(Reprinted without permission from A Fiddler's World © 1977 by Harry Adaskin. Published by November House)
(The book is written in the form of a letter from Harry to his son, Gordon)
One of the milder penalties of being born in the Jewish lower middle class is that one knows nothing of one's ancestors. Life was so hazardous for the poorer Jews of Eastern Europe that keeping track of one's forebears would have been regarded as useless baggage -- just another book to carry on a sudden flight from a pogrom or on being suddenly expelled from a country by a new edict. You were lucky enought to grab the bible and a blanket. The bible, however, is what saved us. Every Jew, male and female, had to be literate. For a father to allow his children to grow up without being able to read the scriptures was as unthinkable a sin as incest.
The cemeteries might have provided some kind of memorial record, but European wars and persecutions made life too unstable. This was particularly sad for Jewish families, which have an almost Chinese veneration for their dead. They don't go in for ancestor worship, but periodic community visits to the cemetery to pat the graves lovingly, and read the stones, and weep, was one of the pleasures of life. And in their forced migrations throughout European history they always leave the cemetaries behind.
Do you know that fantastic story of the 15th-century Spanish town that was attacked by the plague? I read about it in, of all places, the Vancouver Province some years ago. There was a small settlement of Jews in that town who had been there for many years. They had their school, and their teachers and rabbis, and a number of doctors. Jewish people love to have a doctor in the family -- my mother always hoped I would be a doctor or a rabbi (a rabbi first, however, partly for pious reasons, and partly for the prestige as one of her brothers, Reb Schmooel, was a well-known rabbi in Mistislavl).
When the plague struck this Spanish town everyone who was anyone beat it, including the native doctors. Only the poor remained, which naturally included the Jews and of course their rabbis and doctors. It was soon obvious that they were the only ones who could care for the sick and dying, which they did until the plague subsided. Being devout and orthodox Jews they followed the hygenic laws laid down in their scriptures -- the dead were quickly buried -- the sick were kept clean with water which had first been boiled. God was daily implored to stop the plague, which He finally did. The gratitude of the town to the Jews was something wonderful -- a real ecumenical outpouring.
You can imagine the shock and consternation when Queen Isabella, in an access of piety, chose that moment to expel the Jews from Spain. Like her male counterpart of centuries later, makeing Spain judenfrei would apparently do something splendid for the country.
The townspeople were sick with embarassment and remorse, but orders were orders, and the Jews had to go. As the natives were only too anxious to do what they could, the chief rabbi asked whether they would respect and care for the Jewish cemetery. The whole town vowed that they would always do so, and the Jews tearfully departed. Many went to Holland, and some settled in a French town north of the Spanish border. The amazing part of the story is that the Spaniards kept their word for five hundred years! Right up until a few years ago, in fact. By that time the town had grown, and the old Jewish cemetery was now at an important crossroads in the heart of the city, and distinctly in the way. Something had to be done, but a sacred vow was a sacred vow, and no one dared break it.
Finally, in desperation, someone thought of sending a delegation to the French town where the expellees had settled, and where there was still a small community of their descendants. The Spaniards humbly asked to be released from their vow, and begged to be allowed to move the cemetery to another place. The Jews held a confab and decided that five hundred years was 500 years, and told the delegation to go ahead.
With all this histoire in mind, and being mildly curious about my background, I once asked my father, when he was about sixty, to tell me what he knew of our ancestors. To my astonishment he gave me a sketchy history which went back, believe it or not, over 200 years to about the middle of the 18th century. It consists mostly of names, of course, so-and-so married so-and-so, and their children were named such-and-such, and they lived in this-and-that town. Curiously, the only characterization about these people which keeps recurring in the litany is not what they did or how they lived or what happened to them, but whether they were rich or poor. I don't suppose that an interest in being rich or poor is restricted to lower middle class Russian Jews, but probably the appalling uncertainties of their lives made the possession of riches immensely important.
It's rather strange, en passant, how very few Jews are among the fabulously rich. With the exception of the Rothschilds I can think of no Paul Gettys, Rockefellers, Mellons, Dukes of Westminster, Vanderbilts, etc. Odd. They seem to prefer the arts and sciences. Medicine and law were always great attractions, but the arts, especially music (among the later and less orthodox) were enormously popular. I'm sure my father would have been glad if we had become rich, but there is no question that this greatest joy was that we were musicians, artists. It's therefore particularly odd that in the family tree outlined by my father there seemed to be no scholars or artists -- just rich and poor. The names are a delight -- the mixture of Hebrew, Jewish and Russian diminutives sounds awfully funny. Cholmondeley, Featherstonhaugh, and P. Dampier Wettam just aren't in it! I wouldn't have thought of listing them here for they tell us nothing of our past, but I'm reminded of W.H. Auden's touchstones for testing literary critics. He says somewhere that if a critic likes, really likes, not approves of on principle,
1) long lists of proper names such as the Old Testament genealogies or the catalogue of ships in the Iliad,
2) complicated verse forms such as Englyns, Drott-Kvetts, and Sestinas,
even if their content is trivial, then, and only then would he trust their judgement implicitly on all literary matters. As I don't want to appear a literary ignoramus, and I'm sure you don't either, I'll give you father's family tree as he dictated it to me from memory and I wrote it down verbatim.