Knowing where you came from is essential to people. And especially for those who don’t know where they came from. A lot of us came from the generation of war survivors, expats, or refugees. Somehow, curiosity is driving many people in search of their roots. I can not think of a better example as young Jewish women Amit Goldman living in Lithuania. She agreed to share her story of “the search”.
Tell us a bit about your roots! How far your family tree go? I find it very interesting to dig deep into my family roots. I know it’s also important to you. So tell me, why is it important we know where we came from?
Wow, Lina, You start with a question that is so dear to me. During the last ten years or so, I’ve spent a lot of time researching my family history, its roots, and the different family members’ destinies.
Probably the reason why I am so interested in my family history is that I grew up with very few relatives. I am the only child in my family, and I have only one first (although truly amazing!), cousin. Moreover, my grandparents lost almost all of their family during the Holocaust. That is why I always looked with envy to my friends who had large family gatherings. As a result, I wanted to dig deeper and understand what had happened to my ancestors, their lives, and I was always hopeful that perhaps I would find more distant relatives with whom I could share some stories about our common ancestors.
Luckily, we live in times when there is so much digital information available, and I have to say that the amount of information in the Jewish world is abundant, again because so many of the Jews had lost their family members during the Holocaust, and everyone feels the urge to restore memories and connections that were lost.
How do you find your relatives?
A great tool that helps explore family roots – the DNA tests, which have in recent years become more accessible and are being offered by many companies. When my boyfriend gave such a test to me as a present a few years ago, it seems like a whole new world opened up for me because suddenly I could see hundreds of distant relatives who have done the same DNA test and are related to me. I connected with quite a few of them, and it was a real pleasure figuring out the family links. So I have quite many distant cousins now. And I have to say that we have become quite close with some of them.
Speaking of the family tree, I can trace my family 3-5 generations back. Geographically, my ancestors were all from the former areas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some were from small shtetls, others from larger towns. But they were all living in what is today Lithuania, Belarus, or Ukraine.
Being a Jewish woman in modern Lithuania, what is it like?
I have to say that I am quite lucky to be born and having grown up in Lithuania, which is generally an open and tolerant society. Vilnius is a city with a vibrant history of different cultures living side by side for centuries. It used to be known as Jerusalem of the North because of the vast and vibrant Jewish community, which flourished here since the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, today the Jewish community is microscopic; probably 2-3 thousand Jews live in Lithuania. But we also have several other communities here, such as Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and others.
Although today Lithuanians are the dominant group, they are aware of Lithuania’s multicultural heritage. Therefore, there is quite a lot of genuine interest in finding out more about the different communities that used to live here and their historical legacy. Many people are curious to learn more about my culture, and they are positive about me coming from a slightly different background than them. I would always be asked to bring some Jewish snacks or matzot during Passover. Luckily, there are not too many negative people who would be hostile to me or my culture. So I cannot complain.
Other than that, I am personally quite a liberal and open-minded person and therefore not that different from other Lithuanians. Maybe that is why it is so easy for me to blend in. On the other hand, I was different visually when growing up as I have darker hair and brown eyes, and I was therefore easily distinguishable. That is why I was always aware of being somewhat different from the other kids.
Talking about the school years, I also remember another exciting story. For some time, I attended a primary school built literally on top of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a site that is so important for Jews. I was probably the only Jewish kid in the school and therefore had a special connection to that place. Several years ago, excavations started around the school, and archeologists from Israel uncovered parts of the old Synagogue. I went there and observed the ruins myself. The feeling was truly magical!
The picture was taken during the school’s excavations built on top of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.
Despite all of your tremendous work for the community, what is the greatest myth you would like to debunk about being Jewish?
One myth? Oy vey. So many of them. All Jews are wealthy. Jews rule the world. This myth is especially odd for someone from the Jewish community of Lithuania because, as I said, it is tiny, and a lot of the young people had emigrated. As a result, most of the community is quite elderly, and many people depend on charity. That is why when I was growing up, and I would hear this stereotype, this seemed very strange for me because I saw quite a different reality around me. I also have to say that I know some Jews from other countries and they also come from very mixed backgrounds – some are from wealthier families, others are from poorer ones, just like in any other community.
You changed your surname recently. Tell us, what is the story of your old surname and the new one and why you did it?
I never considered changing my last name for any other reason than marriage. And yet, here I am.
The last name comes from my maternal grandmother, Dr. Emilia Goldman, with whom I had a very special connection and an amazing example when growing up. My grandma was a very charismatic and strong lady who endured starvation and family loss during World War 2. She chose to be a doctor and dedicated all her life to helping others. Some people referred to her as “Doctor the Queen,” but I referred to her simply as “bubbe”.
