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Our Mothers, Ourselves

Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy, by Dan Rottenberg. Random House (1977), $12.95

Some time before Dan Rottenberg’s excellent guidebook to Jewish genealogy was published, I half-successfully traced and recorded more than two centuries of my direct ancestry after a few hours of conversation with certain relatives and several afternoons in the New York Public Library. Unfortunately, half of my ancestors were never mentioned, never recorded, never acknowledged: the women. My foremothers.

After reading Rottenberg’s book, I now have some clues on how to find out information about some of my more immediate female ancestors. It will take some work and lots of patience — not to mention postage stamps—but at least I now know whom to write to and what to look for. For that I thank Mr. Rottenberg warmly, although not without some sadness, for I wish he had cared less about alliteration in the choice of a title for his book.

Finding Our Fathers — despite its limiting title —is an excellent source of information for those interested in the more recent genealogy which is more likely to include the women. In a detailed and organized manner, complete with addresses, Rottenberg tells the reader how to begin the search — chart what you can, talk to relatives, write and visit them, visit the graves of deceased relatives for more clues. He tells how and where to obtain public records in the United States that give access to birth, death, and marriage information, federal census records, ships’ passenger lists, naturalization and probate records; newspaper obituaries and city directories. He discusses various organizations and institutions in America and across the ocean, Jewish and otherwise, that have compiled genealogical information. His writing is factual, concise and easy going.

One excellent chapter is devoted to what he calls “a quick course in Judaica.” He explains relevant details about Jewish population and especially the effect of the Holocaust, a brief history of Jewish wanderings over the ages and how Jewish communities began or ended in various parts of the world. He talks about the concept of the Diaspora, the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and most important for students of genealogy, traditions in giving names to children, what certain prefixes indicated and how families adopted certain names.

Unfortunately, beyond this last hundred years, there is very little known about our female ancestors, except in the most general way. Dan Rottenberg himself is certainly not to blame for the appalling lack of information on our female ancestors compared to the wealth of information on our male forebears.

An uncle of mine, who shall remain nameless, commented: “The women didn’t count. All we needed them for was to have our [sic] children.” This attitude, directed at this “strange” notion of mine to research my matriarchal line, was the very attitude that helped obliterate the names, faces and the stories of these Jewish women who gave birth to all of us.

The chart of the ancestors and descendants of the commentator Rashi (1040-1105) is a classic example of this distorted perspective of who and what was significant in the annals of Jewish history. All the charts in the book are composed almost entirely of the males, as if none of the men ever had mothers, or sisters, or daughters. In fact, the charts give one the impression that all these men have conceived alone. Occasionally, a woman’s name appears —in italics, and set off to one side while the vertical line indicating progeny is centered under the male’s name alone.

Rashi’s chart begins with several generations preceding his birth. A bun is at the top, and a vertical line connects him to his son Isaac (no woman is mentioned, naturally). Isaac had a son and a daughter. The son was Simon the Elder, who lived during the tenth century. The daughter is simply recorded as “daughter,” in italics and parentheses. Why was she even mentioned at all? For a very important reason: she married a man, Isaac (mentioned by name, of course), and in 1040 they had a son, Solomon, who later became known as Rashi, the brilliant commentator on the Torah and Talmud. Significantly, the vertical line indicating his birth is centered directly under his father’s name.

When I saw this, a hundred questions flooded me. Who was this daughter who became Rashi’s mother? What was her name? What was she like, to have raised a son so learned, so studious, who gave us so much? I felt a keen sense of loss.

Our female ancestors may not have been learned rabbis, “tsaddikim” or community leaders (although we don’t know for sure that they were not). Many, we know, were the wives of learned rabbis, “tsaddikim” and community leaders. But they played a vital role in the lives of our Jewish ancestral families and their contributions were of primary importance to Jewish survival. They deserve more than the erasure of their particular lives, as if they were nothing more than chalkmarks on the blackboard of Jewish history.

Here and now, I would like to propose that we, Jewish-identified women, feminists, undertake the responsibility of assuring our decendants the availability of information they may want some day in searching where they came from, and who they are. Some of us may attain a measure of success in our chosen fields or crafts, some of us may indeed become known as Jewish scholars or community leaders. Some will not be known to the world at large, choosing to attend to the important task of raising our children to be whole people. But let none of us be forgotten, cast aside. Each life has a story, each person leaves a mark. The pen is a powerful instrument, as is the tape recorder.

My own mother, Jean Twersky Gordon, responded to my request for information in this way: “I wish now that I had talked more to my mother when she was alive, and had asked her questions such as you are now asking me. I wish I had talked to her about her childhood, and her experiences, and those of her own mother and grandmother.”

I have now recorded some of that information. I will not make the mistake of denying my own granddaughters full knowledge of the women who gave them life.

Bonnie Gordon, who has published fiction and book reviews, is currently working on a novel. She expects her first child in January.