Thursday, May 18, 2017

Upstream 2: Returning (Tuesday, May 16, 2017, New York City)

The last member of my family to set foot in Lithuania was my great great grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein, who left in the spring of 1906.  He was 82 years old when he departed on the passenger ship Barcelona out of Hamburg, accompanied by his daughter Reise, son-in-law Solomon Lasdon, and their seven young children.  He settled in New York, where his oldest son, Shimon, was established as a prominent rabbi and teacher, living in Brooklyn with his wife Hannah and their children.

Neither Yehuda nor Shimon ever returned to the Old Country.  Neither did Yehudah's younger son, my great grandfather Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein and his wife, Toba Nakka Kagan Finkelstein--or any of their six daughters.  Their one son, my grandfather, Joseph Fink (who changed his name upon the advice of a professor while in Reform rabbinical school) was a worldly man, but he never went back either.  And although my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, did the lion's share of the genealogical research that I am drawing from in these posts, he, too, did not make the journey.  So when my daughter Rosa and I touch down in Vilnius, we will be the first people in our branch of the Finkelstein/Fink family to set foot on Lithuanian soil in 111 years.

I am, of course, profoundly grateful to those who left. Surely they could not have foreseen the extent of the horror that lay ahead, consuming nearly all who stayed behind.  Yet they saw more than their share of desperate poverty, raging anti-Semitism and personal suffering.  Yehuda Tzvi  buried his first wife, Feige Rivke Cohen when she was just 39 years old, then married--and later buried--her younger sister, Lieb.  At any rate, something pushed them to cast their lot with the millions of immigrants who came to America in search of a better life for their children and grandchildren.  We are the beneficiaries of the immigrant generation's sacrifices.  How difficult it must have been for them to leave behind all they'd known, despite the economic hardship and persecution.  They walked away from their homeland, their language, their culture, the proud history and memories of centuries of Lithuanian Jewry--to become greenhorns, strangers in a strange land.  I can't even imagine how Yehuda Tzvi made this passage at age 82, especially as the documents from Ellis Island suggest that he suffered from "hernia" and "senility."

I'm dubious about the senility.  Whose mental state would pass as good in a six-second medical examination conducted by alien American doctors in a foreign language at the end of a long sea passage?  Not mine.  At any rate, as Yehuda's grandson, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein--who would serve for many decades as the president and chancellor of the flagship Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary--tells the story, Yehuda got to kvell at his son's success:

As I remember, my grandfather (Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein) of blessed memory arrived in New York just before Passover. . . Since until then he had only known his son as a young man who suffered from stage fright, he was very impressed by the honor that was given to my father by the members of his synagogue, and by his position in the [Brownsville, New York] community.  On Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the first Shabbat that grandfather spent in the United States, he heard my father preach.  Grandfather was very moved by what he saw and heard.  He was amazed at the enormous audience who had come to hear his son, and he was surprised by my father's talent, and that he was able to engage the audience for three or four hours in everything that he spoke about. . . . When he saw the feelings of his father, who was sitting in front of him in the congregation, my father was also much moved.  And so my father tried even harder than he usually did to enchant the audience and to arouse them.  He cried and the audience cried with him, he laughed and the audience laughed with him.
(from Louis Finkelstein's introduction to his father Shimon Finkelstein's commentary to the prayer book, Siach Yitzchak, translation by Joseph Davis)

Most of what I know about my last ancestor to leave Lithuania, I have learned from the memoirs of his son, Shimon.   He describes his father as a learned, quiet, pious and witty man, who enjoyed sharing his wisdom with his children.  He and his wife, Feige Rivke, presided over memorable and beloved Shabbat observances each week.  Shimon wrote:

On the Sabbath day, our table offered a foretaste of Paradise.  My father, free from the anxieties of the weekdays, was no longer a poor teacher of children, but a prince of the Torah.  My mother, decked in her finest habiliments, poor and simple, yet beautiful, was a princess.  The angels, whom the ancient Rabbinic sages describe as accompanying one home from synagogue on the Sabbath eve, were visibly present.  Our song of welcome to them was sincere and literal. . . . To this day, whenever I sing the Sabbath table hymns to the melodies of my childhood home, I feel a singular thrill; I am suddenly transferred to the fields and meadows of long ago, to the presence of my mother and my father, to a world in which nothing mattered save the fulfillment of the Divine Will as reflected in the Torah.

But lest one overly idealize the scene, Shimon goes on to note that his parents' home was not free of interpersonal challenges:

I know that there was a cloud over the brightness of our home. . . My grandmother, who loved my father, her only child, with especial passion, and my mother were almost always at odds.  My grandmother thought my father was being neglected; she considered my mother selfish; perhaps she resented my mother's unusual beauty and my father's evident delight in it. . . . Because of this friction, my grandmother decided that she would not sit at the family table on the Sabbath, but prepared her own.  I was seven years old when this happened; while I loved my mother and silently sided with her in the controversy, I could not bear to watch my aged grandmother alone, deserted as it were, on the festive Sabbath eve.

In the end, of course, Shimon's mother, Soreh, and his wife, Feige Rivke, were both buried Kovno. Yehuda Tzvi is the lone member of his generation to be buried in America.

On Tuesday, I went to visit his grave.

(Continued in part 3)

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