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Digging Up My Jewish Roots in My Grandfather’s Ukrainian Village

My grandfather told me his hometown no longer existed. But I found it—and finally came to appreciate my own heritage.

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The synagogue in Shepetovka. (All photos by David Kalis)
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As the conversation turned to the number of Jews remaining in the region, I felt uplifted by an unfamiliar feeling of pride and connection to my heritage, but I was also engulfed in feelings of deep shame. My childhood had been replete with opportunities to connect with my religion, to appreciate my heritage, and to give back to the Jewish community. But I had taken it all for granted. I looked into the eyes of these men, who struggled and fought to maintain what connection they could to Judaism, and I vowed to live my future differently than how I lived my past.

***

When I returned home later that year, I sat around my parents’ kitchen table with my grandfather, showing him pictures of his birthplace, talking about what I saw, and handing him a few packets of sugar from the very factory where his father worked. Silently, he looked intently at every picture, tears visibly forming in his eyes.

I developed my own theory as to why he never talked about Shepetovka. He knew, in his heart, that once the letters stopped coming in the early 1940s, his relatives were gone. And, with his family gone, the village he grew up in, the place he knew as home, was also no more.

To me, however, the visit to Shepetovka was the concrete experience I needed to spark a commitment to my heritage and to my religion. I now understood the importance of marrying Jewish, raising kids Jewish, and being involved in my community and synagogue. My newfound connection to my religious heritage helped me gain a clearer perspective of who I am. I am not just me: I am my grandfather who survived, my great-grandmother who prepared that pot of borscht, my parents and grandparents who tried as best they could to instill Jewish values. I am all of them, and I share a responsibility that they once held.

The author with men from the synagogue.

It took a while for me to realize who I was, but I am a different person today because of my journey to Shepetovka two decades ago. It took time for the idea of marrying Jewish to become an important pillar in my life, but in 2000 I married my wife. We regularly go to synagogue and are involved in temple life, just as my grandfather’s family was a century ago in Shepetovka. As a former Brotherhood president, I cherish the community we have developed and the life filled with Judaism that our kids are blessed with. Instead of Shabbat being a once in a while holiday as it was when I was as a young adult, it is welcomed into our house each and every week.

And, as I look around our home, with our mezuzot and pictures of family—including my late grandfather—I smile in awe of where we came from, where we are today, and where we will be tomorrow.

***

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Digging Up My Jewish Roots in My Grandfather’s Ukrainian Village

My grandfather told me his hometown no longer existed. But I found it—and finally came to appreciate my own heritage.

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