Home April 2012 The Meaning of “Goodbye”

The Meaning of “Goodbye”

There was a time that I truly bemoaned my family’s lack of yichus, i.e., our lineage or ancestry.  No one ever bothered to record whether or not we were direct descendants of the Chofetz Chaim, the Vilna Gaon or Queen Esther.  My Aunt Marion married into the family, and even though she didn’t share the bloodline, she was obsessed with our tree.  But she didn’t share her fascination and grew bored with the who/how/when and whys of obscure Europeans who seemed to leave no discernible brag-worthy notches on Jewish history before sailing to the New World.
In recent years, however, I’ve begun to wonder about the brave men and women who, driven by passion and hope, formed the DNA of my children, grandchildren and me.   Daring to dig a little deeper into my “reflection bag,” I tried to imagine my diminutive Grandma Rifka as a young, dreamy-eyed girl, with shiny red braids that hung to her waist.  Did her blue eyes light up each time she saw my (equally short) handsome Grandpa Yehuda, muscular and steely-jawed, one of several Sragowicz boys who were known for their keen wit and business acumen?  I knew so little and when she was alive, never thought to ask.  After all, my teenage life was angst filled and more important than stories told by an embarrassing relic from a time that had no bearing on my American “now.”
She was always “old.”  Like the grandparents of my baby-boomer friends, she was background material, a prop for family simchas and tedious visits to the nursing home.  If not for the occasional “hark” each time Aunt Marion made a new, pedigree-proving discovery, I would never have looked over my shoulder at the prior generation.  Was I shallow?  Proudly so.
But in recent years my children have begun to ask questions about their history, and, timidly, I find myself seeking a tidbit here and there about those who came before me so I can contribute something to the family coffers and, by chance, leave something upon which my offspring can take pride.
Searching the records of Ellis Island on their spiffy new website, I discovered the registry that listed the arrival of my grandfather Yehuda in 1917.  Twenty-four years old, he left his pregnant wife in Russia to scout out a home and business in order to begin life anew.  But anew from what?  The only pogroms I heard about were in books, and no one in my current family had any knowledge of what anti-Semitic events motivated leaving Vilna.  The family narrative only suggested that his other siblings (several brothers and a sister) could not get into America and consequently sailed to South America.
Putting genealogy aside for practical reasons, last Friday night I had the great joy of celebrating the Sabbath with five of my six children and several of their spouses.  My third daughter, Talia, had married Antonino only the night before, and his parents and sister were also at the table.  Because of all the excitement surrounding the event, there had been little time to reflect, but, with the singing of the Sabbath hymns, I was suddenly struck by the miracle that had unfolded in my own allegorical and literal dining room; four generations had lovingly and seamlessly gathered to celebrate a new building block in our ethereal and stubborn peoplehood, and I, me, mine were all part of it.  The attendees were tied to America, Russia, Poland, Australia, Lithuania, Morocco, South Africa, Afghanistan, Italy and Namibia.  My elderly mother had made the long trip from Florida, and in her arms she cradled her newest great grandchild.
Prior to the wedding week festivities, I had gotten a curious email from a cousin telling me that a distant relative had been appointed Ambassador to Israel from Columbia.  The relative had given him my phone number and sent me his e-mail address.  Barely digesting the information, I dropped the mysterious cousin a quick note and invited him and his wife to the wedding and one of the post wedding parties during the week called sheva brachot.  They didn’t appear at the wedding and, as with most everything else stored in my porous mental data base, I forgot about it.
Talia and Antonino would be leaving to begin a new life in Johannesburg immediately after Purim, and there was enough for me to ponder.  This time, I was determined to keep my dignity, despite the bad behavior I’d displayed years before when my oldest daughter, Gabrielle, left Israel with her husband and my two first grandchildren.  Son-in-law Shlomo had been assigned a prestigious rabbinical pulpit in Johannesburg, but I took no solace in the honor.  Feeling no shame, I screamed and ripped at my hair the night they left, feeling so bereft that the only relief I could imagine would have to been to, perhaps, “sit shiva.”  For weeks I walked into walls and nearly donned sackcloth.
In retrospect, reflecting on the “goodbye” my grandmother uttered almost 100 years ago, for her it meant “goodbye-forever.”  Forever is a long, long time, and my aforementioned histrionics were undoubtedly mild compared to the scene at the docks in Eastern Europe in 1919.  I kept this thought in my mind while trying to compose my apprehension about Talia and Antonino’s departure for South Africa.  Déjà vu, perhaps, but I was determined to behave myself this time around, in honor of Grandma Rifka.
The third night, post-wedding festivities were in full swing when the intercom rang; my son Nate ran downstairs to open the garage for a diplomat’s car.  Most of the guests were polishing off huge platters of lasagna, eggplant parmesan, bagels and salmon and opening up another case of champagne when Nate walked through the door with a distinguished older man and his elegantly attired wife.  The sound barrier was broken when my mother shouted, “Oh my God!  Cousin Momo!  You look like Stanley!”
He did, indeed, look like my father.  The Ambassador was the son of Grandpa’s sister, and my father’s first cousin.  His parents hadn’t made it through Ellis Island, thus continuing on to South America.  I had never met any of my father’s paternal cousins and could barely compute all that was unfolding in my Jerusalem home on an otherwise unremarkable night except that everything – EVERYTHING – was remarkable.  He and his wife came to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of his long-lost cousin and state, proving with their presence that, for the Jewish people, there is no such thing as “goodbye.”

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