My search for the meaning of family came into particular focus when my twenty-year marriage ended abruptly and painfully after my husband left to marry a woman from his office, and it appeared to me that my entire past had been for nothing. When I married for a second time, at 48, to a man who was not only Jewish (I am a bedrock W.A.S.P.) but 74-years old (he is now 89, and a national tennis champion), I urgently needed to forge for myself a fresh understanding of my past, to give myself an identity and a history that could not be taken away.
Though I am not a writer by trade, my emotional journey became a book (self-published in 1985) about my family, both sides of which had arrived in America on the Mayflower. Starting back eleven generations, I discovered many determined, independent and assertive women in my family, and I was grateful to them for having existed.
Before I knew it, I found myself writing a second book, this one about my husband’s great-grandfather (called This, Too, Is For the Best: Simon Kramer and His Stories, New York: Peter Lang, 1989). Kramer, a well-known Jewish-studies teacher and author in 19th century Bavaria, was a man with whom I came to identify strongly. Like me, he craved self-understanding, had ambivalence about his inherited values, and cared deeply about his family. Kramer wrote passionately about his fear that his children, whom he had sent off to America, would abandon the Judaism he loved. Oddly (actually, not oddly at all), his fears became mine, and I determined to follow the “trail” of Kramer’s descendants. It was a complicated journey for me, vicarious in a multitude of ways, echoing into my own future as well as the Kramer family’s past, and connecting me to my new, inherited family as well.
As it turned out, the trail of Simon Kramer’s descendants led everywhere. From Chicago it led to Sherman’s march on Atlanta and death by disease in a lonesome spot in Tennessee; it went west by way of Panama to the wilderness of the Northwest and to a tobacco stand in Idaho. It survived the Chicago Fire and bankruptcy, and moved on to the new railroad in Nebraska. From New York and the heady atmosphere of “Our Crowd ” I followed the trail down the Rhine, to Nice, to fortunes in Switzerland, to a drowning in Florida, to mines in Colorado, to two poodles who inherited the estate of their childless owner. It lead to an auto mechanic in Los Angeles, to a woman dentist, to a balloonist in World War I, to a ballet dancer and an airline pilot in Argentina, to death on a polo field, to the bicycle-filled home of a competitive racer, and to a Moslem and a Buddhist wedding. It also led back to Germany, to Dachau and the train to Riga. It led to the wife of a Presbyterian minister and to several avid Christian Scientists. It also led to Orthodox seders, Conservative bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings under the chuppah; and to Susan Marks, who had recently been ordained as a Reform rabbi. It led to over 50% of the descendants who were Christians, but it also led to those in the fourth and fifth generations who were re-identified as Jews.
I found myself really disturbed by the descendants who denied their Jewishness. One man wrote me saying that he had never known his Jewish grandparents (though they lived in the same town), and would I please respect his “anonymity” Another told me that he knew nothing about having Jewish relatives and did not wish to correspond further. (I learned later that his son did not know of his Jewish heritage until a cousin leaked the information.) One angry woman telephoned me, “forbidding” me to use her name in the family genealogy — being Jewish was a secret she had kept from her husband and children, and I had upset the elaborate, precarious tracery of lies by which she had lived her life.
I started to wonder through all of this — was being Jewish that awful? I asked myself this question about Jews and Judaism, and then I pondered what I thought had been awful in my own childhood, in my first marriage, in my W.A.S.P. heritage. Naturally enough, some of my friends, knowing of my growing excitement and empathy, asked if I planned to convert to Judaism. But they missed the point! Of course I would not convert; I am not a Jew. If I converted, I would feel like I was denying my own newly-found ancestors, those strong, pioneering men and women whose efforts and faith I respected, even if I did not believe exactly as they had. On the other hand, I could not forget Simon Kramer either (a man I had come to love), and his colorful and diverse descendants, and what felt to be, after all, a universal quest for personal identity and meaning.
It amused me to realize that Simon Kramer — a patriarchal, chauvinist, misogynist German-Jew — had been the catalyst that allowed me to experience my own full, creative, confident voice at last, after so much living.
Finally, I love the fact that my own New England ancestors, have the same names as my husband’s Jewish forebears: Sarah and Moses and Rebecca and Jeremiah and Bella and Jacob.
As for the angry woman who “forbid” me to include her in our family’s genealogy, I listed her finally as: female, married, with three children — two females and one male.
The words, to me anyway, look lonely and unfinished on the page.
Julia Wood Kramer lives in Chicago. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration.