It all began in 2001 with my mother’s insatiable desire to discover more about her background and family. I had heard stories since I was a young girl about her parents who had tragically died within a month of each other, leaving my mother an orphan before her third birthday. I had seen pictures of Jamilla Danino, my mother’s paternal grandmother, who raised my mother and her sister in a small apartment in Long Beach, N.Y., after their parents died. And I knew that the gold bracelets my mother gave me on my wedding night had once belonged to Jamilla. They were part of her bride price when she was married at the age of 12 to a man three times her age to become his second wife. Those same bracelets were on her wrists when Jamilla left her home in Alexandria, Egypt, and sailed to Palestine, where she gave birth to my mother’s father soon after her 13th birthday.
Because of resources like Ancestry.com, I was able to research my family history in the privacy of my home when most people, including my family, were asleep. I spent hours in what felt like an endless maze, attempting to create a family tree. But after a while, I felt like I was on a family treasure hunt, looking for clues to connect names, dates, marriages and secret trysts, as I scoured reams of national public records, data banks, ship archives and religious documents that might help answer some of my mother’s questions. And what I found was a treasure chest of our family history.
Where was the half-uncle who disappeared? Was it a suicide or illness that killed a third cousin? Was her great-grandfather Moshe Franco really the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Palestine in 1911?
More than 10 years into my research, I received an email from a woman who found me searching for a connection on her family tree. It took only one phone call for us to establish that Faride, who lived in Toronto, was one of eight surviving half-cousins that my mother had never met. From that moment on, my mother went from feeling like a “motherless child” to a woman surrounded by the family she had yearned to know for more than 80 years.
What followed is nothing short of miraculous. Six months after that life-changing email, newly discovered cousins from Toronto, Montreal, Paris and Corsica arrived at my parents’ home in New Jersey to meet my mother. And since that October day in 2012, my mother has spoken weekly with at least one of her “new” cousins as they continue to share stories and relate family narratives — one story, one memory, one photo at a time.
Perhaps it was her love for my mother that inspired my daughter, Lauren, to delve further into our family history, or her need to dig deeper into her family roots to ground herself after the death of her father in 2015. Or maybe it was the article she read about the Spanish law passed in June 2015, granting Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews who could prove their ancestors were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Any one of these, worthy motivations to be sure.
In the fall of 2016, Lauren began the arduous task of trying to establish her claim of Spanish ancestry and become a citizen of Spain. For more than half a year, she ran her own kind of family “inquisition,” which included spending hours on the couch with my mother, poring over old family photos, handwritten letters and legal documents written in Aramaic, French and Spanish. Their time together was priceless, giving my mother an opportunity to visit her memories and share childhood stories, a gift that enabled them to become more intimate with each other.
When Lauren announced that she had decided to fly to Madrid in February 2017, it was no surprise. She left with a tiny overnight bag but a huge purpose — to live in Spain and provide the government with the myriad documents required to prove her claim to citizenship. This included notarized letters in Spanish from Sephardic rabbis in New York, birth certificates, ketubot dating back to the mid-1800s, and other documents she discovered doing archival research. She spent weeks studying for the Spanish citizenship exam, taken in Spanish. When she received her notice from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain that she had succeeded in establishing her Sephardic origins, she was beyond thrilled. And when the notice came that she had passed the Spanish citizenship test, we all let out a cheer. The final hurdle in this journey is a passing grade on the Spanish equivalency exam that she took in July and receipt of confirmation from the Spanish government that she can become a dual citizen of Spain and the United States.
Lauren’s story is not just about a personal success; it is about a familial one as well. The yearning to know more about our background often increases with age. It can lead us to discover relationships, truths, stories and insights that enrich and guide us. When we know about our family history, we become like leaves that are part of a tree. We are connected to something substantially larger than our own lives, with roots that sink deep into our family’s soil. And just as in nature, we may find that the deeper the roots, the stronger the tree.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.