Judith Fein is a travel journalist, who has globe-trotted without maps or preconceived notions from Mog Mog to Vanuatu, like a modern Marco Polo. By her own account, she has swum with Beluga whales, consulted with a Zulu sangoma in South Africa, and eaten porcupine in Vietnam (“not with relish”). In 2011, when Judith and her photojournalist husband Paul Ross visited Tunisia during the Arab Spring, Judith found herself on the radio, speaking to Tunisians about democracy.
Her popular travel memoir Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel conveys her need to find out where people of different cultures come from and what makes them act, think, and behave the way they do. After decades of travel, there was one frontier that still eluded Judith: the mystery of her own ancestral roots.
Judith’s new book, The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, takes us on the trip she finally made in 2012 to the shtetl, or isolated village, her Jewish grandmother left behind in what was then Russia and is now the Ukraine.
The Spoon from Minkowitz has already garnered stellar reviews. Catharine Hamm, travel editor of The Los Angeles Times, found The Spoon from Minkowitz “as tense as a thriller and as tender as a love story.” Zelda Shluker, editor of Hadassah Magazine, noted the book is “unlike any other back-to-roots book…driven by the author’s almost mystical quest to recover the past…Her curiosity, openness and passion take us along on a journey that turns out to be ours as well.”
An Excerpt: The Spoon from Minkowitz
Ever since I was a child, I was obsessed with Minkowitz, the village my grandmother came from in Russia. She didn’t want to talk about it. The less she revealed, the more I wanted to know. Like a young dentist, I extracted six facts from her, and I clung to them all of my life. When I grew up, I developed into a schleppy sleuth in a detective story, pursuing the six clues and slowly, slowly getting closer, but I was never able to solve the mystery of Minkowitz.
The village wove in and out of my life in bizarre ways. I wondered if it were real, if it still existed, if the fiddler, so to speak, was still on the roof. I became a playwright and wrote a play about it. I realized that what I actually knew was very flimsy. Six facts. I repeated them over and over, like a theatrical mantra.
Then I became a travel writer. I journeyed all over the globe, but never went to the village. I was afraid of what I would find and what I wouldn’t find. Maybe it was better to leave it alone as a construct of my febrile imagination.
And then, a year ago, I was on a trip that was a few hours from Ukraine, where the village is located today. I found a guide. He provided a car. Armed with the same six clues, I went. And what happened to me changed my life.
I would be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you that I had an ulterior motive in writing this book. I want you to come along with me, to experience what I saw, felt, heard, stumbled upon, and understood. I want to introduce you to the people I met. I want to open up to you a world that made me laugh and learn, wonder and weep.
In a small village, I encountered the last Jew standing. Everyone else was wiped out during the Holocaust, or had since died. I had met survivors of the Holocaust before, but it was the first time I spent time with one in the actual place where the horrors happened. She wanted to tell someone her story before she died; she chose me.
In Moldova, I had an audience with the Gypsy Baron, who delighted me with cognac, walnuts, and a deep discussion of who the gypsies are, where they come from, and how they were connected to my ancestors—through ancient Egypt!
In a cemetery, I saw prayers scrawled on the walls by mothers who wanted their sons to be saved from loneliness by meeting and marrying a wonderful woman.
One day, I would like you to undertake such a voyage yourself: to the land your ancestors came from. It will help you to better understand who you are and honor what and who came before you. It gives you the power of someone who is deeply rooted, deeply connected.
Even if your ancestors are long gone, they are still within reach. Waiting. Waiting. Calling out. And all you have to do is heed the call, pack your bags, and go back into the past to find what is there, waiting for you.
The Spoon from Minkowitz and Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel are available wherever fine books are sold.
Check out Judie’s travel website: www.yourlifeisatrip.com