Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
*”Mother tongue” (Yiddish)
When we recently found out that ancestors on both sides of our family were Jewish (Ashkenazi), one side of the family by DNA tests and documents, the other, by oral history, it was as if a mystery was solved that centered on the question we have often asked ourselves as adults: Why do we seem so different from the rest of our relatives, speak such a different cultural language, you might say?
I and many of my siblings, third and fourth generation Americans depending on which ancestral group, have the same Roman noses as many cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents; the same pale complexions as our (former) countrymen in southern France; the same Scottish chins, and a hints here and there of other people groups in Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East who, in the amalgamated tribe known as our forebears, added Native American (so they say) when they migrated to America.
Although my immediate family moved from Upper Michigan to Oregon in the early 1960s, when we are visiting “back home,” or talking with relatives on the phone, our “accents” still flatten a bit, a slight nasal tone emerges, and the volume increases.
So we fit in in those ways.
As adults, however, looking back, we have often wondered “where our parents came from.”
To quote some of us exactly.
Which was more sense than census.
They were just different from their siblings and at least the cousins, aunts and uncles we knew…
Generally speaking, for as poor as we were for many of those early years, Mom and Dad prized and prioritized education, art, literature, invention, and encouraged music lessons when there was enough money. A little more so, it seemed to us kids, than the relatives.
It was also important to them, when it came time to move west, to end up in or near a University town.
They scraped and skimped so we could go to Catholic schools. Dad took a job as a janitor in one parochial school so they got discounts on the tuition.
They made sure to cram the multi-volume, heavy, 1960 Colliers Encyclopedia into the small, hand-built trailer that burst at the seems with every bit of the material possessions we were able to bring across the states in the big move west (when there were already nine of us eleven children).
Mom and Dad also didn’t necessarily subscribe to life by iron-clad Midwestern axioms such as, “you made your bed, now you lie in it,” but spoke of a wider worldview. We were encouraged to take interest in the larger arena of events, politics, and history outside of our immediate locale.
It was understood, rather than insisted, that we were to set our sights, minds, and souls on a different kind of existence, to expand on the base matters of life, as interesting and vital as they are and as needful to “salt the earth”.
However, with all the emphasis on expanding our minds and opening up our worldview, most of us never heard about our Jewish heritage, aside from the word “Ashkenazi,” a word Dad would sometimes say in some private musing or odd moment, not necessarily to anybody; and aside from scraps of knowledge imparted to some of us about our great-grandmother from Eastern Europe, “Grandma Lena,” the Prussian, that was about the sum total of our geneological education in that regard.
Perhaps because when our ancestors, the ones who came from the places for which we have documentation–and now, DNA confirmation–migrated eventually to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it was most likely due to the pending Eastern European pogroms, the dates are correct, and, as is the way of the Ashkenazim, they were anxious to assimilate.
Perhaps antisemitism factored into the hush-up. There was certainly that in our little corner of the globe.
But we were different. That’s all.
We did know this.
Fast forward to early adulthood.
After several of us came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ–which caused an immediate desire to study the Bible–an appreciation of the scholars’ axiom, “The New (Testament) is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed” grew as we learned, as well as did an appreciation of the Judeo part of Judeo-Christian.
However, it would still be many years before we knew we had a genetic connection to the Old Testament as well as a spiritual, so in a way it prepared us.
In this light, as to our family history, once we knew our old world origins, we were satisfied. Finally. Our search, such as it was on myriad and scattered paths, came to conclusion, made sense. And we began the next chapter of discovery and discernment.
We’d found our roots, discovered the mame-loshn of our forebears, the origins of what defined us in the spiritual, in the flesh, and in our nonconformist Midwest family culture.
But there is much more to our story, to the migration from old to new world, Old to New Testaments, Judeo to Christian, law to grace, bondage to Promised Land.
The Promised Land
Of course as Gentile believers (which is how we grew up) we are “engrafted” in to the body of the Jewish faithful. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:
16 If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:16-24, NIV)
Though this Scripture passage is dense with prophetic implication it is very clear about all believers’ interconnectedness–Old and New Testament, Jewish and Christian, Jew and Gentile.
For gathered together, it is by the Holy Spirit alive in each of us we are bonded; by the same Spirit we are one as the Body of Christ on earth and not by geographical or genetic people groups–which is but a metaphor, anyway, for a spiritual reality and a foreshadowing of the future when we will be gathered, all, and completed.
Our “mother tongue,” is the Holy Spirit-breathed Word of God, its themes of unity, separation, bondage, deliverance, and re-unification, lead, guide (led and guided) us both physically and spiritually, and always directs us to the Promised Land of the Spirit that precedes and supersedes terra firma and (DNA) tests.
St. Paul put it thus:
27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29)
Abraham’s seed…heirs according to the promise…Selah.**
In the “tongue of the literary world,” there is a genre of poetry called “borderland poems.”
As Adrienne Rich defines this in her introduction*** to one of the most famous borderland poets, Irena Klepfisz, an Ashkenazi Jew born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 who survived the Holocaust by her looks (of the assimilation), her mother’s tenacity, and desperate lies–for a piece of bread, for life itself:
[Borderland poems] are poems which emerge from the consciousness of being of no one geography, time zone, or culture; of moving inwardly as well as outwardly between continents, land-masses, eras of history, or, as Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldua expresses it, in a “constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways.” A consciousness which tries to claim all its legacies: courage, endurance, vision, fierceness of human will, and also the underside of oppression, the distortion quarantine and violent deracination inflict on the heart…
Whether our history of deracination, pulling up roots, (generations back) was due to persecution or perhaps a kind of cultural preservation (our generation) by the way we were raised, my siblings and I came to look both outwardly beyond the borders of our small town to the world at large and to look inwardly into the quieter, deeper recesses of our inheritance and its individual mandates. Such required something more of us than mere assimilation and survival. And in the many years since, we have each contributed in various ways.
But I also think of our spiritual “borderland condition”.
As believers, followers of Christ, no matter whence we come geneologically or geographically, we are strangers in a strange land, “in the world but not of it”. Jesus explained it thus:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)
Perhaps this is a piece of our spiritual DNA, not just some genetically-transmitted consciousness of a people group never quite fully accepted, always looking over their shoulders, frequently persecuted, and sometimes targeted for annihilation.
But I do know Jesus is still working His plan, genetics, geography, and genocides notwithstanding.
And I do know there is a (permanent) place called home for everyone who places faith in Him as Savior and Lord and where the language will be that of the Fatherland: thanksgiving and praise.
For all eternity.
**Selah: “Pause,” and ponder, that…
*** Rich, Adrienne. Introduction to: Klepfisz, Irena. A Few Words In The Mother Tongue, Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). Portland, Oregon. The Eighth Mountain Press, 1990. pp. 20-21.