Rebecca E. Kotkin is an attorney and the mother of twin daughters and a son.
Intermarried Parent Who Raised Children with No Religious Identity Writes Book Expressing Regret
Review of The Soup Has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago--A Memoir of One Family's Journey Through History, by Joann Rose Leonard, Bantam, 184 pgs.; $18.95.
What do our children need when they finally leave home to make their way in the world? This was the question author Joann Rose Leonard asked herself as her younger son prepared to move out of the house. "I asked: 'Do you have clean underwear? Do you have your all-in-one-tool.' But then I thought: 'Do the children have what it takes to get through the unthinkable times that may lie ahead of them? Do they have a reservoir of strength to draw on when they will need it most?'"
It was at that moment when Ms Leonard realized the one thing she had not been sure that her sons possessed "a sense of history and connection." A Jewish woman married to the son of a Lutheran preacher, she and her husband had consciously decided to raise their children without organized religion. "My husband was one of five boys and he was the one who didn't swallow whole his father's teachings," Ms. Leonard explained in a recent interview with InterfaithFamily.com. "I went to Temple Emanuel in Houston and some of the teachers there offered me spiritual nourishment, but I was pretty dysfunctional when it came to organized religion. Although my parents went to services on the High Holidays, I did not grow up with ritual in the home. As an adult, I turned my back on religious life."
Despite the lack of organized religion in her home, Ms Leonard's sons grew up in an atmosphere rich with spirituality. "We tried to incorporate spiritual ritual into our lives to help the children experience the miraculous underpinnings and overlay in everything we do. I am able to find the sacred in every moment, but I realized that this may be easy for an adult. It is harder for a child. Children need ritual; they need to mark the passages from one moment to the other. In retrospect, I discovered that we had unwittingly deprived them of this by not sharing those parts of our heritage with them. They never learned the religious rituals that have layered behind them the stories of our lives."
Prompted by her son's interest in family history as he read Elie Wiesel's Night, Ms. Leonard began writing a letter to her sons that described her family's background. That letter was published as her new book, The Soup Has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago--A Memoir of One Family's Journey Through History. In her introduction, she articulates her regrets at having deprived her children of their history, and she proceeds to spin a fantastic, though true, tale of her family's persecution in the Russian pogroms and their struggles to emigrate and establish a new life in America.
The saga is gripping; each family member overcame great obstacles to arrive safely in this country. Ms. Leonard weaves the individual adventures of hardship, fear, separation and pain together to create the intricate web of family history; strands of narrative intertwining with her personal memories of the relatives now gone. The chronicle itself is so engaging that the book's overarching metaphor of a soup whose ingredients consist of family legacies is largely unnecessary. The mystical visits of dead relatives who share the soup's preparation slightly distracts from the phenomenal accounts these people have to tell. That the epic is true is enough to draw you in and keep you reading until the family is safely united once again.
Raised apart from her extended family, Ms Leonard herself learned the story of her ancestors at a family reunion twelve years ago. As she read the details of her past in a document one of her uncles had written, she had an instant feeling of attachment. "I realized that I belonged to them and that they belonged to me. I also knew that they belonged to my sons and that we were all connected to the same family. Although I had heard wisps of the story before, I now had a miraculous sensation of awe of how things had happened and at how much strength my ancestors had possessed, strength that was part of me, too."
"I wish I had known the family story when my children were young," Ms. Leonard remarked. "If I had it to do over again, I would have had Bob [her husband] tell more stories about his family, too. I would have taken the children to synagogue more, taken them to churches, exposed them to the language of prayer. I would have tried to find more concrete rituals for them. In hindsight I realize we did not do enough to help them find meaning in every day, and that is so important for parents with young children. But we were caught up in the details of daily life. When children asked questions, we tried to show them by our social work and our actions, but I know now they missed out on a language and a structure to explore the sacred in their lives."
Ms Leonard reports that her older son, Josh, was "so moved by the letter. He was the one who spurred me into writing more. He passed it along to his friends and it struck a note with them, too. A Catholic friend of his went to his mother and started talking to her about their family. An Indian friend of his who had been at odds with her family went off for a year to discover her roots. So many young people are so hungry for this; they want a bridge to their parents and a common ground." Her son, Jonathan, at first hesitated to read it. "He was afraid of learning his history and was in a comfort zone of ignorance. He has read it now and I know it will serve its purpose. It will sustain him and give him more marrow to draw from when he goes through the tough times. He will always know that he has a story."