For most of college, I yearned for a strong cultural connection. My freshman year, I went to Cost Rica, and so I became fascinated with Central America. I started learning Spanish, and it was all very interesting but it wasn’t something to which I could personally connect. Then sophomore year, I took a class in West Indian literature, and so I became obsessed with the Caribbean and wanted to spend my summer volunteering in Haiti. My parents said absolutely not, and my fling with the West Indies ended. Neither infatuation was sustainable because, again, I didn’t have any personal connection. I think for a long time leading up to my Pardes experience I was searching for something more personal than 4th of July and apple pie, because that never felt like my inheritance. I couldn’t relate to it.
On the first day of Pardes last August, I was thumbing through the packet of course descriptions and I saw underneath the paragraph describing David Bernstein’s Modern Jewish History class a little additional line that read, “Highly recommended for those joining the Pardes trip to Poland in January.”
That was first I had heard of the Pardes trip to Poland, but I knew that moment that I was going to participate.
My grandpa, along with his mother and father’s entire families, were born and lived in shtetlach about 60km outside of Warsaw. I knew that going on this trip would allow me to delve deeper into my own family’s history, and for the first time I was going to explore my own family’s cultural heritage. I started preparing for the trip and digging up details of my family history. Rabbi Levi Cooper, our guide and leader, emphasizes taking ownership of the experience – personalizing it, preparing for it, and, if the logistics work in our favor, actually going to places that have significance to trip participants, and thus began my research. I came across a black and white photograph of my great grandfather, Joseph Sztyforman (later shortened to Stein), and in this picture was a man with my grandpa’s eyes and a thick black beard that was very well kempt, and the only way I can really describe his garb was Hasidic chic. He was in a black suit, but it was fashionable, and he had on a black hat but it also was a little bit stylish. Up until this point, I had only ever heard one story about this man whom I never met, Joseph Stein: When my uncle Bart was becoming bar mitzvah at the conservative shul my mother’s family attended in Cleveland, my great grandpa Stein wouldn’t attend because the shul didn’t have a mechitza. So, armed with that one story, which still stings my uncle, I started doing more and more research about my great grandfather and his wife, and their lives in a tiny village outside of Warsaw called Belndow. I discovered that Joseph Stein was the shochet, a kosher butcher, in his shtetl. He was an extremely religious man, but wasn’t extreme, and he was a talmid chacham who studied Talmud and halacha. It was deeply painful for him to leave behind a life that was so rich in meaning and purpose when he immigrated to the United States with his wife and my grandfather in 1926.
I saw the Poland trip as an opportunity to investigate the life of my great grandparents, discover the richness they left behind, and reclaim it for myself. Something else that makes this trip unique is that it is not simply a five-day discussion of the Holocaust. We do certainly examine the destruction, but we also study Jewish life in pre-war Poland, because before you can appreciate what was lost, you really have to realize the richness of what existed before – the experience that was Jewish life in Poland.
This trip was my opportunity to connect to hundreds of years of Jewish history and collective memory that cannot be forgotten, in addition to rediscovering my family’s history. I was blessed to be able to share the experience with my parents, who also came on the trip. Even more powerful was the reality that I had this experience in the midst of spending a year learning Torah, learning the same texts that my great grandfather learned. I think about him every time I enter the beit midrash. I bring my Poland experience with me every day I come to Pardes, and on days when I am really having a hard time, I think about my great grandfather and so many others like him who sat in their shtetl and learned from the same books. I wonder what he thought about the mishnah I just finished. I wonder what our discussion about it would be like. More than anything, I hope he would be proud of me.