by Laura Simms.
“In the human body is hidden a certain metaphysical substance which… needs no medicine because it is itself the incorruptible medicine. The philosophers, through some divine inspiration, recognized the strength and heavenly virtue of this substance and how to free it from its fetters, not through…physical medicine, but by a similar medicine in itself.” Gerhard Dorn, 1658 Alchemist
Some years ago, an African Griot from the Gambia answered my question,”Is it important to know one’s own story?” He said, “If you know your story, then you know yourself.” Taking him literally, I was saddened. Because, I do not have any personal stories from my parents or my ancestors. It haunted me, like a childhood illness that has always festered beneath the surface of my daily life, rising up when I felt weakened or lonely. My sense of no-history often brought me to silence when other storytellers told their family tales. To my students, who have also felt they had no stories, I encouraged them: “A single detail is a revelation. Or, a fairytale you are drawn to can often tell a more authentic and emotionally true story. Don’t worry.” However, I worried.
These years recovering from cancer, I have reviewed what little I know trying to piece together a narrative to provide me with a sense of rootedness. My mother’s mother, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, was dying while I was being born. Her death shadowed my childhood. My mother’s sorrow haunted me with all the intensity of a forgotten country of origin. However, the story of my grandmother’s life was never told. My concert pianist mother played Romanian czardas, swaying in an almost trance like revere. Romania.
The tragedy of grandma Malia’s death, combined with the tragedy of her displacement from a homeland, led my mother to believe that the past should be forgotten. Like a forbidden door in a fairytale the question seemed forbidden. Until, I forgot and it didn’t dawn on me to ask. When I was 20, my mother died.
It took me over forty years to ask myself why no stories were told about my grandmother’s journey to America and her childhood in Romania. None of my grandmother’s relatives had survived (tuberculosis, pogroms and holocaust). Then, searching for facts, I discovered that the young woman who babysat my brother and me, a girl named Sylvia, was actually the daughter of my grandmother’s youngest sister who lived shamefully down the street.
I can remember my mother whispering to me, “Sylvia’s mother had a nervous breakdown.”. She had what at that time was considered an hysterical female disease – whose origin was as secreted as my grandmother’s narrative. My curiosity was piqued. Who were these women who had come to America when they were teenagers, learned their parents had died and never returned to the city called Dorohoi.
Once, seeing gypsies in Coney Island, my mother squeezed my arm “They came from Romania.” I was shocked and intrigued. My mother could play gypsy tunes – on the piano given to her by my grandmother “who wore three diamond rings from Moldavia.” Because I was born with green eyes and shining black long hair my mother often announced, “The gypsies thought she was a witch so they threw her away. I found my daughter in a garbage pail in Coney Island.” I lengthened my skirts and let my hair grow wild in the sixth grade. I made up stories in the backyard about gypsies and coerced my mother to tell me fairytales about Baba Yaga the witch.
This year, The Traveling Jewish Theater commissioned me to writ a storytelling piece. I named it “Reconciled in the Book of Secrets” because my own ancestral history was a secret. It was to be about a storyteller who did not know her own story. Writing made me passionate about seeking the story. I traveled to Romania. In fact, I returned a week ago.
Something did change within me. The journey was like throwing dice or chicken bone oracles… the dice and the bones have no answers, but the strange configurations they make, and act of releasing hold on an outer way of seeking, did set something in motion within me. What was always there and was my essential inspiration as a storyteller was validated. The substance of my personal spiritual quest and trust in the healing wisdom of synchronicity and presence was indelibly renewed. Like the alchemists suggested a sense as tangible as my breath and as invisible as my imagination, was released from silence and despair…….details…., and the very going (the fearless making of the journey regardless of outcome) nurtured a deep abiding wholeness. My story literally remains a secret, buried somewhere in the memory of Romania, but the place, the people are no longer fantasy. They have become real and are my family.
For days on end in Moldavia, I walked through cemeteries, read through synagogue documents, old passport requests and genealogical records handwritten between 1880 until 1900. Sometimes I found myself overwhelmed with sorrow and frustration. At other times, I just loved the calligraphy, the old Jewish names, and the time drenched smell of old books. I did not find a single fact about my ancestors. The genealogist said, “it is like looking for a needle in a haystack..
Finally, certain that frustration would engulf me, I set off for the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and the ancient Neolithic ruins of the Cucteni peoples whose artifacts stirred Maria Gimbutus: goddesses, horses and great stone and wood mounds like the ones in Northern Ireland. The landscape was breathtaking. The horses, cows, geese and goats knew their way home. We were almost the only car, slowing down for horse and carts everywhere. I felt grateful to be in a “real” world in real time rushing no where.
A peasant woman invited me indoors. Her house was reminiscent of fairytales and eastern markets. While she was showing me her native costume tucked into a trunk and the weavings she had made, she explained in Romanian (and I understood) that her twelve year old daughter had died two weeks before. All our differences disappeared as I held my arms open. She lay her head on my shoulder and we wailed as women have always done. Then, her husband brought us home made farmer cheese and cherry liquor (our family’s favorite snack on Shabbat).
Later that afternoon, walking through the Jewish graveyard of Pietra Neamt (the town where the Baal Shem Tov lived), I brushed thorns from a tombstone stone. A little girl appeared with green eyes and dark hair. She was not more than twelve. Smiling, she helped me move the brambles and I read her the Hebrew inscriptions. In one day, I met a mourning mother and an adolescent girl joyfully clearing the branches hiding the names on ancient graves.
