My first encounter with Jewish genealogy came when I was invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies on the question of whether any living Jew can plausibly claim to have descended from King David. To the disappointment of some Davidic pretenders in the audience, I said no. But I also glimpsed the extraordinary investment of time, effort and energy that goes into the task of finding out as much as we can about where we come from.
That undertaking is described with unique literary skill and resonance in “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past” by Nancy K. Miller (University of Nebraska Press: $24.95). Miller, a professor of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, found herself at a crisis point when her father died and she became, as she puts it, “a middle-aged Jewish orphan.”
“It’s not that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I set out to say Kaddish for him — I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place,” she explains. “But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, and I was free to put it behind me, I started worrying about the future of my Jewish self.”
Thus begins a journey of discovery that was conducted within the intimate confines of the author’s family, the Millers on her mother’s side, which she describes as “leafy,” and the Kipnises on her father’s side, which she calls “scrawny.” Miller began to delve into a “puzzling cache of random Judaica” that her father left behind and, years later, she succeeded in piecing together a family history as rich and nuanced as a Tolstoy novel.
As it happens, a telephone call about some long-forgotten family property in Israel prompted Miller to reconnect with the loose ends of her far-flung family. Intrigued by what she was beginning to find, Miller undertook the challenging task of making sense of the artifacts that have come into her possession — an engraved silver cigarette case, army discharge papers, autograph albums, report cards, letters, birthday cards, and photographs. Thanks to her enterprise, ingenuity, and scholarship, she compels these silent and sometimes indecipherable objects to yield their secrets.
She discovers, for example, that the family came not just from that vast geographical entity called Russia, but from a specific and historic place — Kishinev, site of the notorious pogrom of 1903. Three years later, the family was en route to America. One clue was a formal family portrait of her grandmother, grandfather and uncle taken in a Kishinev studio shortly before their departure.
“Of course, they lost everything but what they could carry,” cousin Sarah tells Miller. “What did they carry?” muses Miller. “For one thing, they carried this photograph.”
Miller shows us that compiling a family history involves much more than collecting names and dates; it can be a matter of finding out why you are who you are. “‘You’re so cold and selfish,’ my mother would say bitterly, exasperated by the stony silences I had perfected as a child,” Miller writes of herself. “‘You’ll die like Grandma Kipnis, alone and friendless.’”
The author’s honesty in writing about herself can also be seen throughout her remarkable effort to uncover and understand her family history. She sought out expert translators to determine not just the literal meaning but the flavor and connotation of the Yiddish words that she finds in family letters. “[H]ere was the joy of Yiddish in a dithyramb of suffering,” writes Miller after reading a letter from an aunt who described a surgical operation: “From my belly, they took out such troubles and they left it in the hospital, so they could study it.”
Some mysteries cannot be solved, and the effort leaves behind a bitter residue of regret. Miller finds several tragic estrangements in her family, including an especially painful one between her father and her uncle. “Why did the two brothers never see each other again?” she puzzles. “There was in this family, and in so many others like it, an entire map of severance and separation.” The final note is especially sharp: “f I am at the end of the paternal line, I’m equally situated in last place at the end of the maternal line,” she points out. “Both sides end with me.”
“What They Saved” can be approached as an illuminating and instructive example of how to conduct a genealogical investigation. But it is also a rich and accomplished family chronicle, full of fascinating incidents and turbulent emotions. Above all, it is a searing work of self-exploration, artful and eloquent in the telling but heartbreaking in its candor.
“Despite my intense desire to know the truth, however partial or incomplete, I am forced to recognize the process of finding the story continues to change the story,” she writes. “As I advance into the territory of recovery, I can’t trust even myself. That may be the hardest lesson of all.”