My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams
Updated: Mar 3
If I'm being honest, moving to Eastern Europe didn't initially sit well with many of my family members. They would be the first to tell you this, too: Jewish people haven't always had the best track record of thriving in this corner of the world, and, I believe people live with cellular and generational trauma from family members past. So, here's my personal inquiry:
How can I create myself anew and reclaim this homeland for myself, for the ancestors inside of me? How can I transform a pain story into one of liberation? Is this possible? Can I even understand what it must have been like as a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew)?
In times past, Vilnius had such thriving Jewish activity that it was nicknamed the Jerusalem of the North, with a synagogue so mecca-like it was literally called the Great Synagogue. One of the great Jewish voices, the modest and learned Vilna Gaon - Gaon, meaning "genius" - hailed from the city. And in fact, multiple family members back in the States can directly trace lineage roots to him, making it even more personal for me. The point being: my cells are home here, and it's up to me to create the rest of my story.
To assist with this process, I decided to take a Jewish history tour - not one focused on the Holocaust, as I know all too well how that ended up. I wanted to see and feel a thriving Jewish population in Vilnius and see the buildings through their eyes. It's easy to do this when surrounded by Hebrew and Yiddish plaques, and your tour guide is extremely knowledgeable. The best way I can describe my experience is this: something was right in my bones, the same way I felt about moving to Vilnius as a whole.
Favorite moments included: stepping into an old Jewish courtyard and imagining peoples' daily lives - conversations about baking challah before Shabbat, scolding small children, leaving for minyan. In some ways, still very similar to orthodox Jewish life in my iconoclast Georgia hometown. Others: standing next to the bimah (pulpit) of the Great Synagogue; being near a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor still living in the quarters. That on its own was a powerful display of resilience - one I will continue to be impacted by. My family was concerned for my safety as a Jew before moving here, but the truth is that it feels even more like home at my core than anywhere in the United States could. I hope they get the opportunity to visit and experience it for themselves. All I know is that it feels like I'm living my ancestors' wildest dreams. Whether or not they liked living in Eastern Europe, it was their family home - and now I get to live with them. What a blessing.