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How the Blumenfelds Lost Their Women

A Family’s Roots Journey to Latvia

Last August I went to pray at the lavishly restored Riga synagogue in Latvia. But instead of thinking about Judaism or the Holocaust or my vanished ancestors, I found myself sitting in the upstairs women’s gallery feeling enraged. My neck hurt from craning to see the davvening downstairs, the men strutting around and chatting, while around me a quiet handful of women sat glued to their prayer books.

I was on a family roots trip in search of traces of my great-grandfather David who had left the town of Tukums in 1883 at age 20. Like many roots trips, ours was comprised of a somewhat scattershot set of relatives. There were five of us: myself, my brother Fred, his non-Jewish partner Randolph, our cousin Sean — all in ripe middle age — and my son Noah, in his twenties. Fred, Noah and myself were raised in a “thick” Jewish family culture; Randolph had a long familiarity with, and appreciation for, Judaism; our cousin Sean had never set foot in a synagogue and had been raised Episcopalian.

While Sean sat through the service like an anthropologist observing an exotic species, my brother Fred was altogether in his element, thrilled when he was offered an aliyah. As Fred ascended to the bimah, though, I could hardly restrain myself from striding downstairs, donning my own tallit, and joining him in the blessings. Here we were in 2012, almost a century and a half after our great-grandfather left Latvia, stuck back in the patriarchal Judaism already reformed in his day! Indeed, my own great-grandmother, from another branch of the family tree, had helped found a Conservative synagogue in St. Paul in 1912 — precisely because she refused to pray in a women’s gallery. Aghast at the situation, I somehow managed to stay seated, but I was deeply troubled.

Unlike many Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City and settled on the Lower East Side, my great-grandfather David and his siblings moved immediately to the Midwest. In 1887, David married Lena, also a Jewish immigrant, and they settled in South St. Paul, which David sourly described in his diary as “a real frontier town” with muddy streets and an “awful stench from the cattle pens.”

With his meager capital, David opened a men’s clothing store that sold denim jeans and cowboy hats to locals working in the meat-packing industry. While his son Albert (my grandfather) manned the shop, David sat in a back-room study, translating the Hebrew Bible and writing several novels in stilted English. Alas, only one of them was published, by a vanity press. David became a pillar of South St. Paul civil society and played a key role in founding St. Paul’s enduring Jewish institutions. Besides my grandfather, David and Lena had three other children: my great-aunts Helen and Belle — the protagonists of my story — and my great-uncle Joseph.

 

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ur week in Latvia was the culmination of four years of family conversations about David’s diary, which Sean had discovered, to our astonishment, in his Seattle basement in 2008. None of us had suspected there was such a document, and we were excited. There was a longstanding breach in our extended family; the Christian and Jewish sides had been estranged for as long as any of us remembered, and the cousins in my generation were scarcely aware of one another. We also no longer knew the origin of the rift. The diary not only clarified this for us, but did a good deal more. As we all read and talked about the journal, emailing back and forth, as Sean traveled to Minnesota to meet the Jewish side of the clan, and as some of us finally made the trip to Latvia, the diary sparked a process of extended family therapy and unexpected healing.

For me, reading the diary had a two-pronged effect. It made a kind of spooky sense out of my layered, somewhat complicated relationship to Judaism over the years, and it also offered a canny back-story to my passions as an academic. For the past 33 years, as a professor of German and Jewish history at SUNY Binghamton, Sarah Lawrence, and now at the University of California at San Diego, I have written about mistreated Jewish daughters and how they constructed new identities after rejecting their tradition. Little had I known that a deep, unsutured rupture in my own family’s history had in some way propelled me.

The diary introduces us to David, a patriarch not always likeable, who could be rigidly judgmental and rejecting. Throughout the journal, David pours out his unhappiness with his wife Lena, but he’s even nastier when it comes to his daughter Helen, my cousin Sean’s grandmother. Helen was just “born with a mean disposition and a bad temper,” David writes, a theory endorsed, he adds gratuitously, by the family physician. When one of Helen’s teachers complains about his refusal to support his daughter’s “intellectual career,” David is scornful and misogynistic. “Those women who go out and do things on their own are freaks,” he says. “No one has any use for them.”

