MONTREAL – It is not remarkable today for people to dig for their roots. The other day I found myself doing so, literally.
The scene was the cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, itself with roots in New France in the period of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the oldest Jewish congregation in Canada. I knew that my great grandparents, important figures in “the Spanish,” as the congregation sometimes is known, were buried there. For reasons unknown but unavoidable, I set out on a Sunday morning to find their gravestones.
This was not an easy task, which in some ways was a metaphor for their passage, for the lives of members of the synagogue – also called Shearith Israel – often was not easy. The congregation began, as so many do today, with fewer than two dozen members in a rented space. Today it has members from Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Ethiopia along with descendants of the original Europeans. And while the cemetery is not a wreck, it is not exactly a lush landscape, either.
It took the better part of an hour to find the grave markers of Rose and Max Fineberg, and when – after just about giving up – I happened upon them I was – in more than one meaning – gravely disappointed. The marker for my great grandfather, whom I adored as a man of piety and precision, was overgrown by nearly a half-century of heavily thatched grass.
This would not do, and I set out with my fingernails to pare away the grass. The work went slowly, and Max Fineberg’s great grandson soon grew weary and frustrated. I tried using my car keys. They were of no help. Finally, I returned to the car and, this being Montreal – where I am living for four months teaching at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy – I had a snow scraper in the trunk. Of course, I did.
Little by little, as if remembering the snows of yesteryear (from “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan,” a line from a 1461 poem by the late Middle Ages French poet François Villon), I employed that black snow scraper to excavate the coverings that obscured the grave marker. Soon, the fifth line of the marker (Beloved Husband, Father,) became visible. But the presence of that comma at the end of the line promised more, and of course as the great grandson I had to go further, and deeper. I wanted to know if I had been remembered after the comma when, 47 years ago, that stone was carved and I was a 20-year-old college student.
The – faith and hope redeemed – came pay dirt amid the dirt: Grandfather and Great Grandfather. No hyphen.
That seemed right. By the time he died, in 1974 – seven years after the 1967 centennial of Canadian confederacy and the year Montreal welcomed the world to Expo 67 – Max Fineberg was no hyphenated Canadian, and his great grandson, though later a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, was not a hyphenated American. Just as that comma had meaning to me, as one of the People of the Book I know the meaning of a hyphen, and of its absence.
This year’s sojourn in Montreal, and the eight-months-long visit two years ago, has been a journey into my past, and especially my Jewish past.
It was here that my parents were married, in the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, only a few blocks from where I live now. It was here that my uncle was the president of Temple Emanu-El, now known as Temple Emanu-El Beth Shalom or simply “the temple,” and the home of one of North America’s most remarkable Jewish spiritual leaders, the Rhodes-Scholar-turned-rabbi Lisa Grushcow. And it was on these streets – some of which ironically bear the English names of Victoria Avenue and Prince Albert Avenue in a province where the official language is French –that my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins walked to school and shul.
One of them was my remarkable aunt Irene Marks, who died at age 103 two years ago this month. It was my very great pleasure – my very great privilege – to spend much of her penultimate year with her and her two daughters. Not many people have children aged 77 and 73.
She was born in Dresden the same year John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline – that places her chronologically – and came here to Canada in 1939, one of the great escapes of modern history from a Germany where the Gestapo knocked on her door, where she was expelled from school for failing to say “Heil Hitler!,” and where she wished she had some poison available when Adolf Hitler took a meal in the dietary kitchen of the sanatorium where she worked.
In those long afternoons in her overheated apartment at the corner of Sherbrooke and Kensington, we pored over old photographs, sought to piece together a rudimentary family tree, and laughed about long-forgotten relatives (though not forgotten by aunt Irene, elephantine in memory but sparrow-like in constitution) whose serial unfaithfulness to their spouses she characterized, unforgettably, as “taking their business elsewhere.”
Now, aunt Irene is gone and those of us who remain are the curators of her memory and of her memories – and of a family heritage that was planted in a synagogue founded in the French colonies of King Louis XV; that traces its own story to the Rue Saint-Urbain celebrated in the novels of Mordecai Richer; and that spent after-school playdates in the home of Leonard Cohen, himself a denizen of the community just a few minutes away by foot from where I am typing this.
All this is a remarkable story of an unremarkable family. It is much like thousands of stories, here in Montreal and there on the North Shore. Sometimes it takes a mere $2 snow tool to scrape away the years. Yours might be even easier to discover, and to share.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.