During a casual lunch with a newfound Jewish acquaintance, the conversation eventually led us to the point where we shared our respective family histories. As I warned him that my family’s narrative might be lengthy, he chuckled and remarked, “Which of our people doesn’t have a long, tragic journey to where we sit today?”
The comment was an off-hand response, but its impact on me has been immeasurable. His words resonated deeply. Indeed, I began to realize, my own ancestral tale is a tapestry woven with complexity. Summing it up on the spot might require a few extra minutes.
And for once, I thought to myself, that was okay.
I began to realize, my story was not alone, far from it.
It’s interesting that a simple remark at the lunch counter could make me feel so secure in this beautiful, complex, faith that I now call my own – all while making me feel comfortable in my own late arrival to the party.
An arrival that took me from a young, Catholic boy in a small, midwestern town to my present bustling home of Chicago where I now begin to slowly, deliberately build a Jewish life.
Now, let me get to work telling our story – as deliberately and proudly as I can – with a certain freedom that comes with telling one’s story without censure or interference.
The journey of my forebears took my grandmother from her infancy in Germany to a grueling, poverty-stricken first decade of her life in the Shanghai Ghetto, formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, where tens of thousands of Jews made their temporary home as they fled the atrocities of Nazi Germany. It was, at that time, the only place our family could make it into safely.
Other portions of our family risked life and limb to make it into Israel and, heartbreakingly, the family who decided to remain in Nazi Germany met the tragic fate of millions of others – a cruel death at the hands of evil men in a concentration camp.
After a full decade in a foreign land where they were restrained in movement and suffered through immense poverty, my grandmother and her family mercifully gained acceptance into America.
Arriving by boat in San Francisco, my grandmother was incredibly malnourished and stricken with tuberculosis. Her family was given a list of cities to choose from. Not knowing the language or basic American geography, her mother picked St. Louis from the list solely because her affinity for music had led her to know of the blues music so popular in St. Louis.
Based entirely on that small piece of information, our family landed in St. Louis. It was a long, winding journey through the worst of what humanity has to offer.
But despite it all: they made it.
Once in America, my grandmother’s path crossed with an Irish Catholic man, whom she eventually married. It was during this time that she decided to convert to the Catholic faith, although the circumstances and potential external pressures surrounding her conversion remain something of a mystery to me. Regardless, the Catholic faith became one that my mother, her siblings, and I were later raised in. But in addition to Catholic Mass on Sundays, I was also raised on a steady diet of stories of my grandmother and her family’s resilience in the face of unimaginable obstacles.
Due to my Mother’s record-keeping and story-telling, my grandmother’s journey became the central foundation of my beliefs growing up. And I’m so thankful for that gift she gave me. Though my grandmother left this world in 2008, when I was just 12 years old, my memories of her are as idyllic as if the events occurred just yesterday.
Of course, time has a way of dimming the vividness of some memories, like sunshine on an old Polaroid picture. But not so much with my grandmother. Her love, humor, and strength remain so vibrant in death that even now, at 27, I can close my eyes and picture her on my balcony, nursing a cigarette and stirring the creamer in her coffee.
But despite the magnetic power of my grandmother, my connection to Judaism had always been through solely the lens of my own family’s story – rooted in pain and loss.
For many years, I grappled with the challenge of reconciling my family’s compelling and sometimes tragic history with the intricacies of my own identity. Growing up, and to this day, I contained a deep appreciation for the teachings of Catholicism, despite my personal spiritual journey leading me on a different path.
Amidst this exploration, the Torah’s teachings have continuously reminded me of an unshakeable truth: my Jewish heritage. As my grandmother resided on my matrilineal side, according to Jewish law, I am undeniably connected to the Jewish faith. This realization has sparked within me a profound sense of belonging and an eagerness to delve deeper into my ancestral roots.
Still, questions remained: What on Earth did I know about Judaism or being a Jew? What did I know about the tenets of the faith of my grandmother, whose story is so central to everything I am or ever will be? And, most importantly: where would I even begin?
It was a particular Hanukkah celebration a few years back that led me to the answer of that particular question.
My dear friends invited my fiancee and me to celebrate with a small group at their apartment. As we stood around to watch the candle lighting ceremony and indulge in the delicious food, I felt the refreshing wave of belonging and nostalgia wash over me.
I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother’s family. I pictured them huddled around the family menorah in a crowded shack in Shanghai, singing the very same blessings that now echoed around the apartment. Suddenly, the warmth and joy of that Hanukkah celebration lit a spark within me, and I decided to fully embark on a journey of discovering my faith.
And the spark lit inside of me on that fateful night has continued to burn beautifully, motivating me to dive in, in a more serious manner, into pursuing my interest in the Jewish faith.
After that celebration, I knew I needed to learn more. Nervous, worried about feeling out of place, and simultaneously hopeful – I decided to take the plunge at the local synagogue. I clumsily flipped through prayer books (they read right to left you know!) and mumbled through Hebrew portions of prayers. Despite my embarrassment, all I felt was encouragement. From there I gained the courage to join an Exploring Judaism class where I set out to learn more, led by a phenomenal Rabbi and alongside 20 other eager minds.
I attended my first Passover, hosted friends for Rosh Hashanah, downloaded Torah commentary audiobooks, hung Mezuzah around my apartment, and even spoke at the Tisch of the very same couple who invited me to that pivotal first Hanukkah celebration.
Perhaps most meaningful was the solo trip I took to Israel in 2022. For 15 days I bounced around the country. Praying at the Western Wall, drinking Arak with strangers in bars in Jerusalem, dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and weeping as I floated in the Mediterranean Sea – feeling the energy of my grandmother and thinking of the sacrifices it took for me to be able to enjoy this particular moment in this particular place.
I even had the unforgettable experience of meeting with a portion of my family that fled from Germany to Israel. I spoke with my grandmother’s cousin Menachem, in his mid 70’s, and watched the tears well in his eyes as he talked about his journey.
A few months after my visit, Menachem passed. I remain eternally grateful to have gotten the chance to know him, and I remain astounded at the improbability that the two of us ever had the opportunity to meet. Had fate twisted incorrectly anywhere along our respective journeys, we’d never have had the chance.
Luckily for me, the winds of fate put me on the sun porch of his home in Maccabim where I dined with him, his wife, and three daughters. It was an afternoon I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
And as for what’s next? I have a meeting with a Beit Din in a few months where I plan to affirm my place proudly in the Jewish faith. This November I’ll marry a wonderfully supportive woman underneath a chuppah. I’ll attend more services, host more Shabbat dinners, and most importantly: I’ll keep learning.
It’s been a fruitful, amazing journey thus far. Emboldened by the unbelievably welcoming, accepting Jewish community I’ve been surrounded by in Chicago.
With each step along this path, I’ve felt more deeply connected to my deceased grandmother and her legacy. Through the rituals, traditions, and communal nature of Judaism, I’ve discovered a renewed sense of purpose and a profound appreciation for the power of cultural heritage in shaping who I am.
Through all of the wreckage, the strength of the Jewish faith endures.
There’s beauty in that.
And my journey is far from over. I know that. But now? I can proudly say I speak the tiniest bit of Hebrew.
And, yes, I speak Hebrew slowly and poorly. I still mumble, I struggle to understand much of it.
But based on what my family’s been through? I’m just grateful to be speaking it at all.
I’m even more fortunate to be learning in a safe place, around a loving community, supported by my family – in an environment where every new word or phrase I learn feels like a triumph.
I might speak Hebrew slowly and poorly, but I’ll always speak it proudly.