The Spoon from Minkowitz
The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Landsby Judith Fein. (GlobalAdventure.us, 245 pp. $18.95)
From the time she was a child, travel writer Judith Fein stored up the only six facts she knew about Minkowitz, her grandmother’s shtetl: The weekly market was on Tuesday. When her grandmother was 10, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung. Kamenetz-Podolsk was the nearest big town. Fein became obsessed with the mysterious Russian village: She invoked Minkowitz as a mantra for her identity.
Recently, Fein and her photojournalist husband, Paul Ross (who may have hailed from the same shtetl), embarked on a roots quest. With the help of a Ukrainian pen pal of 20 years and a knowledgeable guide, they set out to find any glint of the old life. “I wasn’t interested in the present,” Fein states, fearing that the shtetl had disappeared behind apartment buildings and chain supermarkets.
Fein’s engaging conversational style and her use of humor and dialogue belie the “soul-grabbing” journey she undertakes. As she begins to confront the dark inner landscape of her childhood, which unravels as the trip progresses, it becomes clear that the imagined shtetl provided a refuge from a painful upbringing.
The book segues into a travelogue with historical background, cultural narrative and descriptive detail delineating visits to L’viv, Soroca, Chernowitz and other towns; synagogues and cemeteries; Jewish museums; the Jnowska Concentration Camp; and the tombs of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Fein connects with old women in babushkas and gypsies in Moldova, learning along the way that contrary to the stereotype of the pious, poor ghetto Jew, many shtetl dwellers were upwardly mobile artists and businesspeople.
She also wrestles with her puzzlingly unemotional response to the Holocaust. But at an old silica mine in Dunaivtsi, where the Germans shot 3,000 Jews in 1942, her numbness dissolves. The unreal becomes personal when she realizes that her grandmother could have been among the victims, that she herself might not have been born if her grandmother hadn’t left Minkowitz in 1910.
Toward her journey’s end, Fein finds the real Minkowitz. It’s an emotional homecoming.