More than a spoon

Judith Fein traces her roots back to a Russian shtetl.

THE EXTENDED Maidncik family in the Minkowitz shtetl in Ukraine before the war. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
THE EXTENDED Maidncik family in the Minkowitz shtetl in Ukraine before the war.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Sometimes a spoon is just a spoon.
For travel journalist and author Judith Fein, however, one particular spoon became the talisman for her compulsion to solve a deeply shrouded mystery.
From earliest childhood, she was obsessed with the question “Where do I come from?” Her grandmother’s answer was brief: The old country; a tiny shtetl, Minkowitz, in Russia. Gram did not want to talk about it. It was a miserable place, there was abject poverty; there was almost nothing to eat; the seeds of anti-Jewish discrimination were already sprouting. Gram’s attitude was: Thank God we got out and came to the United States so that we could have a better life – and thank God we got out when we did. All the rest of the family, and the neighbors who stayed, were murdered by the Nazis. A horrible place. Bad memories. Just forget about it.
But young Judie would not be deterred.
Was it a soul connection to her grandmother, to her people’s history, to her internal DNA, to her own cosmic/existential place in the universe? She wasn’t sure, but she had to know. She was persistent, and gradually, throughout many conversations, Gram revealed six small facts about the village and her life there. To Fein, they were clues. But it was a long time before she tried to go to Minkowitz.
Whatever the reason, she never traveled to the place she most desired to be – until she met her soon-to-be husband, Paul.
In one of their first conversations, Paul’s father casually mentioned that his father had come “from a small shtetl in Russia.”
Could it be, she wondered, that she and her fiancé hailed from that one tiny place on the map, the place she had been yearning to connect with all her life? Indeed, it turned out to be Minkowitz.
To celebrate their engagement, Paul’s father gave her “a soup spoon that his parents brought with them as they sailed steerage from the Old Country to America.
I held it.” Fein writes that she “patted it gently, and treasured it because it made our ancient connection so real to me.”
A spoon from Minkowitz. That was the impetus. The plans for a trip to find the town began to emerge.
SO MUCH of the couple’s adventure into the long-ago past was permeated by the more recent past. Everywhere they went in the Ukraine, they saw the results of the Nazis – entire towns wiped away, evidence of entire Jewish populations shot on the spot or shipped off to the concentration camps, the remnants of destroyed synagogues and schools and cemeteries.
Here and there, they found a survivor; here and there, they found a righteous gentile who had stories of protection and heroism. Here and there, they found a synagogue that still functioned for the few who were left, or a reestablished Jewish center that provided a meeting place for the lonely and food for the hungry.
Everywhere, Fein wept. The souls of the six million hovered, and the pain of loss pervaded and penetrated.
“The people we met... bore witness to the once-vibrant people and communities that were annihilated.... When they [are] gone, the link [will] be broken. Who would remember the past? Who would hear the stories we were hearing of loss and survival? Who would remember the odd facts told to little girls by their grandmothers who came from long-ago shtetls like Minkowitz?” Yet even through the tears, the true purpose still beckoned. The tiny dot on the map was calling. The time had come.
“The trip was my destiny,” she writes.
“Pools of tears soaked my shirt. My grandmother gave me the most precious gift when I was little: information about her shtetl. I carried it with me all my life.
And now I was seeing it exactly the way she described it to me... I heard my grandmother say, ‘You have come here. You have witnessed my life.’... I was home.”
Fein is an extraordinarily gifted storyteller who evokes sweet laugher and bittersweet tears, sympathy and empathy, unending curiosity and deepest love. And she inspires us, too, to seek our own roots – wherever they are to be found – as she teaches us how to become both devoted descendants and worthy ancestors.
Sometimes a spoon is just a spoon. Not this time. ■ The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the spiritual guide of The Elijah Minyan in San Diego. He is the author of nine books, including Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice, and his most recent, The Real Name of God: Embracing the Full Essence of the Divine.