A sorting process

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, the hard-working Jewish dairyman, introduces himself and his family and his way of life with the song “Tradition.”

It lays out the beauty and stability of their stetl ways, and also hints and some of the the injustices and absurdity woven into their daily life. The wheat and the weeds are all intertwined. It works well enough, and Tevye is unwilling to disturb it.

But the world around him is not working. It’s changing fast, he has to keep deciding how willing he is to let go of things that once seemed fundamental. His first daughter wants to marry someone she loves, rather than someone her father has chosen, according to tradition. He relents. Then the second one wants to marry a scholar with radical ideas. He again relents, and although they ask for his blessing but not his permission, he belligerently gives both. Then the third one wants to marry someone who’s not even a Jew, and this is too much. He cannot accept it, and so he loses his daughter, considers her dead. 

As the pogroms intensify, the way of life they’ve been trying to hold together is being torn away from them, whether they choose to release it or not. They are expelled; their shtetl is no more. They pack up and go, heading for a new world. But before this final breech occurs, Tevye does relent again, and he conveys to his renegade daughter: May God be with you. 

Right around the same time Tevye’s fictional family was packing up their life, the Olshansky family, my family, was leaving Kiev with their son and their daughter, my grandmother, Anne, or Hana.

My great grandfather, Phillip Olshansky, wearing the uniform of the Czarist army, shortly before they fled Russia

It took three years to get off the continent that had become so hostile to Jews, and before they succeeded, they had a third child, a son, in Bucharest, Rumania. The five of them crossed the ocean and settled in New York, where they had two more children before my great grandfather died. My grandmother became a milliner and married my grandfather, Jacob, who had a small pharmacy, when she was in her early 20’s. It was then she applied for naturalization in her new home.

My grandmother and grandfather were not religious. They sometimes had a family Passover seder prayed in rapid Hebrew, but mostly just held on to the cultural threads, the jokes, the food. Some Yiddish curses that bubble up in my mind when I’m very tired. Maybe the family wanted to start fresh and leave behind as much as possible of that hostile old world.

My grandmother with my father

But at the same time, even though she was so young when she emigrated, maybe my grandmother still felt like a refugee. My sister remembers my grandmother’s piano bench containing several decks of playing cards with little tags noting which cards were missing — a useless thing that somehow felt like it was worth saving. Maybe she was just a fussy old woman. But maybe, when so much has been taken from you, it’s hard to choose to throw anything away. You keep the things you can categorize, and that makes it easier to let go things that have been taken away without your consent. I don’t know.

My paternal grandparents’ gravestones are engraved with Hebrew, anyway. My grandmother’s says “Hana bat Feivel haLevi,” which, I was recently amazed to discover, means “Anna, daughter of Phillip the levite.”

I never knew that our family was descended from levites, and wouldn’t have thought to ask my grandmother, who died when I was seven. I knew her as a plump, profane old lady who smoked and sucked purple sour ball candies as she watched Benny Hill in the little apartment she made upstairs in my parents’ house in New Hampshire, after she became too old to live on her own in Brooklyn.

My grandmother with my younger brother Jacob

Hana, daughter of Phillip the levite? I did not know. Was this something she consciously left behind, or had that heritage already become vestigial, fit only to note on a gravestone? I wonder what her early life in America was like, before her father died. Maybe she was something like one of Tevye’s daughters; maybe it was something else entirely. From Kiev to Bucharest to Brooklyn to New Hampshire, and then she died hairless in a hospital bed, hollowed out with cancer. I remember one of her sisters, Micky, Miriam, probably, so dramatically screaming at her funeral, “Annie, Annie, don’t go!” 

Did you ever wonder why Jews are so anxious? The nervy, neurotic stereotype is not from nowhere. Jews — and this is a real thing — are genetically anxious, because when you’re actively persecuted for many generations, it physically changes your brain. Our amygdalas are highly developed, because they have to be, because we were always in danger. Now it’s our job to tell our brains to stand down and calmly sort through just how much danger we’re actually in. Is anybody actually after me right now? Is there a threat? Am I being expelled?