As the years pass, David notes that Helen, who seems to be spirited and wants to be an actress, is disobedient and mercurial, “with a talent,” he notes sarcastically, “for getting mixed up with curious crowds.” When she finally runs away (at this point I was rooting for her) to follow a leftist Jewish boyfriend to Trenton, New Jersey, David rejects his daughter’s future husband as a “most impenetrable youth” who has nothing “to indicate him worthy of trust or friendship.” David mocks his son-in-law’s politics and demeans Helen’s interests and artistic passions. Needless to say, Helen and her husband move to Los Angeles, far from the family fold. The diary ends before Helen’s daughter Beth (who will become Sean’s mother) grows up and strays even further. Beth marries a Methodist professor of poetry, becomes a poet of some renown herself, and the two convert to Episcopalianism. They raise their children in Seattle.

But then, aha!, there is David’s other daughter Belle, his firstborn, the one who can do no wrong. David adores her, praising her lavishly for her “discretion, alert humor, vivacity of face and manners.” He also endorses her choices, noting that she “always moved in good company.” When, in 1906, Belle wins the local debate championship for her high school, David swells with pride. Belle is “feted to the limit,” he boasts.

David approves of this daughter’s marriage — to a well-paid, studious, Jewish accountant. Belle and her husband stay in St. Paul, where she reads The New York Times daily and becomes the “much feared” president of the local chapter of Hadassah. As the years pass, Belle begins to function as an “intellectual mother” to my own mother, strongly encouraging her to return to college after we children are old enough for school. My great-aunt Belle passes on to my mother a passion for Jewish institutions and for higher education.

 

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y great-grandfather’s crudely dichotomized portraits of his daughters were painful to read, but they were also illuminating. Without in any way knowing it, I’d indeed inherited the double legacy of my great-aunts, the rebellious Helen and the dutiful Belle, a polarization that has resonated through my life.

As a teen and young adult, I was a lot like Helen, furious at the familial expectation that I would automatically move into the roles of good Jewish daughter, good Jewish wife, and good Jewish mother. But I was also a lot like Belle. I had, after all, happily attended Hebrew High School, and I spent my summers joyfully at Camp Herzl and Camp Ramah, both in Wisconsin. I chose to go to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for my junior year abroad, and it was there, I think, that I first learned how to integrate these two aspects of myself, to heal what I now see as the Helen-Belle split.

I have to laugh retrospectively at my decision to get a doctorate in German history, which, in the early 1970s, was definitely a “Helen” move, a choice that my family experienced as insubordinate and endangering to my Jewish identity. I went to Germany to learn the language and mix with “actual” Germans; that was Helen all the way. On the other hand, my marriage, my motherhood, my adult academic and Jewish communal commitments…these are triumphs of Belle.

Most shocking to me, though, when I first read through my great-grandfather’s diary, was how the core focus of the books I’ve written is presaged by the relationship between David and his daughter Helen. I write about angry, controlling Jewish fathers and how the outrage they commit on their daughters push the daughters to leave their families and faith. My first book, Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, about eighteenth-century Jewish salonieres, addressed how Jewish daughters, forced into arranged marriages, ultimately rejected Judaism. The book I am currently working on, Fugitive Virgins: Jewish Women Firebrands and the Movements They Joined, again looks at arranged marriages, but this time I follow young women who’ve been propelled into leftist politics. Helen lives on in my scholarship!

The reason my Shabbat in the synagogue in Riga was so distressing to me was that it simultaneously invigorated both prototypes: Aunt Belle knew all the prayers, as I did, but Aunt Helen, discriminated against as a female, wanted to flee the shul altogether and never look back. In the contemporary United States, there are non-Orthodox options for Jewish women; they don’t have to feel split between “Helen” and “Belle.” But in Riga, I found myself trapped, in a situation that I typically encounter only in history books.

 

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uring our roots trip, all five of us were living in two worlds. In our hearts and minds, we were re-enacting the complicated web of our family history, but we were also intensely aware that, to the Latvians we encountered, our search for a vanished family history appeared quixotic and sentimental. Even though my brother’s research uncovered the fact that seven of our eight great-grandparents were born in the various Baltic lands, the language, the food and the scenery felt absolutely alien to us. In the same instant that we felt the ever-present ghosts of our ancestors and of those murdered by the Nazis, we felt the ghosts’ “never-presence” to the Latvians we met. We also felt somewhat Jewishly inauthentic; many Jews go on roots trips to uncover family members’ experience in the 1930s and ‘40s, but our family tree was largely severed from Latvia in 1883.

