13 May 2011

The Rest Is History

When visiting the White House a few weeks back, I met an African American woman from Milwaukee who lives on the block my grandmother grew up on--one hundred years ago.  Grandma's babysitter was Golda Meir and there's now a school there named after the late Israeli leader.  My new Milwaukee friend wasn't that impressed with our connection--she had current demands on her time, given that the poverty level and the education and welfare system in that section of Milwaukee are in dire need of funding and repair.

I understand.

Many of the Jews who lived there knew poverty--I certainly have the stories and pictures to prove it--but the road out of the ghetto was relatively quick compared to African Americans and my own family's Jewish trajectory was toward advanced education and material success.  Though having fled persecution in Russia and Poland, American Jews experienced unprecedented freedom and opportunity here as they began new lives--a blessing that I never forget as the second generation son of the son of an immigrant.

But one regret I have is not having been old enough to really know about or hear first hand many of the stories about the passage--not so much from Russia to America but from Ellis Island to the Heartland.  The decision to head to Wisconsin and set up life there is a story that eluded my dad and I've yet to really understand what went on and why our Jews wound up there.  It's a project that I hope to one day piece together, likely more with documents than with any oral tradition.  Such is the enterprise of lost knowledge.

My friend Michael Berkowitz sent an email the other day from Austin, where he is doing research on Elias Tobenkin, a writer and UW-Madison graduate who had a distinguished career as a novelist and journalist.  I had never heard of Tobenkin and after nosing around, decided to order his two books, Witte Arrives and God of Might, easily locatable online and in a matter of days delivered to my door.
Here is the straight-forward, economic, rooted prose of my great-grandparents' passage to Wisconsin.  Here I find the voice of the counter-intuitive, bewildering, spacious graciousness of Midwestern humility, welcoming the pious Jew to a new life.  The vast dimensions of possibility.  A sky filled with hope.  My heart has raced across each page of these books this week, sneaking in readings on the train, on the sidewalk, late at night, early in the morning, knocking off these narratives that satisfy, fill in gaps in my family history, paint a picture of the reality of a great-grandparent's life that was unknown to me personally but here made real.

What a pleasure.

Michael emails one morning, I meet a long dead author, and a window into the past opens.  "I'm looking at these photographs," he writes from the archive.  "Phenomenal."  Then he sends along the name of the town, "Kopel-Minsk."  That's where my grandmother was born, I tell him.  "I'll make you a copy of the picture," he writes back.

The rest is history.

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