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An Unknown Yearning by Tom Atwood
An Unknown Yearning by Tom Atwood

Volume 1 , Issue 3

A distinguished friend of my father's, a late Israeli scientist and historian who had left Germany because of the events leading to World War II, once recounted an anecdote to our family as we were gathering for dinner. The occasion was an evening in the '60's, in southern Arizona. Somehow the subject of hair length had made a sudden, unnecessarily heated intrusion into the conversation among some of the family. This led to his story.

It seemed that our guest had observed, over a lifetime, how people separate themselves into opposed groups based upon such simple differences as hair length. He offered that this tendency was easy to understand yet tough to resist. Even he, a man whom we knew in fact to be of profound learning, had felt this phenomenon. Dr. B (as I shall refer to him) recounted how, after first arriving in Israel, he had traveled to a field site to meet with fellow Israeli scientists and discovered he was the only one wearing a necktie. Based upon years of conditioning in Europe, he noted to us, he could not at the time have dressed in any other fashion. Yet when he arrived as the sole individual sporting a tie, it was clear that to achieve peace of mind, he would have to remove it.

Tie Among Tieless

Psychologically this was not an easy task. He momentarily found himself in the absurd but difficult situation of needing to remove the tie, yet quite sincerely wishing not to, all for the same end. The sparkle in his eye and the story had us chuckling, but the moral was perhaps not so funny. If a tie among tieless peers can generate intense personal feelings of non-acceptance, will people in the world at large ever be able to rise above greater differences?

My father had met our guest on a business trip to Israel, where they had worked together on engineering questions relating to potash mining. The friendships made there touched the lives of our family in ways that seemed incidental at the time but stand out in retrospect. I particularly remember snatches of stories told by an Israeli general, also now deceased, who had fought in the '48 war.

Memories of Jewish Great Grandmother

My earliest memories of Jewish connections relate to my great grandmother, a wizened and good natured woman whom I, as an infant, had inadvertently nicknamed ?Gander?. I will never forget her shrunken figure, her white haired visage and steady gaze. When, in my childhood summers, I visited the old family home in Socorro, New Mexico, where she raised my grandfather and he my mother, the smell of flour and later of fresh baked bread used to permeate the air. She would knead dough standing before the pantry window, and bake large loaves in a heavy, wood burning stove. I remember the smell of the mulberry trees, the sunlight coming into the kitchen, and the little paper boats she would fold for me, which I set adrift in the small pond outside the two story stone and adobe house.

In later years I would discover in the attic an old Edison wax spool recording device she had used in taking foreign language courses from overseas schools.

Gander was fluent in a few languages. I would also find that she was the librarian for that small town (her picture hangs there today). What were her roots?

Her father, Joseph Kornitzer, had been a student at the University of Vienna, and a cantor. He hailed from Hungary. Involved in a rebellion, he was driven by politics to the U.S., where he finished his education in the New York area (we do not know which school) and became a physician. As told by my great grandmother to my grandmother, his wife became ill and, instead of returning to Europe, they chose to travel cross country to New Mexico. When he arrived in Socorro, with three young daughters, it was said to be some spectacle. There he prospered.

Prominence in the Old West

That my great great grandfather was a prominent Jew in the Old West is for me a source of pride. The brass mortar and pestle from his pharmacy sits on a shelf in my home. The house in which my grandfather and mother grew up, with its thick stone-clad walls, large fireplace and indian pottery, was first owned by him.

A sense of some degree of Jewish identity, or at least a sense of empathy with having Jewish origins, has lingered unmistakably beneath the surface throughout my life. It may seem preposterous to some that I should claim such feelings. In trying to share this with Jewish friends, I have been sometimes humored, sometimes accepted. There is something ironic, I think, about this.

As a youngster I was taken on Sundays to an Episcopal church and even went through the motions of confirmation. My strongest memory of those days is of my sister falling off a fence outside the adobe church and landing in a mass of dead prickly pear cactus. My mind quite far from religion, questions of origin were for me matters of prehistoric cave people.

In college I studied anthropology, which brought my attention back to prehistory and, eventually, the dawn of civilization in the Middle East. The cultural milieu that gave birth to Judaism was the same prehistory that antedated Christianity. Archeological digs continue to confirm the figures and places described in a shared bible. And it happened, during these years, that Ilearned that my middle name, Jules, was in honor of a Jewish ancestor on my father's side.

In college I spent several months studying at the Goethe Institute in Germany. I had the opportunity to visit Dachau. I also came to know a few Germans rather closely.

Before entering a graduate level professional school at NYU, I had been forewarned not to lose heart should I find myself competing with individuals of overwhelming brilliance. Some large portion of these were promised to be Jewish students (so I was advised by my college advisor). I looked forward to the experience.

Struck by the Similarities

At NYU, I had the good fortune to befriend a fellow student who was a cantor and devoutly religious, but with a fiercely world-wise mind. As a child he had memorized pages of the Torah almost effortlessly, a claim of which I have no doubt. He introduced me to his parents, both of whom are camp survivors. He even took me to a service at his Synagogue, at which Idonned a Yarmulke for the first time. On the one hand I was an interested, almost objective observer. On the other hand, so much was familiar.

On that occasion, some of the people seemed to be praying and even singing out of step with those leading the service! We were able to come into the synagogue, share a nod or a few words with others, and leave amidst the goings on, without apparently arousing any rancorous glance! I marveled at what appeared to be far more relaxed gathering than I recalled from my childhood memories of church. A Korean student in Germany had remarked that the European languages were for him the same language with a few variations. This was the feeling, now applied to religious ceremony, that I experienced in that service.

Coincidences Reinforce Sense of Connection

Before graduating, I had the pleasure to attend two Seders, one on behalf of a Soviet refusnik at the school, and one a private family affair. It seems that coincidences have always, reinforced my sense of connection to the Jewish world: I went home to visit my parents and found that the house they had recently moved into has mezuzahs on the entrance doorways; I was hired for my first fulltime job, in New York City, by a man who quipped he liked the fact that my middle name was the same as his first.

Now, some years later, I find that when the news speaks of the latest horrors in the Middle East, or some other item involving Jews or anti-Semitism in this or that country, part of me, inside, listens with a sense of outrage, or shame, or pride, that I can only think is an emotional reflection of the Jewish connections in my life.

When a Jewish friend of mine recently looked up my great great grandfather's name in a book of historical Jewish figures and failed to find a listing, I felt a pang of bitterness. His quizzical look showed that there was no particular significance in not finding a listing. And, I have to admit, it is not something I should have worried about, but for a moment I did. It was as if I had belonged to a club where one would normally wear ties, and because I was not wearing one, I was no longer a member.

[Torn Atwood lives in New Jersey]



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