We were very close with her. We played for days from morning to evening. The connection between us was very strong, so it was tough to come to terms with her loss. After her death, I was reading her dissertation and found a letter to myself between the pages. When I found the letter, I burst into tears. It was a very sensitive moment because I realized that my grandma was preparing to leave this world, and with this in mind, she wrote me a letter that one day would serve as a “time capsule” for me.
On one of my birthdays, I received a golden ring from my mother. Many years ago, it was given to my grandma by her grandfather. It is a family relic that bears the initials of my grandma. For quite a long time, I wanted to eternalize my grandmother’s memory, and I would sometimes ponder about taking her last time. One day I decided to do it officially.
I learned some important life truths from my grandmother. One of them is that life is a balance of good and evil. That is why it is very important to be able to enjoy the good moments. My grandma always was the greatest example of strength and tolerance for me.
What is the best thing about being Jewish?
Lina, you are opening up Pandora’s box. Because this is a perennial question among Jews, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”.
This question is confusing not only to the non-Jews but to Jews as well. If you ask different people, you will get different answers.
Is it religion? There are non-religious Jews.
Is it a nation? It is kind of, but Jews living in different parts of the world speak other languages (and do not speak Hebrew), have different cultural traditions, and look quite different.
Some Jews call themselves cultural Jews because they are not religious, but they follow the Jewish customs, traditions and celebrate Jewish holidays. So I guess each Jewish person can define what Jewishness means individually for themselves.
But something that I can observe and feel is certain commonness among Jewish people. Whether you are religious or not, if you live in Europe, the U.S., Asia, or the Middle East, Jews are just one big family, which I like most about it. Wherever you go, you will always find members of this family, and you will always have someone to reach out to.
I have personally experienced it in almost every place that I have visited around the world. And I also try my best to be hospitable and to welcome foreigners to my house. And it does not matter whether they are Jewish or not!
I must ask about the food. Why is it so good? What are your favorite Jewish foods, and what should we know about them?
Because it is made with love, but jokes aside, Jews certainly love food and feeding others. Every Jewish holiday has its unique food and dishes. So food in Jewish culture is a means to bring people together.
There is a joke around this that during each holiday we try to remember what that holiday is about and the short version is: “They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat”.
Speaking of my favorite Jewish (Eastern European) foods, I like most of them: forshmak, bagels with lox and cream cheese, babka, kugel, rugelach, Jewish penicillin, a.k.a. matzah ball soup, or just chicken soup made by my mom, latkes (preferably crispy ones with sour cream and lox).
What should all read or watch if they’re trying to know your culture?
There are certainly quite a lot of things to watch. Here is a list of a few movies that I would recommend watching:
- Everything is Illuminated – I think it inspired me to collect the history of my own family.
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maysel – quite a lot of good humor and another testimony to the special place that humor occupies in Jewish culture.
- Life is Beautiful – a story of how a father wanted to protect his child from the horrors of the Shoah. I think it, in a very light way, represents the strength of family for Jews.
- Schindler’s List – an excellent movie on the Shoa.
Speaking of books, I would recommend reading the marvelous novels of Grigory Kanovich, who is a prolific Lithuanian Jewish writer. If you like poetry, look for the fantastic Moshe Kulbak, who dedicated quite a few lines to Vilnius. If you want to learn more about Jews in a very accessible and fun way, read “Why Jews do that?” by the talented rabbi Avram Mlotek.
Reading “Why Jews do that?” in the territory of the former small ghetto in Vilnius.
There is a lot of mystery in most people’s worlds, for example, not knowing where they came from. (Files lost, burned, stolen during war times, etc.) What is your ultimate advice for those living without any knowledge about their roots?
ASK QUESTIONS, as soon as possible. Many things of my family history were lost due to my grandparents and my dad’s passing away. If there is no one to ask, it is so much harder to track it all down. We always take things for granted in our lives. We think that everything will last forever. That our grandparents will never pass away, that our parents will always be there by our sides. Unfortunately, that is not how it works in reality.
There are quite a few databases where you can find tons of information. And obviously, the DNA tests! But always keep in mind to test your eldest relatives first.
What are your expectations for your family in the future? What kind of story would you like to leave for them to tell?
First of all, family, or mishpocheh, is very important in Jewish culture. So I will do my best to create a loving, respectful and supportive family. A family-based on how I was raised.
My family knew struggle. My grandparents had to rebuild their lives from scratch, both financially and emotionally. I genuinely believe that what my grandparents had to undergo left a significant imprint on my parents and, in the end, my own life. Even in my professional life, I enjoy activities that can have a real impact on people’s lives. It was one reason I decided to follow a career in healthcare while dedicating most of my free time to serve at different NGOs and initiatives.
Jews have an important principle, called Tikkun Olam, which says that we should all contribute, however big or small, to change the world. I hope that some of my activities do make someone’s life brighter and more positive. Ultimately, that is our mission in this world, and we should never cease following it.