Writer cracks mystery of who she is by following ancestral clues

Judith Fein traveled all the way to Ukraine to learn about herself.

From the time she was a child, she was “obsessed” with the Russian-Ukrainian shtetl her late grandmother left in 1910 at the age of 17, she writes in her new book, “The Spoon from Minkowitz.”

Judith Fein

Armed with only a few minor clues, Fein traveled throughout Ukraine, where she met the last Jew living in a once largely Jewish town, a Ukrainian rabbi who survived Siberian exile, and the Gypsy Baron. What she learned about her family’s past and the lives of Eastern European Jews was life-changing. 

Fein hopes her lifelong quest to discover her family’s past will inspire others. She’ll discuss her journey in a talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3 at the JCC of the East Bay.

“I had to crack the mystery of who I am by cracking the mystery of my ancestral roots. My trip to Minkowitz led me to a new concept that I now believe affects us all: emotional genealogy,” says Fein by phone from her home in Santa Fe, N.M.

“Our lives are a series of stories. It’s important to learn our family stories before it’s too late. We are a link to the past and the future, and when we’re gone, the stories will be gone. One day our great-grandchildren will want to know where they come from, and who will tell them?”

Many people know more about their hairstylist than they do about their grandparents and great-grandparents, says Fein. And there’s a ticking clock: Every time a relative dies, stories die.

Fein encourages people to get started on their journey and suggests how to do so. “It’s not just about names and dates on the family tree,” she says. “A tree can’t ignore its roots, or it won’t get nourished.

“The same is true for people,” she adds. “Find anyone in your family, starting with the oldest relatives, and ask questions. No detail or snippet of a story is too small. Each tidbit is a clue. Old photos or letters or discussions with relatives may illuminate the lives of relatives who are gone but whose personality traits are still impacting your life. These are pieces of our life’s puzzle, threads connecting us to the past and the future.”

For example, you may find out why your great-grandparents divorced, says Fein. Ask your elderly aunt why her rageaholic sister refused to talk with her. Translate the Romanian writing on the back of a yellowing photo: It reveals that the wide-eyed teen acting in a play in Bucharest is your grandfather.

“Emotional genealogy is a way to connect heart with head,” Fein says. “It involves positive and negative emotional traits that are handed down for generations. It can help solve the mystery of who you are.”

Many first-generation American Jews are “the silent generation,” observes Fein. “They were trying to assimilate and didn’t ask their immigrant parents questions about their childhoods or what it was like trying to survive. And many immigrant parents wanted to forget their struggles, so they didn’t talk much either.

“So my generation was given little information. And now, many of us are saying, ‘Why didn’t I ask?’ It’s never too late to start.”

Genealogical websites such as jewishgen.org, ellisisland.org and ancestry.com are booming, notes Fein, an award-winning travel writer and author of “Life Is a Trip.”

“I’m encouraged that so many readers and people in my audiences are now eager to uncover mysteries that provide insights about who and how they are. For the first time, some are asking questions: Why do I know so little about my grandparents’ childhoods in Kiev or Cairo? What was it like trying to find a job in New York without knowing English? How traumatic was it for my mother and her parents to lose their home during the Depression?”

Exploring your emotional genealogy is “an antidote to the pervasive malaise of rootlessness and disconnection,” Fein suggests. “Perhaps the most powerful experience is taking a trip to places your ancestors lived. Going to Ukraine certainly was a game-changer for me,” she says.

“The more details you know about your relatives,  the more potent the trip. But even if nothing is left of your ancestors’ lives, it’s still powerful to walk the land they walked, visit the markets, taste the foods, talk to people.”

Even if you are not able to travel, she adds, “Tracking your emotional genealogy can be illuminating and deepen your awareness of how you came to be who you are.”


Judith Fein will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3 at the JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $8-$10. www.jcceastbay.org