According to our family history, September 1, 2020, was the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandparents’ arrival in Quebec, by boat, from Belarus. Because of the anti-Jewish pogroms, my grandmother, Rochel Chepelevsky, and grandfather, Moshe Eisenstadt, had been quickly married in Slonim (150 miles SW of Minsk) so that they could get out of town. They left immediately.
My grandfather’s hometown, Telechan, had been destroyed five years earlier, in 1915. By which marauding army I don’t know—German, Russian, or Polish. By the time my newlywed grandparents left in 1920, some family members were already in Israel and the U.S. The handwriting was on the wall and had been on the wall, for I don’t know how long.
On August 9, 2020, Minsk and Belarus became household words among politically sensitized Americans, after the incumbent authoritarian president seemed to hijack the election for his sixth term in office, not for the first time. Large protests broke out. The European Union and other countries have refused to accept the results of the election, citing widespread electoral fraud.
The events in Belarus, combined with current and similar events in the U.S. and Israel, moved me to reconnect to my family’s history, to see if there was anything useful to the moment.
This blog documents some of my reflections, most of which are inconclusive. But my consciousness is fond of post-scripts and in fact our brains are trees. There may be additional ramifications, sooner rather than later as my 69 year old self is pushing hard towards wrapping things up.
In 1993, my mother’s younger brother compiled a family history and privately published a 300+ page volume, with copies for everyone. Uncle Ray had been working on our family genealogy for quite a while, had made trips back to the “old country”, and asked family members to share anything of interest. With maps, some geopolitical history for context, letters, photographs, and memoirs from various family members, Three Families is a family treasure.
Immediately after the wedding, my grandparents left Belarus by train, eventually reaching the boat in Hamburg. Although my grandmother’s youngest brother remembers “snow” on the wedding day, the ketubah (marriage contract) is dated Tammuz 12, 5680, which translates to June 28, 1920. The latitude of Slonim is 53 degrees, 8 degrees north of the Canadian border. So perhaps it’s not impossible that there would have been snow.
My grandparents then took the train from Quebec to Denver, where my grandfather’s brother was already well-established and owner of a hardware store. No one has documented the date and weather of Rochel and Moshe’s arrival in Denver, but snow was likely visible on the Colorado Rockies—a beautiful sight when arriving from the east, as we grandchildren learned many years later in our annual summer trips from Chicago. Unfortunately, since the1970s-80s, the view is greatly obscured or invisible due to the smog-encrusted city and foothills.
After a few years, my grandparents—now Ruth and Morris Stone—became part-owners of General Hardware, eventually buying out my great-uncle and great-aunt. The rest is both Denver history and family history.
THE JEWISH HOLOCAUST, World War II (1939-45)
At the end of the Introduction to Three Families, there is a list of 46 family members who were killed in the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, who had not left Belarus, for whatever reason. To introduce the list, my uncle wrote:
“Of Blessed Memory. We who read these words are the fortunate. Our ancestors had the foresight and were able to find the wherewithal to depart from their condemned homeland. In many cases, they suffered great difficulties to do so. But many in our family were not so fortunate. Sadly enough, members of all three families were victims of the Nazis. We remember them here. So little separated their fate from ours.”
So little separated their fate from ours.
IOWA DERECHO — August 10, 2020
September 1, 2020 was also the first day of meteorological autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Chicago area, we are in a prolonged drought. We had some rain yesterday (Sept. 2), but the last decent soaking rain occurred on August 10, the day of the Iowa derecho. We call it the Iowa derecho because that’s where such astonishing damage occurred, destroying 1/3 of Iowa’s corn crop, uprooting trees and tearing apart hundreds of buildings in Cedar Rapids and other Iowa cities in the middle third of the state. I didn’t see major reports of human deaths and injuries, but many were reduced to refugees, living in cars without food, water, or basic supplies for days. Real refugees, recently arrived from Africa, were once again thrust into that desperate, uncertain existence.
Here in Evanston, IL—250 miles due east of Cedar Rapids–I had talked briefly with my next door neighbors who, serendipitously, are from Cedar Rapids. At 1:00 PM we were gathering up all loose objects in anticipation of the winds, I asked one of the young people, “Have you heard from your people in Cedar Rapids? Was the storm as bad as they predicted?” Along with mentioning something about the side of a garage being ripped off, my neighbors’ actions underscored the potential threat: they brought everything inside, including wrought iron furniture and weigh-lifting equipment. I got the message. When the tornado sirens went off at 3:30 PM, I spent the next 45 minutes sitting on my basement steps, listening for the winds, on high alert.
Luckily, I didn’t have to do anything further. Other than a few small tree branches littering streets and yards, my immediate neighborhood had no damage and no power outages. But the derecho had crossed the Mississippi into Illinois and by 5:00 PM fifteen tornadoes had touched down in the Chicago area, including one in Rogers Park, a mile south of my neighborhood. The freshman alderwoman of that Chicago neighborhood later tweeted: “They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
So little separated their fate from ours.
