The highest form of wisdom is kindness – the Talmud

I grew up in an affluent, northeastern part of the country – up North we called it in Louisiana where I really grew up, and back East we say here in Colorado. My parents were a complicated couple. They did not appear to me to even like each other until they were in their 70s. After my father died, my mother was lost, which surprised all of us, except my mother.

My father was an affectionate man who disarmed people with his humor. He liked to tell the story of when he first met my mother – she was on her hands and knees scrubbing a kitchen floor with great effort. The next part of the story drove his point home when he added, “I thought she was a hard worker and that was the last time she scrubbed a floor.” His humor was lighthearted, but also could be quite sarcastic and cutting. We all developed some form of this humor in my family that has softened over the years. Now I see that it was a coping mechanism to deal with extreme angst that was undeniably multi-generational.

My parents were first-generation American born. Their parents emigrated from Eastern Europe, fleeing sociopolitical discrimination and religious persecution. Aunt Paulie was my grandfather’s sister who left Lithuania as a young girl and worked in sweatshops in lower Manhattan’s manufacturing district to make enough money to survive as an immigrant. Her intention was to bring her siblings from the oppressive regime in Lithuania to America, where the streets were paved with gold, as they were told in the old country. Although this was a metaphor, I think they took it quite literally as the young children that they were.

I remember the family photograph on my grandparent’s wall of my grandmother’s parents looking solemn and disheartened with many children by their sides, quite a few of whom had not made it. I didn’t quite understand how children could not make it, but I knew not to ask. I would get hints about the answers to these questions later in life when my mother would vehemently refuse to see Schindler’s List, or any movie related to World War II.

Aunt Paulie sat at her ancient Singer sewing machine, pushing the foot pedals rhythmically, as she spun her tales of the history of our family. When her brothers were to leave Eastern Europe, they told each other, We will meet in America, but they hadn’t specified which America. After all, my grandfather gone was barely seven at the time. One brother ended up in South America, raising his family in Chile. My grandfather, Benny, and other family members arrived at Ellis Island, the port of entry in North America to be processed.

My grandfather got a job his very first day in New York City, not even speaking the language. He drove a horse and buggy to transport New Yorkers to their destinations. My grandfather was an honest, hard-working man, who provided for his family despite many of the troubles they encountered, while bringing with him the history of the violent, oppressive pograms from Eastern Europe. Benny had hands almost twice the size of other men making him a valuable worker loading and unloading trucks. He built up his own fleet until the Great Depression where he lost everything. His hardships were unimaginable. He and my mother had a strong bond and he visited us in Pennsylvania frequently. Grandpa was not in a hurry and was the only person I knew who got traffic tickets for driving his old Packard too slowly.

I was unable to connect emotionally with most of my older relatives in my mother’s family, except Aunt Paulie, who has made an impression on me to this day. At her funeral, I noticed she was placed in a simple, pine box that deeply appealed to a part of me. The simplicity of this family ritual implanted a value I’ve carried throughout my life. Death can be simple and natural. Aunt Paulie had more strength than anyone I knew in my family. After all, she had been the catalyst that allowed our family to survive World War II. And she had more heart than anyone I had encountered in my mother’s family, to care to share that which was difficult. Remind you of someone? She took the time to talk to me about what was in her heart – a new experience for me during my many visits to the Bronx. I suspect her relationship with my mother cleared the way for this opening. My mother was the only daughter of brothers, identical to my own personal family configuration. (The photograph above is my mother and two of her three brothers.)

My father grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, also with Eastern European Jewish ancestry. His father was a socialist and, I suspect, politically part of the resistance. I can only tell my family stories from bits and pieces of what I have been told over the years and what I have intuitively pieced together. It could be somewhat inaccurate, but it is the Story I am left with. My father went to a socialist camp that he only told me about when he was in his 80s. Politics was not something we talked about in our family. Either there was too much pain from our family history or it was considered unimportant. I suspect the former was true.

After seeing his mother go without food during the Great Depression, my father decided to work through high school in his father’s used furniture store. (I was recently told that when she had a surplus, she left food on a table in the back of her apartment complex, so some stranger would not go hungry.) My grandfather was a craftsman and a humanitarian. My father didn’t seem to respect my grandfather. Perhaps he felt he was to passive, too nice to the customers who owed him money. Another family story – my grandparents would be walking down the street and see customers who owed them money and my grandfather would cross the street so as not to embarrass the customer and my grandmother would pick up a stick and chase them. Judging how my father told the story, he more related to his mother and thought she was a shrewd businesswoman, a quality he valued deeply. I see both of my grandparents in my personality, which helps me understand each strategy with compassion.

I have tremendous gratitude for the rich heritage from which I descended and have passed on to my children and grandchildren. We have survived tremendous adversity, where many of our ancestors met terrible fates. This essay is for them.

Ironically, much of the anti-Semitism began in Russia, twisting history to find a scapegoat in the Jews. This led to hatred and murder, forcing the Jews to flee. Sound familiar? The pattern of power over others is being played out all around the world. History repeats itself, if not made conscious through vulnerability resulting in empathy for others, whether they be Jews, black, brown, yellow, or red. My mother once told me that if it weren’t the color of one’s skin that led to the opportunistic division, it would be someone with red hair. I still remember her saying this, but now I better understand the context from which she spoke.

Russia seems to perpetrating this aggression without being constrained, which leads to more aggression or more resistance. You can’t have it both ways. The trauma of the oppressed is evoking empathy leading to demonstrations – that is the medicine. We must resist the predation and care for all the oppressed: those seeking asylum, those families being split apart, and those needing healthcare and equality in our own country. We are them and they are us.

Many family histories never get written down. I will leave this accounting for my children and my children’s children. May they understand their roots, may they access their own pure fire to clear the denial so history does NOT repeat itself, to burn off the resentment and bring themselves into balance to find forgiveness and, ultimately, kindness. May they find their own Way that serves their Highest Good and the Highest Good of all.

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