Jewish Journal

Exploring Past Finds Power of Choices

by Rafael Guber

Posted on Feb. 6, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The Hebrew language is not famous for its curse words. There is one, however, emach she'mo, meaning, "may his name be erased."

In our tradition, it is a horrible curse to be erased from human memory. For example, Hitler, emach she'mo: Even as we remember him, we remember to forget him. Those who evoke our most horrible memories are those who most deserve to be forgotten.

Conversely, what happens if we take deserving people from our personal past and return them to human memory? What happens when we can identify people about whom we knew little or nothing and make the effort to flesh out their lives, study the choices they made and learn from the challenges they faced? Doesn't this process bless our ancestors for being remembered and bless us for pulling those memories out from history's ashes?

These are some of the questions that inspired me when I first discussed this exhibit with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1996. About two minutes into my pitch, he stopped me and said, "Let's make it happen." And, for the next six years and more than a quarter-million miles, I had the privilege of searching for the ancestors of Maya Angelou, Billy Crystal, Carlos Santana, Joe Torre and others.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the further back in time we go among culturally diverse people, the less these people have in common. Our experience was quite different.

The power of certain commonly shared values seemed to grow stronger as we went back in time. The narratives, documents and images from all these families painted a picture of people who associated their joy -- even their own sense of identity -- with acts of giving and self-sacrifice.

My journey was fascinating and sometimes humorous.

I arrived in Italy wearing rimless glasses, a closely cropped beard and a Universal Studios cap. In Petina, Joe Torre's ancestral family home near the Amalfi Coast, people stopped me on the street with bottles of homemade raspberry liquor. They insisted that we drink a toast because noi amiamo i suoi film, what I eventually learned to mean, "we love your movies." A rumor had spread among the locals that I was Steven Spielberg.

For Jews living in the 21st century, it may not seem newsworthy to admire non-Jewish wisdom. To do so, however, with the specific intention of performing a mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) and recognizing a Jewish value, is a truly humbling experience. Listening to Dr. Maya Angelou's powerful insights gave me an opportunity to say the Hebrew blessing that ends, "Who has given his knowledge to human beings."

My grandmother told me many stories about her family in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, and how they overcame great hardships and challenges. This memory was most powerfully rekindled while researching the life of Margaret Torre (Joe's mother) in Italy. There is a Chasidic folk saying, "Be a master of your will and a servant of your conscience." Margaret Torre may not have been familiar with the expression, but this is how she lived.

In Mexico, Carlos Santana's aunts spoke about the meaning of family and the importance of giving back to the world. Sitting in their parlor in a tiny village near Manzanillo, I realized I could have been in Los Angeles, Brooklyn or Jerusalem.

Carlos' mother is a heroic figure who reminds us of America's debt to the courage of immigrants. The message is clear: We have the power and responsibility to transform our lives, reminding me of Anne Frank's writing: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

By now, it should be clear that one of the reoccurring themes in "Finding Our Families Finding Ourselves" is the power of choices. Nothing shapes our lives as powerfully as the choices we make.

There are many bad jokes about the seductive power of the entertainment industry and "what it does" to people. Janice and Billy Crystal -- with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years thanks to Los Angeles' own Dr. David and Andrea Sherman -- are a convincing and reassuring reminder that people are who they choose to be, regardless of external circumstances.

While the exhibit explores the typical "how-to" questions of the genealogical quest, it also addresses the "why-to" part of the experience. Who can we become when we learn more about how we came to be? I wish you great success on your journey.   

Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild, a featured expert on the PBS series "Ancestors" and co-creator of "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves."

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