Dani Shapiro
January 14, 2009

On Family History

My own, that is. Not the title of the novel–which, though many readers assumed otherwise, was not my own Family History! Jacob’s fourth grade class is concentrating on immigration between now and spring break, culminating in a trip to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Ellis Island at the end of February. (I’m definitely going with the class. I’ve never been to Ellis Island.) His first assignment was to come up with a family tree. In every family there is a keeper of the tree–a cousin or an uncle who develops an interest. I have not been that person, and wasn’t very helpful when it came to filling in the missing pieces: whom among our ancestors came through Ellis Island? What year? From where? I called cousins and aunts to try to get some answers, and I also dug out a treasure that I feel so grateful to have:

That’s my great grandfather on the right, and my grandfather on the left. This is a still captured from a documentary film, “Image Before My Eyes”, that came out when I was in college. It’s a history of shtetl life in Poland before the war, and contains five precious minutes of footage of my grandfather, who traveled from New York City with his father back to the ancestral shtetl to say Kaddish at the grave of his father’s father. So the other night, Michael, Jacob and I curled up on the sofa in our library, the dogs at our feet, and took a voyage to the past. I showed Jacob the moving images of his great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and the gravestone of his great-great-great-grandfather.

From this–

To this–

In just a few generations.