Friday, February 26, 2010

An American Jew At Large in the World, Part 2: Climbing the family tree

(Part 2 out of 2, continuing a piece on my experiences exploring my Jewish heritage and identity in the Middle East and Europe)

I didn't intend to go to Antwerp at all, actually. I was in Normandy with a terrible cold considering heading south to somewhere warm, preferably where I could find the vitamin C I so desperately needed growing on a tree in citrus form. But before I could reserve my ticket, I got a surprising response to an e-mail I had sent several weeks before

I had met Matthieu and Kersan in China, several months back. They were the owners of the guesthouse I stayed in on the Tibet/Yunnan border. Matthieu was a fellow travel originally from Belgium: he had met Kersan while on a trip in Asia, and they had fallen in love. Kersan was from a little village just over the border in Tibet, but she had overcome her circumstances to study in big-city Xi'an and later . They had decided to buy a beautiful old traditional Tibetan monstrosity, restore it into a guesthouse, and turn it over to a manager before moving to Belgium. I stayed at their guesthouse for 4 nights and greatly enjoyed drinking and talking with them about their interesting lives.

When I got to Europe, I wrote to them to ask if they had completed the expected move but heard back nothing for almost a month. As I prepared for the shift to Italy, however, a message from Matthieu arrived. They had, indeed, moved back to Antwerp, to his childhood home: they had a free bedroom and Kersan wasn't working yet. Would I like to come and stay for a few days? I embraced the spontaneous opportunity and wrote back, "Absolutely!"

There are a lot of reasons to love Antwerp. It has some great museums, amazing beer, interesting architecture, and of course fabulous chocolate. But for me Antwerp had a special draw. My mother had told me the story of being contacted when she was young by an Orthodox Rabbi from Belgium named Chaim Kreiswerth who said he was a long-lost relative from the shtetls of Poland. He had come to see her multiple times in the States. My mother knew he would be an old man now, but she encouraged me to seek him out. Antwerp has one of the largest orthodox Jewish communities in all of Europe, and this man had been an important, beloved leader. Wouldn't they love to meet another member of the family? she asked. Wouldn't it be interesting to learn something about our collective history?

Given my own drive to uncover details about my family's past, I decided to take the initiative. On a Friday around noon, I walked down to Hoffy's Restaurant, arguably the best Jewish restaurant in Antwerp, located in the "Jewish quarter" directly adjacent to the diamond district. The deli was filled with Orthodox men in dark coats, with long beards, and sidecurls. Nobody looked twice at me, and I ordered a very expensive but delicious plate of traditional goodies, from kugel to latkes. I read my book and watched the men talk amongst themselves, some coming in to buy challah or other food for the sabbath celebration in a few hours. I was feeling very much "with my people," eating beloved dishes even in a far away country. The warm feeling became confidence, and I stopped the waiter and asked if anyone here knew Rabbi Kreiswirth. His face immediately creased into a smile. "I'll get the manager," he said.

My confidence increased. Mr. Hoffy himself arrived, doffing his stiff black cap. When I asked after Rabbi Kreiswirth and told him I was a distant relative, he was thrilled. "We're always glad to meet someone connected to his family. That man was a great friend and leader to all of us," he told me. He wrote a name and phone number on a slip of paper for me. "This man, H, was the Rabbi's best friend," he said, "call him and arrange to meet him." He offered me the deli's phone to use.

The old man on the phone was happy to hear from me and said he would be glad to meet. When was I available? Could I meet after Shabbat?

I hesitated. "Well, I said, I was thinking of take the train tomorrow." There was a quick silence I didn't register at the time. "That's fine," he told me, "You can come tonight before sundown. Better make it quick, it gets dark fast here in the winter." He didn't have a car and instructed me give the phone to Mr. Hoffy, who could perhaps give me a ride. There was some discussion in Dutch. Mr. Hoffy gave me back the phone, "They won't drive you over," H said. "You're leaving on Shabbat. To them, you're already finished. You're going to hell. You aren't one of them, so they won't help you." Indeed, when I hung up the phone there was no one around. Mr. Hoffy walked past and gave me a chilly glance. He did not return my smile or word of thanks. I walked out of the deli, and no one watched me go.

The transformation was so quick that it was still sinking in as I took the tram downtown to H's apartment. He greeted me at the door-- no sidecurls or dark coat, just a hint of a beard and a bright-colored tracksuit like a retiree in Boca Raton. He welcomed me into his sparse apartment and sat with me for an hour telling stories of his friend, my cousin several times removed: of the Rabbi's childhood studying Torah in rural Poland and Lithuania; of his miraculous escape during World War II when a Nazi soldier found him in hiding and told him to run while the soldier shot in the air; of a man he saved from a false charge of prostitution. He said he could remember the Rabbi mentioning that he had some "non-practicing" relatives in the United States. And he apologized for the behavior of the men in Hoffy's. "The Rabbi was my best friend and my teacher," he said. "He never cared how people observed, if they wore sidecurls or how they kept the Sabbath. He didn't judge people: he thought that was God's job. His job was to protect and to help. Since he passed, the communities here fight amongst themselves and they don't think as he did. It's as I said. They don't see you as a Jew so you aren't worth their time. I think it's a shame. I take the Rabbi's teaching. It is not ours to judge."

After my powerful experiences in Slovenia and in Prague and Terezin in the Czech Republic this was a totally unexpected development. I had felt like I was finding my spot in the enormous quilt of Jewish culture and history, with threads leading back to Europe and ahead to a life in the United states. I was glad to have those threads: they may not have represented a whole family history, but by almost literally walking in the footsteps of my ancestors I had felt more complete, connected. And yet here were these people who had welcomed me, however briefly, who were at least in some ways "my people," and they had rejected me. I was stunned, saddened, even a little angered. After a few more minutes of interesting conversation-- H challenged me to consider what I would do and where my allegiance would lie if a Holocaust situation arose in America, a situation he considered inevitable-- I bid H goodbye and thanked him, walking bewildered onto the street.

The feeling of rejection stuck with me for several days. It had really started to undermine my sense of self until I started to focus more on what H had said about Rabbi Kreiswirth. Of all of the Jews I'd met in Antwerp, it was Rabbi Kreiswirth I agreed with and respected the most, even if we'd never actually spoken. He had been a world-renowned scholar; he had brought together several feuding communities of Jews and been a beloved leader; he had championed tolerance and aid to the needy over religious dogma. And so I realized: I may not keep kosher; I may not rest on Shabbat; I may not even celebrate with a sabbath meal. But Judaism has a part in my life and myself, and the drive to do good and respect others has a part, as well. I may not be following the tradition of the Jews of Antwerp as a whole, but I am following the tradition of one in particular. And for now I am happy to be a credit to his legacy and to the family tree we share.

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