When David Salamon’s great-granddaughter showed up in my apartment she had no idea who he was, quite convinced her most Jewish of forebears was only on her father’s side of the family. Hers had been a rocky road to find my apartment, a string of foster homes her journey. She arrived, weary from the dysfunction of the foster care system, burned out from the remoteness of the school system and quite the cynic while barely in her teens.
At the Shabbos table one week, I told her about the study set into motion by Professor Herman Branover, where the researchers had done a scientific analysis of how long Jewish identity could last without any observance. The result, as I explained, was the finding that anyone who knows they are Jewish must have had an observant grandparent within four generations up. Jewish identity without that observance, it seems, doesn’t have the fire to last. Those of us knowing of our Jewish identity must stem from someone observant.
“Yeah, right,” was her sarcastic response. “Not me. For all I know, I’m probably not even Jewish.” The teen was grappling with her identity, doubting that her grandmother was all that Jewish. It seemed an easy way out of dealing with her angst, to say, “I don’t even belong.” Since her parents had become observant later in life, it seemed fair enough for her to challenge her ethnic background.
So I challenged her. I told her that if Professor Branover said the science was sound, he being a big scientist and all that, then the study must be true. Therefore, she must have an observant grandparent somewhere in her lineage removed no more than four generations. I threw down the gauntlet and she picked up the dare.
The first thing was to reconstruct a family history, quite hard in a fragmented family. Yet, she persisted, eventually tracking down an elderly great-aunt, who with compassion and spindly, elegant letters filled up a few pages of family history in a chatty letter to her. It was her first hello to David Salamon Kreisel, a devout man who suffered much for being Jewish, but had the backbone to hold on tight to his faith.
It was a fascinating family history we eventually pieced together. Not a full one, but enough to convince her that Professor Branover was right. If you know you are Jewish, then you can be sure someone a few generations removed had to have held onto Jewish heritage and observance with tenacity. Otherwise you would never know your own identity.
The other telling thing is that we often find that even where there seems no hope for Judaism to survive, if roots were once deeply entrenched in spirituality, eventually growth will reappear. It might take a generation or two, but for those who love G-d, G-d shows love by bringing forth fruits from their vines.