On the first day of “The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe,” my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.
I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?
Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.
I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.
But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.
Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar’s army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it’s an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It’s inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.
Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it’s not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I’m not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that’s left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.
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