It might seem presumptuous to take exception to Leo Tolstoy’s most famous opening lines at the start of this humble column, but his statement “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is not only a generalization, it is wrong.
Happy families are each happy in their own way, too, it’s just that they don’t suit Tolstoy’s heavy mood in Anna Karenina.
Lately circumstances have combined to make me particularly aware of the role of family, not just in my life but in general. After all, like it or not – like them, or not – everybody has a family, dead or alive, painfully absent or occasionally overwhelmingly present.
As it happens, the same time my seventh- grader son was working on a “Roots” project at school, perhaps the only time parents and grandparents are expected to openly help with homework, a collection of handmade dolls, each painstakingly created by my late aunt, went on display in the educational department of the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing.
Aunt Beck (more officially referred to in the museum as Rebecca Schuleberg) was my mother’s oldest sister and my family’s own Mary Poppins.
I assume she traveled by London Transport, but since it was Britain she inevitably carried an umbrella and she had her own magic way of making everything seem all right, so like her fictional counterpart nothing about her arrival – always timely and welcome – would surprise me.
Not only is every family the same but different, so is every member of the family tree and Aunt Beck still has a very special place on it.
During World War II, she operated anti-aircraft guns in the British Army and survived TB at a time when the odds were against it.
Widowed tragically young and childless, Aunt Beck sold the grocery store she had run with her husband, Eric, and trained as a nurse, a career choice she had secretly nurtured over the years.
Although she didn’t suffer fools, and was punctual to the point of obsession, Aunt Beck was blessed with patience, a trait reflected in her hobbies – embroidery, making miniature dolls houses, and making dolls.
The set at the museum is composed of more than 70 dolls, each one clothed in a faithful replica of a dress representing a different year or period in British fashion, starting in 1901 and finishing with Princess Diana’s wedding dress.
The exhibition, dedicated to educational purposes rather than general display, contains more than 15,000 childhood items from around the world including toys, games, masks, illustrations and the sort of holiday souvenirs that we once bought for very little.
Some of these are now apparently priceless – assuming you or your mother didn’t throw them out.
The opening event at the museum last week went to show that one person’s clutter is another person’s collection. As the aunt of a friend of mine told her, everyone needs a collection; as my aunt showed me, everyone should have a hobby.
And you should never underestimate the value of an aunt’s opinion (or the importance of having a happy family).
I HAVE not only been traveling in time with my aunt lately. My son’s school project has taken me back through charted and uncharted family history.
Thanks to the dedication and persistence of one particular teacher, with the support of the rest of the staff, the junior high schoolers of around bar-mitzva age have been forced to look back in wonder.
With the help of relatives near and far, a family tree was drawn up and illustrated with photos. I was particularly proud of finding the one of my maternal great-grandfather, his second wife, and some of their children taken in England more than 100 years ago.
My mother’s other sister, Mil, had been the family archivist and preserver of memories – a role taken over after her death by Rita, who is both my second and third cousin or my second cousin twice over (even happy families can be complicated).
A few years ago, Rita discovered not only the proverbial skeleton in the family cupboard but the unmarked grave of a baby boy. As a result, she mobilized us into erecting a gravestone with his name, showing he was part of the family.
Part of the school program took our sons to Jerusalem’s Old Yishuv Court Museum where they learned about the lives of the Jewish community that lived in the Old City in the 19th and 20th century, until the residents of the Jewish Quarter were expelled when it fell in the 1948 War of Independence.
Our sons served as curators one Friday morning, taking parents around the museum, showing us artifacts and exhibits depicting the lives of those who struggled daily with disease and poverty, eased only by the sense of community and family.
The culmination of the yearlong project came this week when parents – and grandparents – were invited to an evening at the school where some of their work and results of their research were on display.
At a parent-teacher meeting a couple of weeks ago, we were informed that the children needed to bring a traditional dish, representing our particular community. My son and I simultaneously exclaimed, “Fish and chips!” British Jewry has contributed a great deal to the world over the years, but like Britain in general, it is not famed for its cuisine. We later played with other ideas. A “nice cuppa tea” (with milk) seemed British but stingy; beer or whisky might have unpredictable consequences concerning my son’s reputation among staff and classmates.
I wondered about a plava cake – the sort that was common at the childhood kiddushes I remember, but have never seen anywhere outside of the Anglo-Jewish community. In the end, my mum came to the rescue (as mothers in happy families do) with one of her famous Victoria sponge cakes.
The evening was a great success.
Not only were parents and grandparents proud of their offspring, the boys seemed proud of us, something to treasure as they enter that stage of adolescence when they will barely want to be seen with us in public.
Teachers noted the importance of “knowing from where you have come as well as where you are going,” and the event turned into a celebration of the Ingathering of the Exiles.
The principal pointed out that ingathering of Jews from all over the world was nothing short of a modern miracle. (We believe in miracles over political correctness in this extended family.) Among those who spoke to the assembled crowd of students and parents, was a father who recalled how he escaped from Syria on his own as a teenager and was imprisoned in Turkey, before arriving in Israel, fulfilling a dream of freedom. A grandmother told of her experiences in the Holocaust and how soon after arrival she had to help defend the country in the War of Independence.
The children’s family trees and objects on display reflected the stories of families who had come from places as varied as Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Russia, Ethiopia, North and South Africa, North and South America, France, Britain, Greece, Germany and Turkey.
The pull of Zionism, sometimes accompanied by the kick of anti-Semitism, (and the added attraction for ex-Brits like me of the generally sunny climate) had proven irresistible.
Like the food each family provided, there was a mix of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and traditional Middle Eastern. It was clear that many families were themselves a fusion of different communities – the children being born into a generation in Israel when the Ashkenazi-Sephardi lines have blurred to the point where making ethnic jokes seems old-fashioned rather than funny.
Like happy families – it’s all relative.
The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.