Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

Today I had the opportunity to speak with two relatives I'd never even heard of until recently. One was Jerry, who lives in Detroit and is the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed. The other was Tzuriel, a forth cousin who lives in Milwaukee and is the father of seven children!

Those are your clues, the giveaway to what I've been up to: working on my family tree. Genealogy is like crack cocaine: it leads to a quick rush and you're left wanting more, more more! (Just for the record -- My high school was in the Haight-Ashbury but my description of a crack high is purely conjecture.) For the few people out there who haven't heard, (and there must be someone out there I still haven't shared this with), the legend in my family is that we are descendants of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov (also known by the handy acronym, Besht) was born in 1700, lived in the Ukraine and is known for founding the Hassidic Judaism.

The path between Okopy, the Ukrainian village of the18th century that was Besht's home, and present day Indianapolis is, well, complicated. But even as the names and dates are filled in, a brief look at the mosaic of data -- and a family tree is so compelling, how could one not look? -- will reveal that the meat of the stories of those lives lies in the negative space, the myriad details that take place in between birth and death. Like my conversation last week with the niece of my great-grand aunt, Gitel Chervitz Ridker. That niece, Ruthie, who lives in Chicago and is not even my relative, was chatty and helpful, despite that she remembered very little about Gitel. But oh, what gold there was in those few tidbits! The negative space around Gitel's name reveals that she was a large woman. Well, large is not exactly how Ruthie put it. I believe the words Ruthie used were bottom-heavy! And, according to Ruthie, Gitel and David's family would never have been named "neighbors of the year." Ruthie recalled going to one of their Bar Mitzvah celebrations, still struck with how few friends they had.

"The Fortress of Solitude," which tells the story of two boys growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, is like the negative space of a family tree, in that it richly depicts the many twists and turns these lives take. Sure, FOS has some of the fantastical elements that are Lethem's trademarks, but these elements are rooted in the grit and grime of everyday life as we see Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude navigate the big issues of their Brooklyn neighborhood in the 70s: race, sexuality, crime and drugs. Like real life, the story of Dylan and Mingus is full of joy, wonder, heartbreak and loss. And like real life, you never know where the story will take you. In my case it might be to the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed, from who I learned that the name of the ship my ancestor sailed to America on in 1907 was the Carolina. Or it might be to a cousin in Milwaukee, who told the story of how our great-grand-aunt had her old country rebbe write down the names of her Baal Shem Tov ancestors on a slip of paper, and how she came to America with that slip of paper tucked into her father's Siddur. Life is a wild ride, full of moments just like these, rich and fraught. The phone rings -- it might be a long-lost cousin. A scrap of paper falls from the pages of that dusty, old Siddur. Even as I discover the bones of the structure of my family tree, it's the stories that rest in the negative space give it its color.

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