The quest to belong
With a grandchild about to be born in Atlanta, another on the way in Ho Chi Minh City, I have been thinking about the beginning of the family odyssey; of my great-grandfather, Isaac Michel, and his decision to leave the shtetl in northern Lithuania and head south from Russian pogroms toward the sun, the ostrich feathers, the gold and the promise of South Africa.
I imagine his first sight of Africa in 1896 after the two-week crossing: the teeming dock at Cape Town; the bundles borne all the way from Lithuania; a sea of people — black and white and brown — moving between crates piled on the quayside. Table Mountain traces a line so flat that it seems an apparition. Colors have intensified, scale grown. In the shtetl, everything was circumscribed. Wonders had to be willed from the trance of religious devotion. Here the very earth is exuberant. There are peaks that reach to the heavens.
In the first volume of “Jewish Migration to South Africa: Passenger Lists from the U.K. 1890-1905,” I find a reference to I. Michel from Siauliai (Shavel to the Jews) in Lithuania. He traveled, at age 19, on the Doune Castle, departing from England on Aug. 16, 1896. He listed his occupation as “prospector.”
A great number of the East European Jews making their way to South Africa between the 1880s and 1914 were Litvaks; many of them passed, like my great-grandfather, through the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter at 82 Leman St. in London’s East End, established in 1885 to ease the passage of Jewish trans-migrants from Eastern Europe to South Africa.
Michel, arriving penniless, started out as a peddler. He became a retail magnate. He died on an urban estate in Johannesburg with its arboretum and fish pond and aviary, surrounded by African houseboys and gold-inlaid bibelots, his black, fishtailed Cadillac parked in the beautiful curving driveway.
Immigration is reinvention. Lands of immigrants excise the anguish of the motherland. They invite the incomer to the selective forgetfulness of new identity.
Michel, my mother’s grandfather, would not have been surprised by the idea of far-flung descendants, even if Vietnam might have raised an eyebrow. This prospector understood opportunity, chance encounter — life as action and risk. Like millions of Jews around the dawn of the 20th century, he embraced emancipation to plunge from shtetl and ritual immemorial into the Sturm und Drang of the modern world. The upheaval would prove cataclysmic in Europe. My family skirted the horror.
New opportunity is only one side of the immigrant story, its bright star. The other side, its black sun, is displacement and loss. Among Michel’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in each uprooted generation on the move to Britain and Israel and the United States, there have been sufferers from manic-depression unable to come to terms with the immense struggle involved in burying the past, losing an identity and embracing a new life — as if bipolarity were just that, a double existence attempting to bridge the unbridgeable.
If you dig into people who are depressed, you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about where they belong: displacement anguish.
Give thanks in this holiday season for belonging, for community (that lovely word). Invite the stranger in. Make friends a garden, my mother liked to say, and let it bloom.
Turning time’s arrow around, I have journeyed backward through South Africa to Lithuania. During the voyage I found unpublished journals written in Hebrew by another great-grandfather, Shmuel Cohen, who also left Lithuania for Johannesburg more than a century ago.
One of his journals begins: “The ‘Book of Man’ includes many chapters. Those speaking of others I have learned well. The first, speaking of my own character traits, I have learned but do not know.”
He goes on: “From the very first day that man is old enough to think for himself he commences collecting materials and building blocks, to establish his fort on strong foundations; to be able to rest in it securely in days to come. Working himself continuously eventually he falls under the burden — just as stones piled incorrectly may tumble down.
“While assured in himself, declares he thus ‘I am supreme above all creatures,’ imposing himself over others; similarly, nations boast, ‘You have chosen us from all others,’ only leading to acts of hostility against their fellow nations.
“Oh, if only awareness came unto man and he truly knew that all of creation — from the sand granule to the shining star — is connected like one chain.”
One chain: A wonderful translation of the journals was provided to me by another great-grandchild of Isaac Michel, a cousin in Israel who has found serenity in a return to Orthodoxy. His sister, like my mother, suffered the torment of manic-depression.
Be free. Belong. Do not forget. Link the chains that made you.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.