Beyond the pale
On the looming invasion of Ukraine, the Pale of Settlement, Jewish identity, and Colleyville.
This week Biden predicted that Russia will invade Ukraine, the latest move in a centuries-old chess game between Russia and the West. The fact that the name “Ukraine” is believed to come from the Slavic word for “borderland” belies that the status of the former Soviet republic has always been uncertain. The sovereign Ukrainian People’s Republic, formed in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, existed only briefly. After World War II, it was quickly absorbed into the Soviet Union. Before that, at various points its territories were part of the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, as well as Poland and the Lithuanian Commonwealth.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that until last year, I had no idea my ancestors came from Ukraine, since Ukraine didn’t exist when my great-great-grandfather Charles left Odessa for New York as a teenager at some point between 1885 and 1889. In the 1920 census, I can see that he recorded his place of birth, as well as the place of birth of both parents, as Russia, his language as Yiddish. He wasn’t Ukrainian. But was he Russian?
This question of parental origin on the 1920 census form is fascinating to me. Our country is obsessed with categorization and hierarcy by place of origin, by date of arrival, by language, by where our parents and grandparents came from before they were thrust into the symbolic melting pot. Some white Americans who can trace their lineage back to the American Revolution or the Mayflower have decided that their ability to do so is worthy of pride and celebration, a fact worth forming clubs and societies around. These clubs don’t explictly state that their members have greater claim to American identity or citizenship or land, but implicit in their very existence is the notion that this random genetic draw gives them claim to something, as if the random genetic draw were not actually random and instead represented intelligency or strength or bravery.1
“Where are we from?” I asked my parents over and over, prompted by elementary school class assignments that, in purported celebration of our national melting pot mythology, perpetuated the creation of a sort of family mythology based upon pre-melting pot origins. In New Jersey, every fourth grader goes to Ellis Island, and those fourth graders whose ancestors did not pass through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century are irrelevant, forced to wait while the rest of their classmates and the eager-to-chaperone-this-trip parents look for their ancestors in the rollbooks. When I went to Ellis Island in fourth grade, I was one of the students who searched for my Italian and Irish great-grandparents. I had interviewed a great-aunt about my great-grandparents’ voyage. I had even written and illustrated a story about it in first grade, the flags on the ship colored in with red and green. But I had no idea that some of my maternal ancestors passed through Ellis Island as well and made their way to Brooklyn, and wouldn’t learn that until this past year.
I am equal parts Italian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon D.A.R., and Ashkenazi Jew. (Only in America could I exist with these pieces; only in New York could my grandparents have met and married.) But “Jewish” isn’t the right answer in elementary school when you are asked where you are from. An ethnicity or religion isn’t a place. There isn’t a flag to fill in on a worksheet, or an encyclopedia entry to look up in the rows of blue tomes stacked in the bookshelf overlooking the playground. And so my mom told me that my grandfather’s family was from Germany and Lithuania, and that they landed in Texas (nobody in my family knew about Odessa until I joined ancestry.com), even though the names of these countries told me nothing about who my ancestors were, and even though trying to impose a twentieth century answer to this question on a nineteenth century reality was fairly silly.
I didn’t even realize my grandfather was Jewish until his mother’s funeral. My great-grandmother, Nana, died at 101 years old. I was 11 and I realized we were in a synogogue and that the prayers were in Hebrew. I remember the room was filled with yellow. Yellow roses, yellow velvet, and my grandfather’s grown-man grief, all of it vaguely nauseating. Why are we in a temple? I remember whispering to someone, probably my mother. I recognized the Hebrew lettering in the program. My first thought was that maybe Nana had converted as an adult, as my mother had been baptized alongside me and my brother. That was before I learned that you don’t get to choose to be Jewish. You either are or you aren’t.
I’m not sure whether it’s fair to say that my grandfather was Jewish because he clearly didn’t identify as Jewish. He’s no longer here, so I can’t ask him. He was disdainful of religiosity of any degree. But then again, maybe he didn’t get to choose. I wonder whether he was ashamed of being Jewish, whether his failure to identity as a Jew was just one of the many ways in which he was always trying to belong or be something that he was not. But my great-great-grandfather, his grandfather, was certainly Jewish and that meant that he wasn’t really Russian, or at least that, as a Jew, he lacked the right to live anywhere in the Russian Empire. In 1792, Catherine the Great relegated he and the rest of my ancestors to live in the western fringe of the Empire, in what became known as the “Pale of Settlement.” The Pale referred to the boundary which the Jews were not allowed to cross—pale in the sense that it is used in the expression “beyond the pale.”
Much of modern Ukraine lies in what was once the Pale of Settlement - a swath of territory that Russia controlled, but that was not really Russian. I’m not really Ukrainian or Russian or Jewish, but I’m also a little bit Jewish, if it’s possible to be a little bit Jewish. (According to the Nazis, for whom one grandparent was enough, yes, but not according to Jewish law or one man I dated who hesitated before going on a fourth date with me because I wasn’t Jewish, though he didn’t hesitate before sleeping with me.) I’m as Jewish as I am Italian (the last name I bear), and Irish (to whom I perhaps owe my little nose), and Anglo-Saxon (to whom I owe my eligibility for the D.A.R.). These other identites have all been claimed for me by someone—regularly acknowledged by members of my family if not also mythologized in some way. But no one has claimed any Jewish identity for me, even though I can now trace my ancestry back to the Pale of Settlement, to Odessa in the south and the shetls of Lithuania in the north, even though I had to wonder whether it was my family’s synonogue when the New York Times alerted me this weekend that members of a synogogue in Texas were being held hostage. Perhaps that is why I can’t stop wondering what this quarter of my family tree means for my identity, if it is allowed to mean anything at all, or if I’m allowed to claim it.
With my grandfather gone, there is no one in my family left to help me reckon with my claim to Jewishness or to explain why it was severed. I’m left to swim out of what I assume was my grandfather’s shame on my own, to immerse myself in genealogical records, as if I need to prove that the connection to this identity is actually there. Sometimes I think that it is just as tenuous as Russia’s claim to Ukraine, that our claim on any of these places or identities is mere invention. But then I fear the twinge of fear when I read the news of the Colleyville synagogue, the legacy of inherited trauma borne from centuries of anti-Semitism; I find myself rooting for the chair-throwing rabbi, a Daniel in a lion’s den, and feel a flickering candle of Jewishness in me and wonder if that is enough.
I should disclose that I could claim membership in one of these societies, the Daughters of the American Revolution, via the lineage of my maternal grandfather. She did, and my mother did, and my mother prepared the paperwork for me to do so as well. I decided it creeped me out and that I didn’t want to be a part of this club.
Map of the Pale of Settlement courtesy of http://www.berdichev.org/mappaleofsettlement.htm