(photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)
In 1877, Benjamin Harrison – who would become president for 12 years – wrote a letter to my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, praising him for his valor in the Civil War. I have a copy of this letter. Going back even further, I can trace my lineage to a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and can tell you what battles he took part in and where he got married after the war was over. This branch of my family was not Jewish, and in the past year, as I’ve begun to look into my heritage, it’s amazing how much information I can easily gather about my non-Jewish relatives.
It’s a different story when it comes to most Jewish families. Perhaps you know about the town where your grandparents or great grandparents were born. Maybe you have immigration records going back three, or even four generations, but the trail probably grows cold somewhere in rural Eastern Europe, or the streets of Morocco, or the villages of Yemen.
I never thought it would make a difference to me to know much about my ancestors. Who cares if my great-great-great-grandfather was a painter, or if his father was killed in a shoot-out on the streets of Seattle? But it turns out that there’s something incredibly moving and fascinating about uncovering your heritage, whether it has any relevance in your life today or not.
The more than I learn about my non-Jewish ancestors, the more I wonder about the generations of Jews standing behind me. I’ll never know as much about them.
But while I can find records of my non-Jewish family in archives and libraries, I have something better, more evocative, that connects me to my Jewish roots: the Pessah Seder. Though not the same as a comprehensive family tree, it reaches back through time, like a string that ties me to my own Jewish history, and to the history of our people, going back to the Exodus from Egypt.
As we retell the story of our salvation, we recount how we personally were taken from slavery to freedom. Alongside us were our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. All of us, whether we live in New York City, Haifa, Krakow, Odessa or Riyadh, share this one narrative, this one story of how our lives were transformed.
Over time, the structure and text of the Seder has changed, and the level of observance waxes and wanes from one generation to the next. I don’t know what the Seders were like for my grandfather when he was growing up in Vienna, and I certainly can’t tell you anything about whether his parents drank four cups of wine at their family Seders, whether they sang “Had Gadya” or searched for the afikoman by candlelight. But when I sit with my family and discuss the crossing of the Red Sea, the walls of water towering into the sky as we walked to freedom, I feel my grandfather – and his parents, and their parents, and so on – coming with me.
I don’t believe in time travel, but for a moment at the Seder it’s
as if time is an accordion, folding up so that the decades and
continents that separate us are suddenly gone. We recline and drink
wine and tell stories late into the night, the room crowded with our
history. The writer is an associate editor at