These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons of Jacob’s issue came to 70, Joseph being already in Egypt.
So began last week’s Torah reading in synagogues — physical or virtual — around the world.
It’s the beginning of the book of Exodus, the harrowing and thrilling story of how the ancient Israelites left bondage in Egypt; struggled against God, their leaders, and themselves; and finally began to forge an identity as a people responsible for and to itself. Think “The Prince of Egypt” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but yourselves can free your minds.
So much drama. And yet the book of Exodus begins not with God splitting the sea, not with the plagues, not with Pharoah or the birth of Moses. It begins with genealogy: a list of ancestors, an accounting of who was where at what time.
For many years, I sat in our synagogue every Saturday morning, listening to the weekly Torah reading. Often, I participated in the ritual of chanting the ancient Hebrew from a century-old parchment scroll. When I wasn’t chanting myself, I followed along in the printed bible. I listened to the sermon — literally, a d’var Torah, or word of Torah — and discussed the meaning of the week’s passage with family and friends.
Then my health problems made it harder and harder to participate in morning services, or even to attend. I was just too tired and sick.
Saturday was still Shabbat, the Sabbath, which I still observed. But I felt less and less connected to the Saturday morning service, and even more distant from the weekly Torah reading. Covid-19 has only widened that disconnect.
But I feel more connected than ever to my ancestors. Not so much the biblical ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel — but my personal ancestors. The ones I spend so much time researching and occasionally writing about.
While the Torah names the men who left their homeland and went down to Egypt, I’m thinking about the women who came before me.
I’m thinking about my mother and her mother, both of blessed memory, born into poverty in western Pennsylvania, making a better life for their children.
I’m thinking about the women who came before them, struggling to survive the Great Famine in Ireland and the coalfields of Scotland and the peasant farms of west Hungary. They participated in their own exodus, joining the waves of immigrants who left semi-feudal Europe for the promise of the New World.
My quest to learn more about these women and their families is also a quest to understand myself better. Where do I come from? What have they passed down to me — genetically, materially, emotionally, morally?
When I am up by myself late at night, researching one more ancestor or doing one more crossword puzzle, I sometimes think I’m turning into my mother. Her nocturnal habits were driven by a sleep disorder. What’s my excuse? I berate myself for not getting to bed on time.
My excuse, I guess, is that it’s not the simple matter of choice or self-control that it seems. Thankfully I don’t have narcolepsy like Mom. But there is something going on with my brain chemistry that propels this late-night anxiety and intellectual activity. It feels as though it controls me, rather than the other way around.
Berating myself is another way that I am like Mom but don’t want to be. Everyone else saw her generosity and thoughtfulness, her inner and outer beauty. She saw her “failings,” as she called them. I wrestle with a pervasive feeling that nothing I do is good enough — that I’m not good enough.
My personal Exodus is a struggle to emancipate myself from this mental slavery. None but myself can free my mind.
And all of a sudden, I have the feeling that my female ancestors are trying to help. Rather than judging me, as I once imagined, they’re cheering me on.
“We left economic bondage in Europe, crossed the sea, built new lives so that you could be free,” they are saying.
They knew hardship and tragedy. One of my great-grandmothers pleaded with a judge to free the husband who had hit her in the face with a shoe, giving her two black eyes. Another had a son who committed suicide after trying to kill his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Another lost a brother in a police shootout. The fourth great-grandmother was orphaned at age six, raised by her older siblings, and married as a girl of 17.
My grandmothers had it better than that, but they both left school and went to work by age 13. My mother and her sister finished high school and won themselves full scholarships to college, which they needed because their father thought educating girls was a waste of money.
All of these women broke the paths that helped me get where I am.
These are the names:
Rita O’Neil Smith. Anna Bosits/Bush O’Neil. Johanna Akerman Smith. Theresa Puskarits Bosits. Catherine Kelly O’Neil. Elizabeth Schmidt Smith. Pauline Fritsch Akerman.
There are many others. I will name just one: Debora Spira, my great-great-grandmother and the only female Jewish ancestor I have yet identified.
These are the names.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.