My Jewish Valentine

My husband and I are connected through time, with our ancestors both hailing from the same tiny shtetl.

‘THE SPOON from Minkowitz’ is the author’s story of her adventure to understand her personal heritage (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘THE SPOON from Minkowitz’ is the author’s story of her adventure to understand her personal heritage
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Three decades ago, when I started dating my husband, Paul, he introduced me to his parents at a Chinese restaurant. In the course of disconnected and halting conversation, his father asked me what I was interested in, and I told him about my lifelong obsession with the tiny shtetl my grandmother came from in Russia.
Then, the thud of silence. We all nibbled our rice and eggrolls. I fished around in the pool of possible conversation, and found a question.
“Uh, where do your ancestors come from?” I asked Paul’s father.
“A tiny hole-in-the-wall in Russia.”
“What was the name of the hole in the wall?” I asked.
Clutching my chopsticks, I fell off my chair. Both Paul’s ancestors and my own came from Minkowitz, the same tiny dot on the map.
Over the course of the next year or so, Paul and I developed a comedy routine. We spoke with the Yiddish accent of our grandparents, and used fake Yiddish.
“Vus gazoompt-du?” I asked Paul.
“Gakokkit,” he answered. “Misht gakokkit.”
We created an imaginary past life we had lived in Minkowitz. Paul said he was a raisin sorter, and he supplemented his income by working as a door-to-door salesman of icon cleaner. We owned one scrawny chicken, and watching it cluck was our entertainment.
When we got hungry, we ate the entertainment.
I was a terrible cook and slathered everything in chicken fat. For exercise, we ran from the tax collector.
Our Minkowitz connection was a joke, but it also wasn’t a joke. When we walked in the street, young kids came up to us and asked if we were related. At parties, strangers said we looked alike.
“Paul, do you think we’re related?” “If so, it’s a good thing we don’t have kids.
They would turn out to be… politicians.”
My obsession with Minkowitz intensified.
My life turned into a detective story as I tried to find out where it was, and I clutched at clues that shone brilliantly and then vanished like rainbows. When I was a playwright in Europe, I wrote a play about Minkowitz. When I was a Hollywood screenwriter, I wrote a TV episode inspired by Minkowitz.
The actress who played the fictional version of my grandmother won an Emmy for her performance. As a travel journalist, I went all over the world, but never to that tiny ancestral dot on the map.
It would take a dream team of Freud, Jung, Adler, Erikson and Fritz Perls to figure out why I didn’t go to Minkowitz. Perhaps I was worried the real Minkowitz would never match up to the Minkowitz of my imagination.
Maybe I was afraid of what I would find – or what I wouldn’t find. Perhaps it was all gone, the fiddler had fallen off the roof, the houses were now cement apartment buildings, and there wasn’t a trace of my grandmother’s life and times left.
Some years ago, I found out that Minkowitz – formerly in Russia – is part of Ukraine today. Paul and I were headed to Russia last summer, and trembling with excitement and anticipation, we decided to extend our trip to Ukraine, and finally visit the shtetl from which our forebears hailed.
But on the eve of our departure, Paul got an email from a relative informing him that his family did not come from Minkowitz. They came from another dot several hundred miles away from my dot.
Paul and I were devastated. Our ancestral connection was a lie. We stopped speaking fake Yiddish.
We moped by day and flopped around like beached fish at night, unable to sleep. We decided that we’d pretend Paul was from Minkowitz, and he said he would support me in every way possible as I walked the land my ancestors walked, ate the food my ancestors ate, and tried to find out if there were any crumbs left on the trail of their lives.
The trip to Ukraine was a cross between The Wizard of Oz, Everything is Illuminated, Fiddler on the Roof and Schindler’s List. Our brilliant guide, who was one of the most cerebral and emotionally restrained humans I have ever spent time with, pointed to the sky and burst out with the words, “I think this trip is guided by someone besides me!” He was right: There was a cosmic guide. People appeared when I needed them. Information seemed to seep out of the ground and drop out of the sky. All over Ukraine, as I searched for and asked for and met the perfect people, as I walked the land so many of our ancestors came from, people inquired if I was Ukrainian. I felt as though I had come home. In Minkowitz, I toasted my ancestors. And Paul toasted his ancestors from Minkowitz, even though their existence wasn’t true. I noticed that there were tiny tears in the corners of his eyes as he held up his glass of cognac.
When I came home, I was on fire. Every other culture I had visited around the world had memorials and altars to ancestors, ancestor worship, ancestors called in for healing. What about us? I wrote a bittersweet book about the quest for Minkowitz, the importance of connecting to those who came before us, and how ancestors continue to impact our daily lives, even if we know nothing about them.
A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep, and turned on my computer at 3 a.m. An email had come in from a woman named Bobby who had read my new book. Oddly, she asked me a few questions about Paul’s father, and what information I had about his family. I wrote back with the little tidbits I knew.
When I turned on the computer again, my world turned upside down, or right-side up. Bobby is a genealogist, and she took my information and did a host of searches. Attached to her next email were several documents showing the origin of Paul’s ancestors. There it was, in black and white. His relative was wrong. His grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins came from a town called… Minkowitz.
When Paul toasted them in Minkowitz with cognac and tears, they heard, they smiled.
I ran into the bedroom and woke Paul up.
“I’m crying, but don’t be alarmed. They’re good tears.”
He sat bolt upright in bed.
“Paul, it was true all along. You are from Minkowitz.
It’s... it’s gashpitst!” “I knew it, my little daboygen,” he said, pressing me close to him.
We are connected back through time. We are scions of Minkowitz. And we just might be related after all. 
Judith Fein is an award-winning author, speaker, blogger and travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications. Her new book is The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands; within five days of its appearance of Amazon, it jumped to the bestseller list in three categories. Her website is