“Ask the former generation
and find out what their ancestors learned
for we were born only yesterday
and know nothing,
and our days on earth
are but a shadow.” Job 8:8-9
When you look through the Bible for references to ancestors, often the word is linked to the land that God has promised his people. In Israel, tribal allotments were to stay in the tribe, boundary lines forever marked. The psalmist rejoiced that these lines for him had fallen in pleasant places, that he had a delightful inheritance. (Psalm 16)
After Israel once more became a country in 1948, Jewish people from all over the world came home. Two thousand years had elapsed, multiple generations had come and gone. The term the Israelis used for those born in this new Israel was “sabra,” a reference to the prickly cactus that’s sweet inside.
I get that. Sometimes I think my restlessness, that feeling of not quite being comfortable in my skin, fits this prickly description. In our case, we have had to set down roots in soil where our ancestors had never set foot, and it isn’t always a comfortable feeling. We have been sometimes hard to assimilate, with our tough exterior. Once you get past that, hopefully there is a sweetness.
I would never have met my husband if our families had stayed in Holland, though it is a small country. His family came from Andijk in North Holland, and my family from the Achterhoek, opposite ends of the Netherlands. In the old days, people usually didn’t travel far. Any further apart and he would have been in the North Sea, and I would have been in Germany.
When I was an eight-month-old infant, my mother, perhaps because of homesickness, traveled with me back across the ocean in a freighter that had room for a few passengers. There are photos of a beaming child in a stroller; I am oblivious to the vastness of the Atlantic ocean beyond the guard rail. It was a long and tiring journey, but she felt compelled to take her child to her family, and her childhood home.
Although I obviously have no conscious memory of this, I count it as a blessing to have been held by my grandmother and great-grandmother in Holland. I like to think they whispered a prayer for all their descendants, the children they would never see grow up, far away in a foreign land.