Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), in partnership with the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM), is recording oral history interviews with southern Jews about the experience of being Jewish during the COVID-19 crisis. Among many other questions about life during COVID, we ask interviewees how the pandemic has shifted their relationship to Judaism and being Jewish over the past two years. While taking part in this process during my recent remote internship at the ISJL, I began thinking about how I would answer that question for myself.
My relationship to Judaism has always been defined through a connection to family and stories. At age eight, my grandmother gave me a book of Jewish stories, many of which still shape how I think today. For example, it introduced an idea stated in the Talmud: a person who destroys a life, destroys a world. That has always remained with me.
At age twelve, my family, which always read both the Hebrew and English versions of the Hanukkah blessings, found a translation of one that ended in “days of yore.” That became our incorporated into our celebration of the holiday – a small but specific, meaningful tradition. We may trip and fumble our way through the Hebrew, out of sync and out of tune, but as long as we end together with “days of yore,” we have successfully celebrated Hanukkah.
The stories and the traditions created and experienced with family are how I express my Judaism. And yet, these two things, at times, felt weirdly distant: despite believing that storytelling was integral to my Judaism, my family has passed down very few family stories. I knew nothing about my family prior to my grandfather’s generation, and even the stories of that generation are blurry to me.
My mother and I have often discussed researching our family history and reaching out to family members to gather their stories. It never felt like we had the time. Our jobs, schooling, family obligations, and extracurricular activities took precedence while our family story was relegated to some unreachable “later.”
And then the pandemic hit, stopping everything, and forcing everyone into their homes. We were very lucky, but our lives still became limited to online school and work. Suddenly, we had so much time—time for me to spend with my mother and hear her stories, and time for both of us to pull out dusty cardboard boxes filled with pictures, letters, and birth certificates. This material had been buried in the back of our closets since we moved almost ten years ago. Through these documents, my mother was able to remember and share more family stories, and we were able to combine stories and documents with online research to create a more complete family tree.
The time we were afforded by the pandemic also allowed me to connect to my grandparents and hear their stories. I learned about my grandfather’s life outside of Boston in the 1940s and his experience traveling to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. I learned about how my grandmother’s family had gone on a research journey not unlike the one I was now undertaking, searching for family stories, and how they had found the physical records of their family’s immigration to the United States through Ellis Island.
Despite the isolation it caused, the pandemic allowed me to build a stronger connection with my Judaism through strengthening ties with my family and their stories. Jews are storytellers, and finding my family’s stories helped connect me to that tradition. Through this process of research and reflection, I realized that I had been looking for a sense of historicity, of a deeper connection to my family and our stories. That’s my answer to the question I had the opportunity to ask of others, and I am glad that one unanticipated outcome of these past two years, for me, is being more firmly linked to my own family’s “days of yore.”