Sunday, December 27, 2009
This week is the anniversary (yartzeit) of the death of my grandfather. He was born in Poland to Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, and made aliyah in 1931. He and my grandmother were married and she arrived in Israel in 1933 where my father was born 4 years later. Luck, and passionate Zionism, had it that my grandfather’s arrival was eased by the earlier arrival of some of his siblings. By shortly after Israel declared statehood, he lived in Israel with three sisters and a brother who had either made it to Israel before the Holocaust, or in the case of one brother, survived the war and arrived afterward with his surviving son. Most families of Polish Jews were not as lucky as the Feldstein siblings who survived and were reunited all in close proximity to one another. A variety of circumstances transpired that my father and his mother left Israel in order to reunite with her two brothers and sister who survived the War and had settled in New York. In 1963, my grandfather died. He is buried in the beautiful old Haifa cemetery. According to Ashkenazi Jewish custom, since I was born after he died, I am named for him. While my father returned to Israel immediately after his father died, he lost touch with his uncles and aunts and cousins. I knew the names of uncles and aunts, but had no real way of finding them. During my junior year in college I studied in Israel and visited Haifa often. When I’d visit, I’d go to the cemetery to look after my grandfather’s grave. But other than imagining what my grandfather was like, a man whose name I carried but who I never knew, I had an ulterior motive. I’d leave notes on the grave, wrapped in plastic, weighed down under the rocks that were the sign that I visited, with the hope that a sibling, niece or nephew or old friend might find it and I’d reunite with my family that I didn’t know. I don’t know if they were ever found, but I never received any indication that they were. During my first visit to Israel, and the only time that I’d be in Israel together with my father, he brought us to visit his old neighborhood and his school. He found an elderly former neighbor who recognized him immediately after 30 plus years, and found an electronic shop owned by his best childhood friend, Ben Zion, across the street from where my father grew up (and next to where my grandmother once had a clothing shop of her own). We found that Ben Zion lived just two buildings down on the same street in which they grew up and where they played together as children. While it was meaningful and interesting to see where my father spent his early years, and I really enjoyed being taken in by Ben Zion and his family as if I were family, I always wondered about the biological family my father left behind. I wondered how he dealt with going to the US with his mother to reunite with her siblings who survived the Holocaust, and what it was like in an age prior to the internet and easy phone access to leave a parent so many miles away, just as his parents had done leaving their families in Poland, never knowing when, or if, they’d see each other again. Many years later, after my own father had died, I still had an unquenchable desire to find my Israeli relatives. Every time I’d meet a Feldstein I had to play genealogist to see if maybe we were related and if I could track that person’s family to find my own. Once, on vacation in Israel, I took a Haifa phone book and called all the Feldsteins, but had no luck considering that there was only one surviving male relative and all the sisters took on their husbands’ names. Ten years ago, I stumbled upon a Jewish genealogy web site and tried to look up all possible configurations of names and locations to find living relatives. http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org brought me to a page on which a woman also named Feldstein was looking for relatives from the same town from which my grandfather came. Her phone number was a Haifa area number. I could not contain my excitement. I woke up early the next day, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and called her. In my broken Hebrew, I was able to discern that her husband was indeed my father’s first cousin. As I would learn later, Shlomo arrived in Israel after the War with his father, Jacob, and lived with my father and his parents until they got settled on their own. After searching most of two decades, I had found my family. Fortunately, my mother had planned a family trip to Israel that December and thirteen American Feldsteins had a family reunion with nearly 100 other Israeli descendants of Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, finally meeting our Israeli family for the first time. After moving to Israel with my own family in 2004, I was able to get to know my relatives here somewhat. We were moved that some of my father’s cousins (and their children) joined us at the celebrations of our daughters’ bat mitzvahs, we have shared in their celebrations, and have had other occasions to visit and get to know one another, some more than others. What’s so interesting is that one cousin after the next are really fine people. While none are religiously observant, they are proud Jews and Israelis. They run the political spectrum from right to left. I have enjoyed getting to know them as people, but also have been grateful for their ability – and willingness – to piece together my own family history by sharing parts of their past, and memories of my father and his parents. This past summer we were invited to the 80th birthday of my father’s oldest cousin, David. We had met the cousins before but had not seen some since 1999. Just before the party, I found a photo of my grandfather along with several others and shared it with David. As I suspected, this was my grandfather and his siblings all in Poland, including each of the brothers and sisters who made aliyah, and a brother, Ephraim, who was murdered during the Holocaust. Sharing the photo at the party brought back memories to the cousins, and brought me closer to them. As I sat with them, I couldn’t help think that my father really would have loved to have been there. It would have made him happy to sit with his cousins and reminisce even though he left Israel as a young man and did not see them again. My father would have been proud to see that everyone grew up and came out OK, that they had raised beautiful families of their own. It was sad that he couldn’t have been there with us, but I was happy, and fortunate, that I had the privilege myself. My grandfather was the first of his siblings (in Israel) to die, and my father was the first among his cousins. These are not milestones about which to be especially proud, but that’s the reality. Now, ten years after reuniting with my family and 46 years after my grandfather’s death, I hope that circumstances will enable my nuclear family and all generations of my extended family to get to know one another and share many happy occasions together. We are very different people with very different perspectives, but we are all family and descendants of those who left Poland to build a better life for themselves in Israel. By thriving in Israel, we honor their memory and truly play a direct and active role in realizing the goals and dreams that they had for themselves, and for us. We fulfill the dreams of my grandfather, who never knew his grandchildren or great grandchildren, but who came to Israel so we’d have the privilege of being here as well. As I observe the yartzeit of the man for whom I am named, wondering about his life, I know that if he were around still he’d be very proud of our coming full circle, not just living here but in our reuniting with my father’s cousins with a common bond and a common destiny, as well as our common DNA.