Tag Archives: Judith Fein

New Book:Travel to Ukraine for Family History

Book Cover: family history
Destination:  Ukraine

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.

Family history in Minkowitz
In the fields around Minkowitz, animal labor is still employed. Photo by Paul Ross.

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.

Family history of Jewish emigrees
Dunca, “the last Jew standing” -from the chapter of the same name.

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.

Family history holds surprises
The author’s husband (and- as it turns out possible relative) Paul is invited
by Minkowitz locals to partake of food and lots of drink.

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?

Family history nearby big town
The castle at Kamenetz-Podolsk, the closes big town to Minkowitz.


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.

Another Remodeling Job

Books for Troubled Times in Arab Countries

CasablancaDestination: Morocco

Book: The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah

Morocco? Troubled? Yes, even though the king has been voluntarily introducing reforms, just a few days ago, Moroccan students marched in a peaceful demonstration demanding more change. We may yet hear from Morocco during the Arab Spring (which is fast fading into the heat of summer). So let’s read about Morocco.

Periodically, I swear off ever again reading a book about someone who remodels a house in a foreign land.  The smugly superior Brit or American dreams of an idyllic existence in France or Italy or Spain…buys a run down but promising hulk and struggles with the incompetent, quirky, amusing workmen who show up to do the remodeling.  The author is language challenged, a romantic spirit, believes him/herself to be adventurous and broad minded, but gerts outsmarted times after time or spends too much on a project that takes too long and then blames it on the lazy, or superstitous or conniving natives.

Once again, I have broken my vow.  After all, The Caliph’s House is set in a land that sounds like pure magic to me: Morocco. And the author, Tahir Shah comes highly recommended by a writer I admire, Judith Fein.  Perhaps the author’s ancestor will be the saving grace, I tell myself.  Shah is Afghan by birth, so surely he will deal with Moroccans as cousins and treat their religion and culture with sympathy. After all his web site talks about his many ancestors who wrote works meant to explain East to West and vice versa.

Alas, Tahir Shah is much more Brit than Afghan, and regards the Muslim religion with as much curiosity as anyone raised in a majority Christian country.

Much is made in this book of Djinns. The mischievous or malicious spirits apparently inhabit the long-empty house in droves.  Shah wavers between skeptical disdain of the superstition that infects even people he considers to be too smart for such primitive beliefs and his mixture of fear and curiosity that suggest it might be wise after all to do an exorcism.

The Djinns provide a handy excuse for everything that goes wrong and for work that remains undone.  They also provide a handy plot device for Shah.  Because of the prevalence of the presence (or belief–take your pick) of Djinns, the author focuses on the unfortunate primitive superstitions of the workers instead of labeling those workers as incompetent.

The Caliph’s House is an enjoyable read, because Shah has a winning style and he explores many of the quirks of culture and glories of craft that he finds in Casablanca.  On another level, though, the thought of pouring a small fortune into the rennovation of an extravagant mansion that stands on the edge of a slum, bothers me.

The taxi drove a little further, crossed an invisible boundary of some kind and entered a sprawling shantytown.  There were donky carts, chickens, cattle wandering aimlessly about, and a herd of goats blocking the way.  The afternoon muezzin, the call to prayer, was raining down from a modest white-washed mosque at the side of the rutted track.  A group of boys were kicking a homemade soccer ball about in the dusty alleys that ran between the low cinder-block shacks roofed in rusting tin…At the far end of the shantytown, the taxi halted near a plain doorway set in a filthy stone wall.

He had arrived at his house.  And what a house.

There were arched doorways with cedarwood doors, octagonal windows glazed with fragments of colored glass, mosaic friezes and stucco moldings, secluded courtyards, and so many rooms–saloons, studies, laundry rooms and kitchens, staff quarters, pantries, and at least a dozen bedrooms.


Its walls were discolored with algae, its tiled floors were grimy and in need of repair. Alarming damp patches had taken hold on every surface, and a number of celings had caved in” …..etc., etc.

We get blow by blow descriptions of the destruction and rebuilding of walls, the cutting of tiles, the blooming of the garden, but we learn little about the slums surrounding the Caliph’s house, after the author’s first approach to his house, as if it is invisible.  Except that the 3 main servants live there and their homes are frequently threatened by bulldozers. And oh, yeah, there are those recruiters for religious radicals who set up shop form time to time.

Obviously Shah is a magnetic writer, drawing us into his story by piling on  details and appropriately ornate descriptions of the rococo decor of Morocco. We also gets tastes of the reality of  this Muslim world, with its remnants of the French influence in Casablanca through a varied cast of characters.

But I swear, I’m not going to read any more remodeling books.


If you have always wanted to see Casablanca, don’t miss this video tour of Casablanca by Tahir Shah.

Have you been to Morocco? Marrakesh is the most popular place to visit right now. Where would you like to go? Marrakesh? Casablanca? Fes? Elsewhere?

The top photo is from Flickr and you can click on it to learn more about the photographer. I suggest  a wonderful book blog, Biblio Junkie. Take a look at her review of The Caliph’s House. And please notice that I wrote a whole post about Casablanca without mentioning Humphrey Bogart! (whoops!)

Author Interview: Her Life is a Trip


Destination: The World

Book: Life is a Trip:The Magic of Transformative Travel (NEW August 2010) by Judith Fein

I first met Judith Fein when I was on a press trip in Richmond Virginia. She and her husband Paul took off from the main group tramping through Civil War Battlefields to look for something out of the ordinary–the oldest Jewish cemetery in Virginia. That’s what they do, poor things–live in Santa Fe, travel the world in search of interesting stories, and write and photograph award winning articles. Continue reading Author Interview: Her Life is a Trip