In 2008, General Hardware in Denver closed its doors, a victim of both changing neighborhood demographics and big box discount home improvement centers. For four generations, it had been the cornerstone of my refugee family’s relatively safe middle class life, even as each generation had spread across the United States and established our own economic roots.
–their three children
The fifth generation is already here — eight great-great-grandchildren, I believe — who will never know General Hardware except through oral and written history.
So little separated their life from ours.
Since the Belarus election on August 9, 2020, protests have not stopped. Authoritarian experts in the U.S. who have been warning us about Trump, the GOP, Corporate Democrats, mainstream media, etc., are warning about the possibility of a similar result in the U.S. 2020 elections in November and similar follow-up events.
I can’t help but wonder how many of the Belarus protesters are even now anti-Jewish. We know from thousands of years of patriarchy that most are still likely anti-woman, even though—or perhaps because—women are being given credit for leading the protests, carrying the red and white Belarus flags everywhere.
Or, are we really watching a sea change like the Black Lives Matter response to George Floyd’s murder by a policeman? Are these the vanguards of an historic commitment to making Earth a home for all of us? Stay tuned. Things are unfolding in front of our eyes.
There are two preconditions to making Earth a home for all of us:
— Living one’s own life
I think this is expressed most clearly in this quote by a Siberian shaman:
“The majority of people that come visit me, I tell them: Your trouble is that you do not live your own life. If you lived your own life then why would you get into someone else’s life? To allow yourself to diagnose things, to give advices when you were not asked for them. That’s when you cease living for yourself and start living someone else’s life. To begin to interfere with others. And conflicts begin. You have to learn to live first, and become such so that you can give yourself to the world. To become a gift. It’s the state when you give yourself as a blessing.”
— Sept. 2018 Interview with the Siberian shaman Alya, who wished to stay anonymous. Filmed by the TV Channel Russia-Culture in cooperation with Ethno Taiga. Translated into English by ©Excellence Reporter.
— A habitable Earth
Restoring Earth’s soils, air, water, biodiversity, and beauty while learning how to feed, house, and clothe ourselves (without repeating the destruction) should keep us all busy–employed and working together–for a while.
P.S. MY AMERICAN DREAM, 1951 – ?
For a few years, I was a leader in the “local foods” movement, in Evanston, in the Chicago area, and in Illinois. In 2005, I had co-founded the Evanston Food Policy Council and even though it was an unincorporated grassroots group with no budget and no by-laws, the name made it sound serious. And indeed it was. Indeed I was deadly serious about finally becoming the adult of my dreams, 54 years after my birth in 1951.
From 2005 to 2010 or so, I was invited to all kinds of meetings, sometimes as a speaker. At one of the first Chicago Food Policy Summits, I was part of a team presentation on the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act of 2007. In my short remarks, I shared a personal meme that I had been carrying around with me since my pre-teens. It was the picture that I had of myself as an adult and had carried with me all those years.
My American Dream, 2008
In my image, embedded in my brain for decades, I was sitting cross-legged on a wooden deck surrounded by a circular wooden fence. I was sitting with the other adults of the community in a circle, a council of peers, discussing a serious and important decision facing our community. The issue was water.
Standing on a small stage in 2008 in the Chicago Cultural Center, a grand place for a grand people’s gathering, I compared my personal vision to what the local foods movement was creating—a place where ALL adults sit together in council to discuss a basic community need—food. Hence the food policy council — FPC — as a piece of central infrastructure of the local foods movement, even though, to this day, most food folks are not interested in the policy piece.
I now see that that image was my version of the American Dream, the image that I must have started crafting in 7th or 8th grade when we studied the U.S. Constitution under the tutelage of Mrs. Sylvia Light, the history teacher at Solomon School on the far north side of Chicago. Mrs. Light was unabashedly devoted to the ”promise of America” and to the rule of democratic law as delineated by the U.S. Constitution. Our assignment for the semester was to re-write the entire Constitution in our own words.
My American Dream, 2020
Years later, a new friend of mine, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher who grew up in Albany Park, just south of my neighborhood, told me how so many of the Jewish teachers in CPS during the 1950s and 1960s were so in love with the U.S. The reasons were obvious: either their families had emigrated to the U.S. just before the Nazis began over-running Europe or they were actual survivors of the Holocaust.
Mrs. Light’s assignment caused me to fall in love with constitutions, with the U.S. Constitution, and with the process of writing constitutions as a group process, ostensibly open to all. Only now, at the age of 69, do I fully understand that “We the People” was not intended to mean ALL the People.
I wish I had my 7th grade version of the U.S. Constitution today. But I had crafted it so lovingly, decorated with watercolor drawings, that Mrs. Light asked me if she could keep it. I was too flattered to say no.
The good news is that I have gone on to learn about other constitutions, especially the homegrown constitution drafted by and for the Haudenosaunee League, indigenous peoples of the northeast woodlands of North America. The Great Law of Peace predates the U.S. Constitution by about 500 years and is now the sum and substance of my American dream.
For some details and current indigenous resources on the Great Law of Peace, see my 2018 blogpost:
In Case of Constitutional Crisis…Start here: The Great Law of Peace.