Posted on March 31, 2015 by Louise Szczerb
For most young and involved Jews growing up in Israel, Europe or North America a trip to Poland is a formative part of their Jewish journey. In Israel they call it a ‘Tiyul Shorashim’, a trip designed to help you discover your roots.
Although many of my mother’s mother’s family were part of the 98% of Salonikan Jewry murdered by the Nazis, for me personally, these few days to Turkey have been my chance to rediscover by roots.
How could it not be? In the Sephardi tradition of naming after grandparents living or deceased, my Hebrew is name, Malka, for my grandmother Reine, who was named for her grandmother, Sultana Curiel, who was named in honor of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Sultana was born in Izmir, she married my great great grandfather David Nessim from Salonika and together they moved and settled in Alexandria where trade was booming thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As the story goes, Sultana was an extremely holy woman – before the neighborhood synagogue of Sporting, Alexandria was built, the local minyan was held at her villa and people came from far and wide to ask for her advice, blessings and Kabbalistic insights. My father was the third generation born in Egypt, but in 1956 was forced to leave as part of Nasser’s expulsion.
On my mother’s side, my great grandmother Flore Amargi was born in Samsoun on the Black Sea. She married my great grandfather Haim Yeni from Salonika (For the Pardes team, I’ll translate: Yeni – means ‘new’ in Turkish – and possibly reflected their status as new citizens in the Empire). The story of the Yeni’s took a different course and they ended up in France leaving loved ones behind as the clouds of war loomed in Europe.
Fast forward almost a century and I was born and brought up in London where the majority of the community are Ashkenazi Jews. However, the much smaller and much older Spanish and Portuguese synagogue where I grew up, was always a huge source of pride and has become an integral part of my Jewish identity. Our particular customs, prayers, foods – including Sultana’s recipe for haroset which I will be making next week – are unique, and we were taught to cherish that.
As I began thinking about this trip and simultaneously began my Pesach preparations in Israel, I was reminded of a famous midrash:
Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5: Our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their names, their language or their clothes.
Although, I am certainly not comparing the Ashkenazim in London to the Egyptian slave masters, it seems to me that maintaining those very things that make us special and different and remaining part of a distinct group even when you are the minority, holds the key to our survival in difficult, and sometimes dangerous exiles.
The stories of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov can also help us to understand our relationships to previous and to future generations. Each of the avot had a different role in history, each with their own challenges and difficulties, and each representing a different stage in the process which eventually culminated in the creation of the Jewish people.
Avraham was the first; he was the beginning. He arrives as a lone voice in a lonely desert; the world is full of idolatry, with many gods worshiping the world of nature. Avraham’s mission is to introduce the idea that there is One God who created the world with one ethical code, guiding us towards peace and coexistence. Avraham is about this intense outward energy and new ideas that capture the world. He is constantly being tested, always journeying. He arrives in Israel, travels the land, only to have to go down to Egypt as the result of a famine. He fights wars, he climbs mountains and ultimately brings into the world the first Jewish child.
But…the Jewish people is not yet ready to be born. Yitzchak is the second generation; he is the one who has to follow up. He does not have the privilege of being the founder of this new idea, but he is the one challenged with the task of making sure it does not die and carries weight of making it a reality. Whereas Avraham digs wells and signs treaties, Yitzchak simply re-digs the wells his father has already dug. And THAT is the entire point: his life’s mission is to be the continuation of the work his father started. And this re-digging and preservation of traditions, is perhaps the most difficult part of the journey; it is neither the departure, which holds with it the excitement of embarking on a new path for the unknown, nor is it the fulfillment of arrival that Yaacov later witnesses, with the knowledge that the long hard journey has been worthwhile.
To bring these stories back to us here as individuals and thinking about the importance of family roots, I’d like to suggest the idea that at different stages in our own lives we need to draw on character traits from all three of the our forefathers. Like Avraham, we need to be ambitious and contribute to moving the world forward through new ideas and aiming high with our own lifework. In other realms and at other times, we need to be a Yitzchak, re-digging old wells, looking back and drawing strength from the achievements and traditions of generations before us. But throughout, we need to have a bit of Yaacov’s vision and faith and do our part to secure the future of Am Yisrael.