A Klempner Thanksgiving usually involves my in-laws coming over to our apartment for roast turkey, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie. While it’s an American holiday, not a Jewish one, celebrating Thanksgiving reminds me of how lucky contemporary Jews are to live in the United States. And as I prepare traditional recipes, I recall happy childhood memories. When my family members eat those completed dishes, they ingest a little of my patriotism.
At past Thanksgiving meals, we’ve given little thought to the Puritans or the Native Americans who celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast. But this year will be different. This year is the first Thanksgiving since I received confirmation that I’m a descendant of both Mayflower passengers and those who greeted Europeans when they arrived in what would become the United States.
One of my maternal grandmother’s last wishes before she died this past spring was that Beverly, the genealogist who had been investigating my mother’s family tree, look into the history of my father’s side of the family, as well.
Why did Grandma have any interest in a part of the family in no way related to her? I never got a chance to ask her. From what my mother and Beverly have told me, I suspect that Grandma’s curiosity might have been aroused by the difference between the two sides of my heritage. My mother’s parents descended mostly from German, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews. They were mostly shopkeepers, businessmen, and medical professionals. They arrived in the 1800s and early 1900s—all before WWI—on big ships, and they were largely wealthy enough to travel in relative comfort, if not luxury.
However, most branches of my father’s family have been in the Americas much, much longer, and they arrived under very different conditions.
They were also shrouded in mystery.
These were the rumors that had been imparted to my mother before her divorce from my father when I was 5: Although we were mostly British, we were partly Native American. In addition, one of our ancestors traveled on the Mayflower.
My mother was told that because the family had no documentation, family members had never enjoyed the benefits of any of this. We weren’t officially the member of any tribe, nor could we join any of the various societies dedicated to Mayflower descendants.
Were the rumors true?
Beverly spent hours researching our family history. She pored over genealogy websites, chased after legal and historical documents. Finding the first of my legendary ancestors took less time than I expected. Just after the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth Buzzard—a full-blooded Cherokee—had married Jacob George Roseman—a Pennsylvania native of German descent—in the Carolinas. They could never have guessed that their distant descendants would include a Jewish writer living in California.
Having a name—and even a clan affiliation—for this ancestor I’d wondered about all my life brought great excitement to our household. My children checked out books from the library about the Cherokee. I found myself thinking of Elizabeth and wondering what she would have thought of me.
A few weeks later, another package arrived from Beverly; and then in another couple months, one more, full of pedigree charts, copies of marriage licenses, wills, and death certificates.
Beverly had located another Native American ancestor: Unity, a woman of unknown tribal affiliation, had married Edward Harris, the grandson of one Thomas Harris, who had settled in Jamestown, Virginia Colony, in 1611. I was astonished to learn not only of another Native American ancestor, but also that I descended from a colonist of an even earlier European settlement than the one at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Poring over other files, I learned that not only were we descended from a passenger on the Mayflower—we were descended from several: John Alden, Priscilla Mullins (and both her parents), Peter Browne, and James Chilton and his wife (her first name has been lost to posterity).
In addition, our ancestors include several of the founders of the city of Hartford, Connecticut, and Nicholas Shanafelt, who fought alongside Gen. Washington at several key battles during the Revolutionary War.
Sitting down with wills, marriage licenses, official passenger lists, and even property titles that hold the names of my ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago gives me perspective. Each of these documents represents a decision one or more of my ancestors made long ago that has affected us today. What led John Alden or the Chiltons to board the Mayflower? What led Elizabeth Buzzard to marry Jacob George Roseman? Did they understand the influence their decisions would have on generations to come?
My feelings about my father’s family are very complicated. Part of it stems from the aftermath of my parents’ very messy divorce. But part of it stems from halacha—Jewish law.
Because my mother’s side of the family is Jewish, I am Jewish. But my father’s side of the family, which is not Jewish, is not considered my family according to the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. For example, I do not owe elders on that side of the family the kind of deference and honor required by Jewish law. We do not have inheritance rights for one another. My Hebrew name does not include my father’s the way most Jewish women’s names do.
While Jews love to talk about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel as our forebearers—with all the affection we offer our more recent zaydes and bubbes—those of us of mixed heritage are not supposed to feel the same spiritual connection to our non-Jewish ancestors.
And yet I do.
Just as members of my Jewish family fought hard to maintain their faith—preparing for Passover in remote places like Mullens, West Virginia, or wearing a wig as a sign of a married woman’s modesty in turn of the century Philadelphia at a time when few women covered their hair even in Eastern Europe anymore—members of my Christian family fought hard to maintain their physical bodies, as well as those of others: family, neighbors, fellow countrymen.
While they were Christian, they nonetheless devoted significant time and effort to biblical study and prayer. I can’t help but feel that somehow, their efforts profoundly influenced us on some spiritual plane.
Despite our different beliefs, I think they influenced me spiritually, too. My sister is a Conservative rabbi, and I am an Orthodox Jew who prays daily, rests on the Sabbath, and loves to study Torah. While my grandmother’s maternal grandfather was a kohein—a member of the priestly tribe—my Jewish family does not contain many rabbis or talmidei chachamim, expert students of Torah.
On the other hand, my father and grandfather were ministers (my father became one more than two decades after the last time I saw him). Looking further back into their side of the family, it becomes apparent that they were only the most recent in a long line of churchmen. While they were Christian, they nonetheless devoted significant time and effort to biblical study and prayer. Several came to the Americas because they suffered for their beliefs—not just Puritans, but Mennonites and Quakers, as well. I can’t help but feel that somehow, their efforts profoundly influenced us on some spiritual plane.
When my parents married, there were some in my father’s family who voiced disapproval that he had married a Jew. Later, I learned that some family members only kept in touch after the divorce with the hope that I would eventually accept Jesus as my savior.
Yet the sacrifices of my father’s ancestors—both colonists and those being colonized—which created a haven for the Puritans, Quakers, and Mennonites on my father’s family tree, also created a haven for the Jews fleeing pogroms, poverty, and fascism in my mother’s and husband’s families.
You only see this in the long game, on a scale usually invisible to humans. But once we look beyond our lifespans, we get just a touch of that God’s-eye view and can see that the ultimate results of our actions and experiences are far beyond what we can possibly imagine. It’s also very humbling.
There’s a scene (Chapter 38) in the Book of Job where God tells Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” essentially saying, “How dare you pretend to know why things happen when you only live for a short period of time!”
When I stretch my mind back to the 18th and even 17th centuries, I see so many tiny decisions, made over so many generations, that all produced me—a person who lives with indoor plumbing, plentiful food, a roof over my head, the right to vote, the ability to practice my religion freely, and no threat of war hanging over my head.
And, believing in divine intervention, I have to trust that all this was managed—in part—on my behalf. Thus, I will be feeling especially grateful this coming Thanksgiving.
Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.