“If we’re lost, then this is a strange place to be asking for directions,” remarked my date nervously, as we drove up the long entrance of Mt. Judah Memorial Park.
“Well, no, we’re not lost. We’re actually here,” I slowly answered. Long pause.
“Here? Here where?” she whispered. I just stared ahead. “You’re taking me on a date to a cemetery?
“I…er…thought you would want to meet some of my family. Don’t worry,” I added with a grin, “it’s not a commitment.” I saw the joke was going flat.
I tried to explain to her how I was interested in knowing about my roots, and how I had finally discovered where my great grandfather was buried. “And since we’re in the neighborhood anyway (I really hope there’s a mini-golf course around here somewhere), I thought I could just pop in and get more information.” My words trailed off, as I saw the adventure of it was lost on her.
“Well,” she finally said,” At least you could’ve warned me.”
All of my grandparents were born in America, and none of my immigrant great grandparents were religious at all. In fact, I don’t even know where religious observance ended on any sides of my family. When I was younger, it certainly never occurred to me to ask questions, and when I became older, it was too late. Even though my grandmother lived into her 90s, she didn’t recall much, and remarked about her own parents, “They just never spoke about their families.” After I became frum, I decided to learn more about my elusive background, especially about my father’s side. But it wasn’t easy. Information came slowly, and crossing the ocean to know what happened in the old country was almost impossible.
As the years went by, I picked up names like Shloims, and Beinish and Feivel, and I learned we came from a chassidish town in Galicia. I learned to utilize online sources like stevemorse.org and jewishgen.org, and I discovered you could even use ancestry.com completely for free if your local library has its own subscription. For a few bucks I was able to obtain my great grandfather’s naturalization records from a certain county court, which told me how he came to America (finally). On the ships manifests, you can see who they left behind, which sometimes adds more names. But included in this is much time and frustration.
To me personally, it makes a difference. I know I’m a link in some unbroken chain, but it means something to me to actually be able to trace back to anyone who was shomer Torah u’mitzvos like myself. Not everyone feels this way, and I myself go through stages when I just drop the idea of finding ancestors, and think, I’ll meet them all after I’m 120 anyway.” And I have my own children with whom the chain will continue, and I hear the side to say that the chain will continue with them, and don’t worry about the past. But deep down, I would like to know. Are there baalei tschuva who have just more than simple curiosity of knowing also? It’s a feeling that so many can’t really relate to. Little by little I still hope to chip away at it, and one day pass down to my own sons information about their illustrious background.
“Tell me it’s not true,” begged the shadchan over the phone the next day. “Please.”
“I figured she was bored with hotels,” I said. “The scenery was nice.”
She sighed. “Let me suggest something. The next time you wish to take a girl somewhere…uh…different, try maybe an amusement park, or a boat ride. Much less morbid, you see?” Click. I never heard from her again.