Ruth’s Grandmother, Estelle, hosted major holidays at her large, vacuous Victorian home for its space and central location. The relatives would converge for bar and bat mitzvahs, all major holidays including Chanukah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and family events such as weddings, funerals, graduations, and more. Her grandmother was 70 when Ruthie was born, and was an active and integral part of her growing up.
“Tradition is important,” Estelle would repeat in her slightly rustic, Slovenian-Russian accent. She would say this while kneading the dough for challa, the sweet bread, or matzo, the dry cracker like wafers that went with the soup that Ruth’s grandmother would boil all day on the old stove.
The Burnsteins are mostly Ashkenazic Jews, rather than Sephardic Jews who have their own distinct cooking traditions. Ruth took to the kitchen immediately, unlike many of her cousins who’d explore the old house with its turrets and nooks that made for great hiding places. The only thing that could pull Ruth away from the intoxicating aromas from the kitchen was a trip to the attic.
The attic was where years of memories, dusty and forgotten, were stored. Stacks of old magazines, musty clothing long out of style, broken toys and cribs from the myriad of babies who’d been born or raised under this roof, all waiting to be explored. Ruth searched these things for clues about her grandmother and her family from that side from the old country.
Ruth’s brothers and sisters preferred playing hide & seek over spending time in the kitchen with Grandmother. So Ruth used this time to listen to her grandmother’s stories of her homeland, coming to America, and growing up in the large, boisterous family. Her Grandmother told her about the pogroms, the hardships that the Jewish people faced in both Russia and Slovenia, and about her own great-grandparents who had sent their only daughter away when she was 11 to America to live with relatives, and who were never heard from again.
These stories both infuriated and intrigued Ruth. She’d try to form a picture in her mind - a bleak countryside, a peasant family working the infuriating land, with neighbors who often turned against them in their own struggles for survival. Her Grandmother never allowed bitterness to seep into her voice when telling these stories, but Ruth sensed she missed her parents and siblings fiercely.
Estelle taught Ruth the proper way to prepare for Shabbat, and used the old Russian tea cups - the sole surviving heirloom that survived the trek from Russia to the United States, wrapped lovingly inside her tiny suitcase - to welcome in the holiest of days. Her grandmother would watch upon her with a kindness and a sadness in her eyes. She was passing along the traditions to someone who cared.
Ruth’s Grandmother died when Ruth was at college. She rushed home to New York, and sat shiva with the family, feeling as though any remaining ties to her Russian and Slovenian roots were slowly fraying. Her own parents had been born in the United States, and since no living relatives remained in the old country, there had never been any need, nor any desire to return.
Sitting shiva, the bereavement period, was an honor for Ruth, for usually the grandchildren are not included and usually the seven first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. But Ruth’s husband had died long before Ruth was born, and her siblings had long ago perished in the pogroms.
“Ruth is an old soul.” Ruth’s mother told Ruth that sad day about how her grandmother had declared this after a day of teaching Ruth about the old traditions and their history. Ruth smiled to herself, feeling the love of her Grandmother’s spirit enveloping her, binding her to the ties that crossed oceans and continents to keep their family together.
Alone in the kitchen, where casseroles and other condolences had piled up paying tribute to the wonderful woman who had opened her doors to family and friends for decades, Ruth tried to remember being small and standing on the stepstool to reach the bowl where her Grandmother made indents into the mounds of flour and guided Ruth’s tiny hands to pouring in oil and spices and mixing - oh so gently - and baking the love into the ingredients.
“The more time I spent there, the more and more angry I became. Two weeks into my trip, I wanted to take a machine gun and just plow down every Russian person I saw - that’s how angry I was.”
She vowed that one day she would go to Russia, see where her Grandmother had been shipped away as a little girl in order to save her life. Stand on the fields where her great-grandparents had toiled. The land where their blood had been shed.
Ruth would go to her roots. To the land of her ancestors. To the place of birth and death, life and hardship, hope and hardship.
It took ten years and a lot of penny pinching, but Ruth finally saved up enough money to journey to the former Soviet Union. As she stepped off the plane onto the land of her forbearers, she felt a chill go up and down her back. Here her family had been persecuted, starved, even killed. But this was also where she came from, and the longing to be part of something bigger - a part of history - overrode the anger and disgust she felt towards Russians in general.
As she traveled by rail to the countryside, based on what little knowledge she had of her ancestors from her Grandmother’s young-girl memories and a few notes and scribbles on the backs of old photos, Ruth went to the general area and tried to inquire, in faulty Russian, about old documents and papers that might yield some clues. Time and again she was thwarted. Papers had been burned, destroyed, and otherwise missing. People in general were unhelpful when they learned why she was there.
“The more time I spent there, the more and more angry I became. Two weeks into my trip, I wanted to take a machine gun and just plow down every Russian person I saw - that’s how angry I was. I thought they were being deliberately rude and mean to me. All I was there was to find out about my ancestors, and they were stalling me at every turn.”
Ruth almost gave up and left, bitter and angry and depressed. But a chance meeting at a town records hall in a small town in eastern Russia showed her that the Russians were by nature a somewhat suspicious lot, but that their history had given them much to be dreaded by dredging up the past.
“This woman, her name I shamefully no longer remember, helped me a lot. We spent a couple of days pouring over old legal documents. We ended up finding nothing about my specific great-grandparents, but I learned a great deal about what had happened over the years. Terrible things, and my heart began to soften towards these people and all they had suffered.”
She remained in Russia for over a month, exploring the vast country and its rich, beautiful, and disturbing history. Falling in love with Russia created some internal consternation, but Ruth left the country with opposing senses of belonging and alienation, but understanding the ties that bind, and feeling closer to her beloved Grandmother. The Grandmother who taught her that “traditions are important.” No matter where one learned them.
Thank you Ruth, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®