I have interviewed Judith Fein before about increasing self-awareness through travel. Today I am again interviewing Judith, this time about her new book The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. She was kind enough to give me a review copy of the book and I savored every page. Because it is both an engaging and honest memoir, and a gripping, hard-to-stop-reading adventure tale, I recommend the book to you. Now read on as I ask Judie some questions about The Spoon from Minkowitz.
Judie, for those readers who have not yet read your latest book, will you give an overview of your concept of ancestral travel, please?
There are many forms of ancestral travel. The first, and most obvious kind, is traveling to the land your ancestors came from. The more you know about their place of origin--the country, the town or village, any buildings that may remain from their life-- the more potent the trip will be. But even if you know no details, it is powerful to walk the land they walked, breathe in the air, go to the markets, taste the food, talk to people. I think it is the best antidote to the pervasive malaise of rootlessness and disconnectedness that afflicts us. This kind of ancestral travel has great intergenerational appeal. You can go with family elders who lived there, or you can take children to discover their family roots. Of course you can go on your own, too.
Another form of ancestral travel is what I call Emotional Genealogy. You find anyone in your family, starting with the oldest members, and ask them questions. You "travel" into the past of your family by finding out what the stories are. No story is too small or inconsequential. Each bit of information is a lead, a clue about where you came from, which is part of the identity of who you are.
And the most intimate form of ancestral travel is looking at (and finding out about) the behavioral patterns that have been passed down in your family. The positive traits, of course, and then the negative ones, like pain, anger, victimhood, silent suffering, lying--that have been handed down. When you look at the behavioral legacy, you have the option of transforming it rather than transmitting it.
A number of people who read this blog are involved with helping clients pass on wealth to the next generation or generations. A growing number of them also see values as a part of the gifts that can be part of a formal or informal inheritance. Do you think knowledge of one's ancestry and of one's place in the ancestry-life-legacy flow can affect how people see the concepts of inheritance, estates, maybe even ownership? Did your ancestral travel to Ukraine change your ideas of what you want to leave behind?
There are so many kinds of wealth. I think that if you or a client can pass on family stories, family history, transparency about what came before, connection, objects, writing, photos from an ancestor or ancestors, this is an immeasurable form of wealth. What if clients left money for the next generation specifically to take a roots trip? And maybe included tips on how to do it, where to go, what to look for, in addition to any heirlooms? This can be left in writing, or, even better, as a video. How about requesting that money be given in the ancestral town or city to restore a cemetery, expand a library, buy school supplies, purchase new seats in a religious sanctuary? If the town or village is not impecunious, what about a memorial plaque to the ancestors? Or a small building or room in a building in their name? It is very hard to get the attention of the next generation, because so many things pull at their focus and time. But if you show through inheritance that family knowledge is as important as family funds, it can be the beginning of a sea change in the way people see themselves in relation to those who came before them and those who will follow them. One day we will be the ancestors. Who will remember us? Maybe they can remember us for the values we impart as well as the wealth we have accumulated. Maybe they will thank us one day for connecting them to those who came before them. If we forget our forebears, then we, too, will be forgotten.
i have a longing to go back there and put some money into the hands of people i met. i wrote to ask
our guide if he could facilitate that, but got no answer. I mean, it would be so much easier to send money to him, earmarked for individuals, but i guess I will just have to do it myself. and while i am there, i am sure i will figure out others ways to share a bit of our good fortune. the mayor, for example, uses an outhouse that consists of a falling-down shack and two weathered slabs of wood loosely placed over a hole. i can donate copies of my book so Minkowitz knows the world still remembers it.
I am sure there are people who, after reading this interview and especially after reading your new book will want to explore their past through their own ancestral travel. What steps would you advise them to take? You mentioned approaching it, for yourself, like Marco Polo. Can you explain that, too, please?
By researching your family stories and recording the information, you are almost ready to go. You certainly do not have to become a genealogist, but a little searching on Ancestry.com, or some of the more specific websites, can be helpful to narrow your search or find a guide if you need one. Then all you have to do is make travel arrangements. In my own case, like Marco Polo, I like to go to a destination I do not know, and discover it when I am there. Marco Polo didn't have travel guides or websites. When I went on my own roots trip, I had 6 minor facts about my grandmother's life, the name of her village, the name of the largest nearby town. I hired a guide because of the language. And I went. That was all I did to prepare. And the trip changed my life.
I can see that you are very enthusiastic about what you learned and gained from pursuing your ancestral travel and emotional genealogy. What is your next step with these concepts and processes?
When I lived in Arab lands, I learned that "Insh Allah" is more than a casual expression thrown in every time you use the future tense. Jews say, "eem yirtzah hashem." the idea is that one never knows about the future, and acknowledges the role of the divine in determining what will happen to you tonight, tomorrow, or ten years from now. Although I am not religious, I believe this is true. There is a flow to life, and you just jump into the river and go with it. You can be a strong swimmer, or you can flail around, but the river will have its way with you. So, on a practical level, I have talks and workshops lined up, and I hope to do more. I hope people read my new book, and relate to their own stories, their own ancestors, their own emotional genealogy. I would like to open up the discussion about emotional genealogy--what made us who we are, what are the pieces of our life puzzle, what are the threads that bind us to the past and the future---and make it part of what we talk about in our lives.
And just one short add-on question, a postscript to our interview, if you don't mind: I did not notice much mention of music in your book. Do you think music has any role in emotional genealogy?
i could give a glib answer, but instead i will give a truthful one. when i have down time, i like silence. in silence i can regenerate and think and calm my mind. i used to listen to music a lot more than i do now. as i write these words, there are childhood songs that come back to me. holiday songs. the songs we danced to, when we first discovered the soothing excitement of being pressed up against each other. but i have not connected this to emotional genealogy. tell me more about how YOU see it….
Thanks very much for writing (and living) your book and for taking the time to answer my questions, Judie! I have no doubt that the idea of ancestral travel will be very compelling to many idealawg readers. With the fine model of searching and discovering provided by your story in The Spoon from Minkowitz, perhaps we will see more and more people setting off for the lands of their ancestors.
Email Judith Fein.
Note: To answer Judie's question about how I see the power of music, read my past posts here and here.