A Wandering Jew with Roots

How constant international travel has defined my work, my Judaism, and my very way of life.

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

My professional career has always involved travel, or at least moving. In the 1970s and ’80s, I was based successively in six European capitals as a correspondent for United Press International (UPI): Rome, Brussels, London, Belgrade, Warsaw, and Vienna. Each transfer entailed an uprooting followed by a brand new start: new apartment, new friends, new coworkers, contacts, language, food, political environment, even currency. One of my few constants was my black-and-white cat, International Star, and our journeys may have been more difficult for her than for me: going from Brussels to London, poor Star had to remain six months in anti-rabies quarantine.

In my last three posts, I covered eastern Europe, and it was then that I encountered the struggling, far-flung remnants of post-Holocaust Jewish life in what had once been Europe’s historic Jewish heartland. In general, my interactions were purely professional, part of my overall political reporting from the region. But on occasion I joined services or took part in community seders where loud conversation drowned out any attempt at prayer. And I also fell in with a group of young Jews in Warsaw who had formed a semi-secret association to teach themselves Jewish traditions. For them, I was a “real Jew.” I didn’t speak Hebrew or keep kosher or observe other religious duties, but I had known all my life I was Jewish, and they, on their own, were just finding out.

In December 1978, I accompanied Romania’s chief rabbi, Moses Rosen, on his annual Hanukkah tour to tiny Jewish communities scattered all around the country. One small town was special to me; it was Radauti, in the very far north of the country, the town my grandparents had come from. Here I saw the cavernous synagogue where my long-dead grandfather had prayed. And I picked my way through the Jewish cemetery to find the grave of my great-grandmother, Ettel, in whose honor I had been given my middle name. That trip laid the groundwork for what has been my career over the past two decades and more. I left UPI in the 1980s, but I remained in Europe; and, for most of the time since then, my writing has largely centered on contemporary Jewish issues.

I have focused on three main areas: Jewish heritage and heritage sites in eastern and central Europe; the revival of Jewish life and the reassertion of Jewish identity after the fall of communism, and the evolution of the “Jewish presence” in parts of Europe that frequently dwarfs the actual living Jewish community.

In following these threads, travel, too, has been a constant; indeed, in many ways it has become a modus vivendi, or at least a modus operandi, defining both my work and my way of life.

It is not a settled style of life, though it is a style of life that is, perhaps, surprisingly set in its ways. And, in some senses, it is very Jewish. I wander, but my wandering is not aimless, and I by no means feel like the apocryphal Wandering Jew. Instead, I feel somehow rooted in my travel. Indeed, I generally travel to the same places, over and over. They are often places where I have lived in the past, or where I have visited frequently—and regularly—and where I have friends, acquaintances, colleagues, sources, even family (not to mention a history). Wherever I go, I generally feel at home, and I almost always want to stay longer, or at least return.

I usually have a job, a goal, a structure to my travel: to follow the footsteps of Gustav Mahler’s early years in the Czech Republic, for example. Or to visit Jewish heritage sites in Slovakia. Or, as I did with the help of a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute research grant, to visit Jewish cemeteries in northern Romania and photograph the elaborate iconographic carving, usually of candlesticks, that marks the gravestones of Jewish women.

The key cemetery where I carried out this work was that in Radauti, the town of my ancestors, where I had first found my great-grandmother’s grave (marked with carved candlesticks) so many years ago. I have been there now on four occasions, each time brought by my work rather than any strictly genealogical pull. Each visit made me thank my long-gone grandparents for having immigrated to America! But, at the same time, I always feel comfortable, as if embraced by the rolling, wooded landscape like some lost native.

In 2009, I returned to Radauti. This time, family history did intrude. It was inevitable, I suppose, since on this trip three of my cousins traveled with me, and they were much more interested in “walking where our ancestors walked” than in watching me make my photographic documentation of Jewish tombstone art. We made a ritual pilgrimage to Ettel’s grave and then, in the town archives, discovered handwritten registry entries of names, dates, and even street addresses of our forebears; we were even able to find what we believe to have been the house where our great-grandparents lived.

My cousins left Radauti after a few days, but I stayed on to work on my project, and it was then that I made the discovery that touched me the most: in the Radauti Jewish cemetery I found the grave of another female ancestor—my grandmother’s grandmother, Chaya Dwoira bas Moshe Mordko, who died in 1904, an ancestor whose existence had never crossed my mind before that trip. The epitaph on her gravestone described her as a “modest and honest” woman, and braided candlesticks, with hands raised in blessing above them, were carved on the stone’s face.

About the Author

Ruth Ellen Gruber
Ruth Ellen Gruber is an award-winning American writer, photographer, and independent scholar. Her books include National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (National Geographic, 2007) and Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (University of California Press, 2002). She won a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend to work on her ongoing project “Sauerkraut Cowboys, Indian Dreams: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe,” and was HBI’s Scholar in Residence in the winter of 2011 to work on her project “(Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art.” In September 2011, she was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest honors granted by Poland to a foreign citizen. Other honors include three Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism.

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