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Roots Travel Is About More Than Your Family Tree

March 5, 2014 1:24 p.m.


Judith Fein, Author of "The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands."

Related Story: Roots Travel Is About More Than Your Family Tree


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The interesting genealogy has exploded with the internet, sites like lead us on a journey to point out another family heritage. But what about a real journey into the past? Judith Fein is encouraging others to make a voyage into others into your own heritage. It is known as fruits Will and I would like to welcome Judith Fein. Welcome to the program. When did you first hear about make a list Minkowitz?

JUDITH FEIN: When I was ten years old and all the other girls were playing with dolls and in the boys were playing stickball, I was asking my grandma where do you come from and she would say far. Grandma was a lie? She would say yuck. She didn't want to talk about where she came from and I knew that the name of the village was make a weights and and asked my mom, so many about Minkowitz and I would never find anything out, I was a kid the more I could not write out the more I needed to know and it turned into an obsession.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say that your grandmother only told you six things about her village that you climb to over the years, with those?

JUDITH FEIN: One of them was my student the bottom of the hill and I looked at the Russian girls in their uniforms going to school and I was allowed to go to school. It was one fact. Another fact was the floor of the house was made of goat excrement.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That would stick with you?

JUDITH FEIN: That was sick on your feet too. It was worse, there were factoids little factoids and I was a grandma tell me what you eat. And she was a food. I finally find out the market was on Tuesday and I was so obsessed by this village that I lived in Europe for about nine years and I wrote a play in French about this village And the actors, how much was there in the play? There was nothing fact. There it was experimental theater so repetition was good and the actors would be saying and the flow of the house was in the floor was of the house was made of goat excrement and I was assessed and when I lived in Hollywood I was a Hollywood screenwriter and I wrote a solution upset about my grandmother and was always that

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you do not go there and so quite some time ago? Was it that you could not find it or were you afraid to go there?

JUDITH FEIN: Very good question, it was a combination. First, into until very recently I could not find it, it was a sub dot on the map and she always said that she was from Russia and today was Ukraine and I'm a travel journalist, that is my job. I will go all over the world and I never went to Minkowitz because I was afraid of what I would find there and mostly I was afraid of what I would not find that maybe this world was all gone and I was very afraid. And then I found out that my husband comes from the same village. My husband's family came from the same village. It's a good thing you don't have kids.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You travel to Russia and to Ukraine and he finds the ability for little sign on the side of the road and I can't pronounce it. Make a weights. You are a emotional wreck throughout your visit there, tell us about that? Would that feel like to finally connect with this location on the planet that your grandmother came from?

JUDITH FEIN: When I saw this sign there is a white sign with black trim on the hillside and it said Minkowitz and I started to cry, I cried for a minute that I arrived until the minute I left and was a guide that we had, his name was Alex and he was so knowledgeable and a completely cerebral person a person who never ever talks about feeling anything, don't cry, nobody's going to hurt you and he cannot understand that it was so moved to be there that it's hard to describe what it's going to be like to go to the place where your great grandparents and your great great grandparents come from to walk on that land into brief that air and to taste the food and they are still eating the same food, to smell and to inhale into just be in something that is so rooted and so central to who you are and when I was leaving, after Minkowitz it was such a moving experiments experience and I felt that I'm not going just for myself, I'm going for all the people who never will have the chance to go to their villages or their cities with their towns but I am also going slow I can get people to understand why we live in ruthless America where what it's like to go into your roots and actually be there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You told us your grandmother who came from a weights did not want to talk about it. Your mother did not want to talk about it and that is old and gone and I don't want to talk about it, your mom lives here in San Diego right?

JUDITH FEIN: She does. She wanted to be American.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why did it do think it took your generation to have this and your siblings were not too interested either? What do you think sparks this?

JUDITH FEIN: In families there is generally a person in your in a family, in your family does anybody care?


JUDITH FEIN: Okay, so I'm lying.

[ [ LAUGHTER ] ]

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Maybe they will the future.