The last days of my trip, I spent in Iassi , pronounced “Yash”. My mother had told me once seated at my bedside when I had a high fever that my grandmother always traveled to a city called Iassi, which was more beautiful than Paris. During that same illness, my mother had soothed me with a Romanian lullaby about seven little geese that went to a wedding with their shoes on. In Iassi, I had a mission. To bring a new cd made by a musician friend of Klezmer music to a Mr. Itzak Svartz Kara, the foremost historian of Romanian Jews.. Mr. Svartz is 94 and never leaves his house. He was delighted to see me.
I spent two days with Mr. Svartz listening to him speak about the importance of Jewish folklore in the life of the Romanian Jews up until twenty years ago when almost everyone who survived the holocaust and the pogroms and communism were sold to Israel. “The Jews told their stories mostly on Friday. There was a bath near the market. It was like a great Turkish Hamam. There they exchanged news about ordinary life, and miraculous events of the wonder Rebbis. There were many Rebbis one could visit when I was a child. And they argued about the meaning of the bible stories. You know a Jew is always a person whose real home is in Jerusalem a long time ago.” I asked about fairytales. Mr. Svartz replied, “Of course. We had our fairytales. They were all mixed with the tales from Turkey, from Russia, The Balkans, the Greeks, the Black Sea, and the peasants.” He made a virtual list of all the stories that I tell and love. He spoke a long time and grew tired.
“Ask me questions. I am too old to continue,” he said. I was too uninformed about his work to know what to ask, so I asked what I truly wanted to know. “Did you ever hear a folksong about seven little geese?” He sang. And, out of the depths of my memory I remembered and sang with him. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Who knows?” he answered and sang it again.
I left his house late in the afternoon elated and wandered to a part of the city he told me was where the Jews had their elegant houses at the turn of the century. I loved the architecture: a form born of the Ottoman Empire, Paris and Central Asia. Thirsty, I went into a madcap shop run by an old woman. She had displays of food and bottled water, hardware, clothing, and secondhand shoes. My eyes fell on a tray of jewelry. A blue sapphire ring was shining. When I asked for it, she put it on my finger and it fit. We talked in French. She said, “It is old from about 1890. The Jews sold everything when they left.” I bought it for practically nothing and left the shop to sightsee further.
As I turned into a passage leading to a courtyard where an old synagogue once stood, I saw her. She greeted me happily and asked what I was doing. I explained that my grandmother had always told me about Iassi. Laughing she aid, “Maybe she left the ring for you, so you would come and find it.” Whether it was true or not, is impossible to know. It did not matter it was more wonderful than a fact. It was a heart’s true story.
I have been thinking about the peacefulness I feel about the journey. And, it has struck me that I have finally acknowledged wholeheartedly that my lack of factual story is my story and that I have always sought beneath the content for a deeper meaning. Arriving home, I glanced suddenly at the photo of my mother and grandmother that I had placed for the first time on my dresser. I said happily, “so, I went to Romania.”
I wasn’t thinking of the piece as a travelogue, but as an attempt to understand how knowing more of one’s story, or at least the place in which one’s story occurred, might give sustenance and a sense of wholesomeness. That was what I found to be healing. Perhaps what I never thought about was translating the sense of not knowing one’s place or history as akin to the displacement that someone feels when they are an immigrant who is ill and can’t speak the language of the medical staff.. And, even the person no longer at home who is helpless in the face of insurance companies that ultimately might judge what can be done or not done. Or, not able to maintain a sense of control over physical space in a hospital room. I always sensed that patients tried to protect what little sense of territory and privacy they could muster in the hospital setting.
Sometimes if I gave someone the choice to come to hear a story or not, they enjoyed refusing me since it seemed to give them a sense of integrity. Later they might happen in and enjoy it, but only after having the pleasure of saying no. I discussed this with the nurses who felt it was also a benefit, since so many things have to be obeyed within that setting. Oddly enough, I always felt that Romania was out of bounds for me. I refuted this inner family boundary and traveled to the place seemingly forbidden.
The storyteller can, in an emotional and visceral sense, create a sense of homeland for the person. My experience was that by being involved in a story the person/patient was involved in a very responsive and noninvasive act of creativity which engendered their own inner images and feelings during the storytelling. They returned to the source of their own inner process. This was a kind of claiming home that is totally internal and very strong. Each listener is empowered by the mere fact that they are uniquely responsible for the story they imagine. This may or may not be a conscious realization, but it is what is taking place.
By my actually going to Romania, which up to that point had felt like a mythic place without actuality, I made it real. I opened my inner relationship to the place in the real world as well as a place within myself to travel to again and again. My outer journey was a going somewhere, but the inner pilgrimage had to do with claiming my own landscape within.
In the hospital the urgency and unfamiliarity of the world one is thrust into often enhances the feeling of being not only out of control, but out of the body, out of the essential healing house one lives within. A very strong and unspoken benefit of storytelling is that one is embodied, experiences in the nature of the listening, a mind/body synchronization. That is an ultimate coming home or having one’s own space.
It would take a long time to explain or think this out thoroughly, so I am offering these ideas as a touchstone for further dialogue amongst all of us members and readers.
Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 3, Winter 2000