The Story of the Family Samovar
My great grandmother’s samovar is made of brass, and for many years it sat on the top of a small marble top bureau in the hallway collecting dust. There’s a little spout you turn where the water is supposed to come out and there’s a tray underneath. It was used to heat hot water for tea. Hot coals were placed in the bottom. I imagine my ancestors huddled in a small thatched cottage, residing in a village in Ukraine where Jews were allowed to live. Shivering from the cold, they drink their strong hot tea in glass cups, wrapping their hands around the cups to stay warm. Too frightened to walk freely at night, worried the Cossacks may ride by on their broad horses swinging their swords, ready to indiscriminately beat up and rob any Jew foolish enough to show his face, they huddle around the samovar, study the Torah and tell stories.
During childhood I heard the stories about the shtetls and the pogroms that escalated to become the Holocaust where six million Jews—two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe— were killed for no other reason than for being Jewish.
When my ancestors came to the United States, they brought their worldly possessions. The most valuable item was their samovar.
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In my entire life, I have never seen the samovar used for any purpose. It is large and squat in shape. It moved from my grandmother’s house to my mother’s house after my grandmother died. The brass has grown dark and tarnished.
My daughter is getting married. She is dubious about wanting ownership of the samovar. She lives in a small apartment in northern California. She shares the results of her genetic profile with me. “I am fifty percent Ashkenazi,” she says, “which means you are one hundred percent.” One hundred percent! I am surprised at the purity of my genetic heritage. But that is what the report from 23 and Me says. No mention of countries of origin. The gene pool from which I descend is so small that countries don’t matter.
* * *
Ashkenazi, I like the way the four syllables sound, soothing and rhythmic on my tongue. Ashkenazi—a small tribe of Jews who moved into northern Europe, then migrated east, looking for a place to call home.
Americans of Christian heritage may find it exotic to discover they are ten or fifteen percent Ashkenazi, but the ratio doesn’t work the other way. No outsiders ever joined the Ashkenazi community. The bloodline, my bloodline is pure.
* * *
During childhood I heard the stories about the shtetls and the pogroms that escalated to become the Holocaust where 6 million Jews—two thirds of the Jewish population in Europe— were killed for no other reason than for being Jewish.
“Are you Jewish?” I am my daughter’s age, mid-twenties. At a cocktail party, an elderly woman from Albania asks me. “You have such a lovely complexion. Are you Jewish?” She stares at me and I hesitate. I look down at her wrinkled hands with glittering jewelry and try to think of what to say. I have never practiced the Jewish religion, never learned Hebrew, never was confirmed or had a bat mitzvah, but on the high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, I stayed home from school.
“Never forget you are Jewish,” my father and mother would say. “It is your identity.”
My fiancé has told me emphatically that if I do not practice the Jewish religion, I am not a Jew. He has rejected Catholicism and no longer considers himself a Catholic.
“It is a religion,” he says. “Believe me. You are not Jewish.”
“Are you Jewish?” the woman asks.
“No,” I answer.
She smiles and compliments my dotted Swiss dress and my fine young man, before she starts to tell me about the filthy Jews who have stolen her waterfront property. “They have to be near the water because they stink and need to bathe all the time,” she says. “They are all crooked lawyers, bankers, and thieves.”
I am burning up inside and I want to tell her that Jewish people don’t smell any different from anyone else or ask her why she would have to ask me if I am Jewish. I want to shake this elegant lady with her diamond earrings and her manicured nails and tell her she is the one who is dirty.
But I say nothing. I nod and act polite and rush outside to breath clean air as soon as our conversation has ended. I am angry. I am angry at myself. Ashamed that I’d let myself blend in with everyone else in the room instead of identifying myself as different. The next time someone asks me, I will answer, “Yes, that is my heritage.”
My grandmother Pauline Schapiro told me stories about the farm where she grew up, the delicious sauerkraut they made and how she loved to eat the apples that fermented along with the cabbage. What she didn’t tell me was how the children at school would make fun of her odd accent and how hard she worked to sound like everyone else. A fire in the courthouse provided the opportunity for Pauline and her sister Bessie to obtain replacement birth certificates saying they were born in America like their four younger siblings. She wanted to be able to proudly say she was an American.
The acts of discrimination are subtle. “He tried to Jew me down,” a friend says describing an interaction at the local flea market.
“What did you say?”
My daughter Alex tells me that stress can affect your DNA, that centuries of persecution can cause molecular changes. I’m not certain that is true. What I have observed is that we tend to create unreliable narratives about people different from ourselves when they remain strangers. The unfamiliar is scary.
I do not need my great grandmother’s samovar to remind me of where I came from and who I am. I look in the mirror and see my high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. In another decade, my hands will probably become as wrinkled as the hands that belonged to the lady from Albania. I carry the knowledge and tell the stories of those who lived before me. One of the chosen people—or maybe just one of many who have chosen to be proud of who we are.