I did something very atypical this past Sunday. I actually read the cover story of the Travel Section of the New York Times. How could I not? Once I glanced at the title, “Seeking the Shtetl,” wild horses couldn’t drag me away. Within seconds, however, the article confirmed my feelings toward the typical odyssey undertaken by so many of our people (my sister included) when they fly over to Europe in an attempt to search for their roots. I wish them Godspeed and I pray that they find what they are looking for. But I have another wish as well – actually three wishes:
I wish that in addition to spending time and energy,not to mention money, in an attempt to discover where their ancestors lived ((some are able to locate the house, and actually come across descendants of non-Jewish neighbors who can testify that a Jewish shoemaker — one’s great-grandfather, with his wife and five children — really lived in that house next door, and the shoemaker and his wife were on friendly terms with their great-grandparents), that the searchers of our generation spend equal amounts of time and energy in attempt to discover how their ancestors lived. Were they the pious individuals we were led to believe they were? Was great grandfather Shia as learned as they say he was? Maybe our ancestors were caught up in the Bolshevik revolution and replaced their Judaism with Communism. Perhaps the best question to be pondered is how those we hope to learn about would react if they were to learn about the lifestyle that is ours.
I wish that those who undertake the quest of ancestry discovery would compare the choices that are ours with the choices that were our Shtetl ancestors. There is a world of difference, to say the least. In the world of our great grandparents, the choice – if there was a choice – was, do we uproot ourselves now and sail for the new world, or do we wait until our elderly parents, who are too frail to make the trip, live out their days here on earth? The world of our ancestors in the shtetl was not one of redecorating or remodeling, nor was it one of dilemmas of whether to buy or lease. In so many cases, our ancestors were much too preoccupied with whether there would be enough money to put food on the table, how they were going to afford clothes for their children, or would sufficient funds be found to pay the melamed (teacher) so that the boys would be raised as learned Jews.
I wish that those who undertake this quest realize that in reality they are searching not only for their past, but for their future as well. Can you imagine what would happen if someone searching for (non- Jewish) ancestry suddenly discovered that they are descendants of nobility? Should discovering that one is a descendant of a great rabbinic dynasty be any different? Shouldn’t searching for one’s past have implications for one’s future as well? If we find it important enough to go back in time to discover our roots, isn’t it possible that generations from now, our descendants will be undertaking similar projects to discover their roots, and in doing so will make every effort possible to learn about us? In all likelihood, they will be able to learn much more about us than we are able to learn of our ancestry.
As we beseech HaShem to seal us in the Book of Life this Shabbat, let us realize that there is another book we ought to be concerned about as well. Each day we are here on earth, we are de facto writing pages of our lives that will ultimately form the book that might very well be of great interest to future generations.