JUDITH FEIN: Maybe someone will get that spark but it's a fellow there is a historical imperative. I felt like I was fingered to be this person to do this. There stays coming out that are astounding, one is that they took control and this was a sociology journal very well-respected sociology journal in Europe and they took control a control group and one was to think about where they had gone shopping or which movie they had gone to her which spends the thing and the other group was told to think about ancestors even affiliate knew nothing whatsoever about them and they said try to imagine how your ancestors might of lived in the eighteenth century or in the seventeenth century and they found such an astounding difference between the two groups in this was tightly controlled studies and first of all the people who just did not know anything thought about their ancestors and thought about the roots were having higher expectations of their own intelligence and actually had higher intelligence scores and the third thing they had a higher degree of resilience because they understood that their ancestors had overcome obstacles and difficulty and given the feeling that they could to and so it's amazing, it's not just oh sweet to know how to do this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think you make a very important point about rootless Americans but the me play devil devils advocates, many people came from America to America to get rid of all of the old world stuff to start fresh without the old outlooks and the old produce prejudices of the past and the effort was to create a freer more expensive human experience?

JUDITH FEIN: Because you are a puzzle, every human being is a puzzle with a lot of pieces and if you don't know what the origins of your puzzle are you cannot in my opinion now all of the pieces and it's a part of your identity and one of the things that I'm writing about and speaking about is emotional genealogy quite different from the family tree. It's different from remembering names and dates in your family, however it is going to the oldest person in your family and starting to ask for family stories. Tell me something, tell me something about you you ask questions about what you eat and what you listen to and the second thing is to try to track behavioral traits in your family because there are very good ones handed down like optimism and philanthropy and good sense of style like you have Maureen, but they're also not good ones that are handed down like abuse and silent treatment and withhold touring, drinking, slandering and I have now been reading a tremendous amount about it and if you do not know what those traits are that are passed on to you you cannot transform them and if you do not transform them you will transmit them. So it is a big deal, and the third thing is I am contacted by so many readers now have asked questions. I am talking about ways that you can do this now even if everyone in your family has passed away and would know anything and even if you know now what genealogical information have you do it? The third way with behavioral traits and stories and the third way is having to do with knowledge in your bones, you may say I've always been so attracted to Scotland or Ireland or something like that, as a travel journalist I have seen people arrive in a city or town and they've never been to the country before and the other way round, I've seen people who have said, oh I'm so interested in interests and I've always in so interested in everything objection and the other in a their teenage son and they find out their ancestors came from Egypt and it's not you carry in your bones, it's not about cold names and dates it is about who are you and how you are connected and an apple comes from an apple tree you come from someplace and everywhere else in the world we have witnessed the most incredible ancestors ceremonies that are used for healing called in for festivities and go to the cemetery and feed their ancestors and here in America we don't have that, it's so new and soap figures but we don't have that rootedness and I think, it's time to call the men.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You make a great case for this and I'm just going to say, I have to ask you a serious question we don't have a lot of time laughs, you made this connection with Minkowitz and it is in Ukraine and now we know what is happening in Ukrainian was your feelings on that?

JUDITH FEIN: I'm having is horrible dÈj‡ vu because my ancestors and my family and the people I come from were murdered and they were rounded up and shot and killed and when I'm looking at some of the faces especially what is happening in Crimea now, it's terrible. It's like when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in the 60s the second of four and I feel that see those rage filled faces with those sticks beating people and what is going on there, it's so reminiscent of what happened to my keep old and my ancestors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Could it be that another reason to embark on another reason for a boots journey is to understand other parts of the world and feel a connection to the more than we do here?

JUDITH FEIN: 1000% you are completely correct that we are very very isolated from the rest of the world and believe me when America's fault foreign-policy we are meeting people on the ground who are either benefiting or suffering from that form policy. In retrain people told me stories about how they saved our ancestors and there are people who are kind everywhere and people who are brutal everywhere, but you become connected to the world and ultimately to your self when you travel and meet people and when you go to the land of your ancestors I can guarantee you you will have a connection to your self and you will probably be crying like I did and your guide will probably say no one will hurt you here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you going back?

JUDITH FEIN: Yes, we have been invited back and there is one man who has taken his childhood home and restorative and he invited us to come there and I'm thinking, where do I sleep? Is the house made out of goat excrement? Yes we have connected in a deep way and I would like to go back and would like to wring my book and show them the title and contribute something and bring something to them because of course there's terrible poverty.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That meets tell everyone that Judith Fein is author of the spoon from Minkowitz: a Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. Judith, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.

JUDITH FEIN: Maureen come with me.