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.
In genealogy research, a cardinal rule is: work from what you know. Paper records and family members’ recollections will get you further than hunches and what-ifs.
In my life, a cardinal rule is: ask for help. Even if you’re afraid that no one will respond, or that their responses will be disappointing, or that you’ll look stupid for asking. Truly the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll come up empty — the same place you’ll be if you don’t ask.
When I recently learned these lessons — again — they produced the breakthrough I’ve been searching for.
In 1935, my grandmother’s brother ambushed his ex-wife and her boyfriend, shot and wounded them both, then killed himself.
Around 1975, I heard the story for the first and last time. You can imagine that it made an impression.
Sometime in the 2010s, I decided to investigate this family tragedy/scandal/secret. Then I decided to write about it, more for therapeutic reasons than anything else. I finished a draft that I liked a lot, but it was written for myself and family. Revising it for a general readership turned out to be harder than I expected. (By this time my Lyme-induced brain fog and anxiety had kicked in big-time.) So I sat on it. For years.
Last May, I finished a new draft. But I wasn’t sure where to submit it for publication. So I sat on it again.
Why the hesitation, the procrastination? Well, you know: perfectionism. Fear of failure. The “not good enough” feeling. I had to get past those obstacles and a few others: concern about what some family members would think. The notion that I need to get paid for this labor of love. The notion that it should go in a “real” publication. The need to find the right photos in an old album, remember how to use my scanner, and put the whole thing together.
I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.
I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.
Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.
Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.
My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.
I’m trying to get to bed earlier. It’s a continual challenge. But it was going well this week — until last night, when I stayed up doing family history research until 3 (!!!!) a.m.
Then I went to bed and dreamed that I was driving along a ridge, across the grass and dirt and rocks, at high speed. I wanted to be on the highway that ran parallel on my right. But I was having a very hard time getting there.
Gee, I wonder what that was about?
I have written frequently about my ongoing efforts to get on track, stay on track, get back on track. I think about it even more frequently — like, pretty much every day.
My Grandpa O’Neil was a man of few words and even fewer stories. Although he lived until I was nearly 30, I can remember him telling only two stories. One, about the man who was so rich that he lit his cigar with a $50 bill, was quintessential Grandpa: always worried about money, and impressed by people who flouted that worry.
Grandpa’s other story gave me a rare glimpse of his mother’s personality. Catherine Kelly O’Neil was born in Scotland to Irish parents. When people would say, “Oh, you’re Scottish,” she would retort: “If a cat is born in the barn, that doesn’t make it a cow!”
I guess Grandpa’s mother knew who she was, and who she was not. But I wonder whether her identity had more layers than the cat-not-cow story might imply.