One of the things we need to sort out, as we sort through our possessions, deciding which ones to keep and which to discard, which to hang onto and which to leave behind: Who is with us? Where can I go? What will I take with me? What will I discard?

Will God go with us? Or is He one of the ones who is out to get us? We have to be calm, assess and sort through these things calmly. 

I don’t know anything about the journey, but I believe my grandmother had doings with God some form before she died. I know that, when my parents became evangelical Christians a few years before I was born, they made some clumsy efforts to badger their parents into accepting Christ. They asked them what would happen if they fell off a cliff on the way home, died without being friends with God. My grandparents were understandably annoyed with this approach. The effort failed and my parents realized their mistake. You have to let people make these choices for themselves, not out of compulsion. God seeks your permission and your blessing. My grandmother associated the cross with pogroms. But she, daughter of a Levite, once saw a nativity scene and said, “It’s so beautiful, it must be true.” But I don’t know if she carried it further than that.  

My father once told me his father once asked a rabbi if he could be bar mitzvah’d as an adult, since it never happened when he had come of age. He didn’t go to synagogue and he didn’t observe the holy days, but he did feel that something had been withheld from him, something he needed. He wasn’t observant, but on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, he would sit alone in a darkened room all day. My father saw and remembered this.

When my father was buried, no one cried out, “Don’t go, don’t go!” at his grave. It was clearly his time, more or less. He had cheated cancer and had his chest cracked open more than once to save his heart. No one thought he would live for 77 years, but he did, and he was ready to move on, more or less.

Now my brother is sorting through his house, trying to work out what should be kept and what should be thrown away, what must be remembered and what should be discarded. I don’t want the house. I’d rather just let it go. I haven’t been inside that house for some time. What is it even full of? I’m not sure I want to remember, much less lay claim to any of it. 

It’s a good thing these choices get made for us, sometimes. I shall calmly tell my amygdala: God is with us. Everything else can be let go. 


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5 thoughts on “A sorting process”

  1. My MIL did the same thing with card decks. There were dozens of them. She also did it with board games. She would write on the bottom of the box which game pieces and/or playing cards were missing and the date of inspection. Dozens of those as well.

  2. Your brother is such a talented writer, I wish he had time to write more often.

    Beautiful reflection on looking at your roots. I come from a big German family in Texas that came here seven generations ago, and it was always really important to my dad to share that family history with us. I was shocked when I married my husband, and he didn’t grow up knowing his roots the way we had. There’s something truly grounding about knowing where you come from.

  3. My grandmother said, during the long process of sorting through her dead mother’s possessions, “Everyone’s things should disappear when they die.”

  4. “bat Feivel haLevi” does mean daughter of Philip, the priest, but not in the sense you appear to understand it. Jews are born to one of three classes, inherited through the father (Jewish identity-at-all being inherited through the mother — everything I’m about to say doesn’t apply to the child of a non-Jewish mother). The most common are “Israel,” the regular folks. Levites are the diaconate class that acts as assistants to the smallest and prestigious, the Cohanim. A Cohen is a “high priest,” and would have been eligible to offer sacrifices in the temple. These statuses are inherited, and while used in a full Hebrew name for ritual purposes, do not imply actual employment or study for religious life.

    On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is specifically reserved to Cohanim — even if they’re plumbers or doctors — to offer the threefold priestly blessing over the congregation. Even if an ordained rabbi is leading the service, if he is not a Cohen, he is supposed to defer to actual Cohanim if available. This is about it for inherited liturgical roles in the modern day. Levites don’t actually have assigned ceremonial duties in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, so it’s not surprising that your grandmother wouldn’t have mentioned it — odds are good that it barely played a role in her father’s life, even if he regularly attended a synagogue.

    1. Thank you! I want to learn more about this. I will think it through and probably amend my essay.

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