Book: The Spoon from Minkowitz : A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands (New January 2014) by Judith Fein
Have you seen the play or the movie Fiddler on the Roof? Judith Fein thought maybe her ancestors had lived the kind of life that Tevya and his family lived. She thought about the small clues to her family history that her grandmother, a Russian Jewish immigrant, had passed on to her about life in a shtetl, and tried to imagine what that life was like. For years and years and years, she thought about it and her very active imagination built up a “Fiddler on the Roof” existence for her ancestors.
The fact that it took her years and years and years is somewhat amazing since Fein, a travel writer and her husband Paul Ross, a travel photographer, have visited most corners of the world. Not only that, but Judith specializes in digging out the most unusual and even exotic cultures and the most important spiritual connections wherever she goes. But her own family was at once familiar and exotic. Somehow she managed to avoid this little corner of the world, perhaps afraid she would be disappointed. In The Spoon from Minkowitz, she sets out to remedy that reluctance and encourage others to follow their family history.
Because Fein is a worthy successor to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish story-teller who gave us the character of Tevya, readers are in for a real treat when they pick up a copy of The Spoon from Minkowitz. (If you need to brush up your knowledge of Sholem Aleichem, read this fascinating article in Atlantic.)
As a young girl, at a time when I was cowed by the admonition that little girls should be seen and not heard, Fein was boldly interviewing her grandmother, refusing to let the reluctant subject rest until she gave Judie some answers. Fein’s mother was no help, because as the child of immigrants, she had no desire to recall the poverty and pogroms of her Russian Jewish family history. After all, those who had not fled to America or other countries, had died. But Fein, the budding journalist, refused to give up. Even though the small hints that her grandmother were very slight, she clung to them as a connection to her past.
The first hurdle that Fein had to overcome, besides that inner uneasiness with confronting her family’s past, was that her grandmother lived in Russia, and Minkowitz, a town too tiny for most maps — let alone Google search–is now part of Ukraine. Finally, a trip took Fein and Ross to Ukraine and they were too close not to visit Minkowitz. Finally, she could learn whether her grandmother’s memories were real and perhaps see for herself what the small village that her ancestors fled for America was the way she pictured it.
Using her grandmother’s clues, her years of journalistic experience, and her instinct, she ferrets out the truth about her family history, some totally unexpected.
In the process, we learn what life is like today in a small Ukrainian village. She introduces us to some interesting characters, like the Gypsy Baron of Moldova, a village big wheel who resisted a meeting.
This book will surely accomplish the goal of persuading people to seek their own family history. More than that, like Fein’s previous book, Life is a Trip, it is a primer for travelers on how to get beneath the surface of the place you are visiting. The lovely writing –moving and amusing by turn–pulled me through the story and I was sorry to see it end. The descriptions of the journey also persuaded me that I should put eastern Europe on my travel list. Now what more could you ask for from a book in your traveler’s library?
Note: Special thanks to Paul, Judith Fein’s husband and the photographer for The Spoon from Minkowitz for permission to use his photographs.
I have linked the book titles and cover to Amazon.com for your convenience. Remember that I am an affiliate of Amazon, so when you shop through my links you are helping keep A Traveler’s Library alive. Thanks for your support.