing series of meetings and friendships had led me to an unexpected gift came during Chanukah, when my grandmother was born. Her parents had named her Judith, in honor of one of the heroines of Chanukah, who slew the enemy ruler, Holofernes.
I was due in England soon but hoped to return to Nachlaot for the next major festival, Passover. I dreamt of commemorating our redemption and walking the streets my grandmother had, and where my great grandparents had before her.
It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish life—in both revealed and unrevealed ways.
My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence…an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.
My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.
One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.
Another of my father’s favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.
I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”
This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:
“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, ‘Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.’”
There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”
Earlier this summer, I mingled among a group of amateur and professional genealogists at an international Paris conference exploring the study of Jewish roots. A fascinating question emerged: is the history of all our ancestors somehow a part of us? Does genetic memory exist?
There are scientific studies exploring what we inherit in unexpected ways through epigenetics, a chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the core of this field is the notion that genes have a memory and that the lives of our great grandparents – what they breathed, saw and ate – can directly affect us decades later. Ongoing studies in Sweden are examining statistics about famine and abundant harvests to determine the impact on the health of descendants four generations later. Researchers, for instance, found a statistical link between the increased longevity of the descendants of paternal grandfathers who had lived through a period of famine while young.
I’m intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and, perhaps, an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries. In the case of my own Catholic Carvajal family, I wonder what prompted them to guard the secret of their Sephardic Jewish identity for generations long after the Spanish Inquisition that prompted them to flee to Costa Rica in Central America.
In the 1990’s, Jerusalem psychotherapist Dina Wardi worked with children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents typically designated certain children as “memorial candles” who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a strong compulsive ambition to achieve.
A similar strategy existed among the Anusim, Hebrew for the forced ones who converted to Christianity to survive during the Inquisition. Usually elder women took the role of passing on information about their secret identity to particular younger family members. In our family, the historian was my great Aunt Luz – which means light in Spanish.
At one seminar on genealogy, a speaker, Jonina Duker, talked about a phenomenon of “the blood calls” among Anusim to describe how they find their way back to the mainstream of Jewish people.
Recently, a Spaniard named Fernando Carvajal Acebal contacted me from Madrid after reading something I had written and spotting our shared Sephardic Jewish name, Carvajal. He tried to explain the feeling that he said has lingered with him since he was a young Catholic. His mother told him he started insisting he was Jewish when he was about six years old.
“Nobody transmitted this feeling to me,” he told me. “I could have felt I was a Muslim, but I always felt profoundly that I was Jewish. I would say this intimate feeling is almost genetic, an emotion that tells me, yes, you are a Catholic, but do not forget that you are Jewish. I have a deep Christian faith and I pray every day. I do not know the Jewish rites, their customs, or roots. But it does not stop me from feeling Jewish.”
Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.
By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, The Forgetting River, I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.
I’m a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.
But one of the most crucial mistakes I made was that I lost my own journalistic skepticism when I questioned family members about delicate subjects. I didn’t gather much information when I asked directly if we were the descendants of Marranos, forced Christian converts who maintained a dual identity to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. To probe sensitive family history, I realized belatedly that it’s best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign questions and searched for records that allowed information to seep out about customs, household rituals, job patterns, prayers. I found that the older generation sometimes confided more in their grandchildren and nieces than their own children. From this strategy, I learned about a hidden menorah kept in a bedroom dresser or fourth cousins marrying fourth cousins, an almost tribal habit of trusted secret Marrano families intermarrying and maintaining the appearance of being Catholics.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about other strategies that families can exploit to start conversations and unlock memories. An acquaintance organized a family reunion for a large black family on the East Coast with some painful history dating back to slavery. Some relatives were reluctant to remember those times, but they settled on the idea of creating a griot cookbook, asking relatives for family recipes along with submissions of personal memories evoked by the dishes. The griot is a reference to a traditional West African storyteller.
Once conversations start flowing, seize the opportunity. Make a recording. The StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that offers advice about preserving personal history, down to suggested conversation openers (What is your earliest memory? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?).
For the finale – and a gift to future generations – make a digital slide show with a soundtrack that mixes music and their words. There are many iPad applications that allow amateur genealogists to turn into multi-media producers. Make sure the slide is show is about two minutes and focus on a time or a story that can lead to more conversations.
The moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, The Forgetting River.
I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It’s a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.
Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim – Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos – which in Spanish literally means pigs – typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.
“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie wrote to me. “She asked me: ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditos?’ Of course when I brought it up to my mother, she refused to talk. Come to think of it, I actually took a small tape recorder and without their knowledge recorded our conversation.”
When I read those words, I felt chills. One of my biggest regrets about trying to recover my family’s secret identity is that for years I missed numerous opportunities to gather information from older generations because I was simply not curious about our past. To bring life to a chart of a family tree, I realized belatedly that conversations have to happen to tell a vivid story to pass on to new generations. Indirect approaches need to be pursued to tackle delicate subjects. I discovered all this by making many mistakes.
Rosie’s late mother – my aunt and godmother – had always been interested in my book research. I had asked her several times about our family history and secret Jewish background, but she told me politely that she knew nothing. “My mother knew, but was too diplomatic with you to say she didn’t want to talk,” Rosie said. “When I brought it up, she absolutely refused to comment. I knew that she knew something.”
Today I’m preparing to mail copies of my new book to relatives in California and Costa Rica – too late to write another chapter with tape recorded quotes of a voice from the grave.