07 August 2009

Roots Travel: Grave Missteps

Regina Kopilevich spoke at Philly 2009's Litvak SIG luncheon where she discussed planning ancestral shtetl trips. A popular guide and researcher, her talents were also utilized by New York Times travel reporter Matt Gross.

He wrote an article in today's Tablet Magazine on heritage travel, which focused on Marijampole and its cemeteries and mentions the slaughter of 8,000 Jews by the Nazis and their helpers at a nearby Sesupe riverbend.

A year ago, I sat in this graveyard, wondering what, exactly, I was supposed to feel. I had come to Lithuania as part of “The Frugal Grand Tour,” a 13-part weekly series I was writing for my New York Times column, The Frugal Traveler. That week in July, I was delving into my heritage, trying to track down any extant details about the great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers who had, at the turn of the 20th century, left Lithuania for the New World. For almost all of my life, I had known nothing of them or their parents—like many immigrants, they told their children little of the lands from which they’d come.

Which meant that by the time I came along, only the most meager handful of names and anecdotes remained. Great-great-grandfather Miller, on my mother’s side, had 12 children and died when his beard got caught in the millworks. Also, our name, as we understood it, had once meant “big hat.” Elementary-school assignments to make family trees went nowhere (particularly since I had but one uncle and no close cousins), and I grew up wondering what it must be like to have a big family, a history that stretched back more than a few generations, an idea of where you came from besides the Massachusetts town you lived in, an identity tied to more than just secular Judaism, New England, and Star Wars.
On the Internet, Gross acquired information. His father found immigration documents, draft cards, the original name of their town - Marijampole - and more at Ancestry.

When he decided to visit the town as part of his Grand Tour, he contacted Regina in Vilnius and she dug into Czarist-era Jewish records and amassed a folder of records. His name, she said, was not the simple Gross, but Grossmitz or Grossmutz - which in Yiddish meant "big hat."

It was really only when I’d reached the cemetery that I began to sense the limits of this brand of “heritage tourism.” Here I was, sitting at the graves of my forefathers, nibbling the maple candy bar Regina had given me, but was I any different? The facts I’d learned had helped me — somewhat sketchily — to understand the world Morris had been born into and left behind, and now I could answer with precision when relatives of my wife, who is Taiwanese, asked where I’m from.

But — and this is putting it crudely — so what? There are no family-tree assignments in my immediate future, and at the ripe old age of 35, I’m comfortable basing my identity on the here and now. Judaism matters little to me; it’s a vestigial organ, a curiosity.
Gross learned more from his travels and also from such websites as JewishGen, books and other sources.

In Vilnius, Gross learned about Litvak history at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, although he says there wasn't much he couldn't have learned at home in Brooklyn.

In other words, when it comes to digging into the past, travel is not necessarily your best shovel. As Jews, we have a wealth of countries, languages, traditions, and histories to investigate, and one of us has likely written about a book about it already. No need to fly halfway around the world — to museums whose store of knowledge and exhibit design pale in comparison to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum’s, to Holocaust sites devoid, for various reasons, of details and context, to the poorly marked graves of our ancestors.
The story goes on to discuss Israel, young people visiting Israel, and the idea that travel is "often a clumsy instrument for researching the past, it’s unparalleled for examining how the past and present come together in unpredictable ways."

Read the complete article at the link above.


  1. I agree Schelly, a very interesting article, that encapsulates many of the challenges American Jews face in rediscovering their roots. A great 'case study', although I strongly disagree with the author's decision to include what appears to be his disillusionment with and alienation to Judaism and Israel in his article. But since he's the author, he can write what he wants, editor-allowing. And his sentiments are definitely representative of the majority of young American Jews nowadays, for sure. -Eric

  2. Harvey L Kaplan, Glasgow, Scotland2:36 AM

    Having been to ancestral towns in Lithuania, there's more to it than what can be learned online or n museums nearer home. Returning to these towns shows our ancestors we remember and shows the locals we have not forgotten the rich Jewish civilisation in which our ancestors participated for centuries in these towns and villages.

    And you can't replace the feeling of walking along these ancestral streets, breathing the same air they did, seeing the same hills and rivers, and (hopefully)touching the same synagogue walls and visiting the same graves.

  3. Alter5:28 AM

    Interseting article.

    30 years ago, as a teenager, and knowing nothing about genealogy, I began to think of my grandfather's parents generation, all orthodox Lithuanian Jews. Having been brought up traditionally, but not observant, it occurred to me that I was only the third generation in my family to be non orthodox.

    This thought spurred me on to become observant, enter a yeshiva, and learn the Hebrew and Yiddish of my ancestors. Only later did I become interested in actual genealogy, but now I realize how that nascent interest brought me to what I am today, with a large family all fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish. To a large extent, we have more in common with our Litvish ancestors than we do with our contemporary cousins.