While we were still in Riga, my brother Fred checked the Yad Vashem Holocaust data bank on the Web to see if he could track down the fate of one of my great-grandfather’s uncles, who was 87 in 1941. In minutes he discovered that he’d been murdered, along with many other Jews, during that bloody summer. How many times, I thought, had I shown my lecture class the map of the routes of the killing squads, unaware that one of my relatives was among the dead?          

In the 1880s and 1890s, while he was a young impoverished tailor in the U.S., my great-grandfather David Blumenfeld had been the unlucky one of his clan. In 1941, though, he was 59, living in America, proud of what he had wrought since leaving Tukums. His youngest son was a graduate of Harvard Law School and soon to be appointed an assistant federal prosecutor. Oh, how the tables had turned.

 

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ur day in Tukums was the highlight of our trip. We knew that after my great-grandfather, his parents, and his siblings departed the town, my great-grandfather’s mother’s family, the Klatzovs, continued to manage the family businesses, making and selling leather supplies. The diary had told us that the Klatzovs were one of the most prominent Jewish families in town, and it placed one of their shops on the central square.

We also readily identified the home of my great-great-grandmother; indeed, her house was featured on postcards of Tukums for sale in the local museum. We met with Agrita Ozola, the director of the local history museum, whose eyes opened wide as my brother showed her photos of our great-grandfather in South St. Paul and ship records of his emigration. Soon the entire diary was on her flash drive. And after visiting the local Jewish cemetery, we began planning how to work with local teenagers to restore the gravestones.

Like many Jews who do family roots trips, I felt motivated by our journey to ponder our darker, less obvious motives. My great-grandfather’s family departed Riga because of the harsh Russian regulation of Jewish life which I knew, from my research, had become far worse in the early 1880s. And his uncle, who remained in Latvia, was shot, undoubtedly with the help of locals who endorsed the Nazi plan of Jewish genocide. Didn’t the entire history of Latvian Jews tell us to turn away, to never revisit this Jewish graveyard? Why were we doing this, and what good would our journey bring to either us or the Latvians we were meeting?

In the Baltic lands, a brief era of national autonomy was followed by two successive occupations, first the Nazis and then the Soviets, and most Latvian and Lithuanian intellectuals were fully immersed in comparisons between these two regimes. When we saw museum displays in both Riga and Vilnius that were focused on this “double genocide,” there was little representation of the suffering of the local Jews.

But beyond the issue of whether or not locals were able to attend to the Jewish tragedy which had occurred in their region, I began to wonder what my great-grandfather himself would have made of our return more than a century after his departure.

Were he to rise from his grave in St. Paul and sit with us over a cup of tea, he might well remind us that nostalgia is a privilege of the securely rooted. An intellectual, he might ask whether we were appropriating the pain of those victimized in the Holocaust. After all, when we first learned about our great-great-uncle’s death, we certainly weren’t grieving the brutal death of a beloved relative — we hadn’t even known we had relatives in Tukums during the Holocaust.

Were we seeking somehow to become more authentically Jewish because, look, we’ve discovered a relative’s tragic destiny? And as an academic, I also felt troubled by how Holocaust education, to local Latvians, might seem like just one more expression of the ascendancy of the United States in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Roots journeys, I discovered, are complicated; you can refract dozens of lenses in the course of one short week.

 

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till, overall, I loved our trip, and I do want to mark the Jewish history of Tukums. My unhappy hours in the Riga synagogue and my great-grandfather’s diary certainly illuminated the complicated motives for the particular lens I put on Jewish women’s history. I am grateful for my closer embrace of my great-aunts Helen and Belle, for my private homage to them and integration of them, and for my extended family’s healing of a multi-generational rift.

But the larger point is not about me; it is about the history of Jews in Tukums and the restoration of their vanished Jewish past. Without relatives, without a thriving Jewish presence in that old town, we cling to our diary text, to derelict cemeteries, to restored synagogues, to ghosts and relics. In our own time and in their place, we seek to restore our family’s past, and to blow on the embers we find in ashes.

Deborah Hertz is Herman Wouk chair in Modern Jewish Studies and professor of History at the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin (Yale, 2007), among other publications.