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A White House Family Reunion

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By Eli Winkelman

Two weeks ago, I went to the White House for its first reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

I went with excitement, but also some uncertainty. Jewish American Heritage Month: what does that even mean? What does it mean to me?

My understanding of my Jewish heritage and my American heritage shift daily, sometimes hourly. They're even more confusing mashed up together and bundled into 31 days: May, Jewish American Heritage Month.

The event was wonderful and moving. Rabbi Alysa Stanton's recital of Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" brought goosebumps. President Obama's words brought tears. And Regina Spektor's performance brought enthusiastic applause; I am a huge fan.

But for me, the real kicker came a few days after the reception.

First, I received an email from Jumpstart's Shawn Landres, asking me to call him, pronto. I also received a voicemail from my grandmother Alice. Her message was not really clear, but I heard something about Shawn's photos on Facebook.

The Photo That Alice Saw: (l-r) Sarah Lefton (G-dcast.com), Eli Winkelman (Challah for Hunger), and Shawn Landres (Jumpstart) at the White House
Sarah Lefton, Eli Winkelman, and Shawn Landres with a fellow Californian; photo: Jeremy Ben-Ami

I talked to Shawn first, and he told me about an aunt of his, Phoebe, who had passed away quite young. She left behind a husband, Floyd, and a son, Marc. My dad once had a step-brother named Marc, which is also my dad's name. Apparently my dad adopted the name Matthew for a while, to avoid confusion, but it didn't stick. Neither did Alice's marriage to Floyd. But for a few years, my dad and Shawn's cousin were step-brothers.

Alice had seen the photos of me at the White House that Shawn had posted to Facebook and friended him with a message that I was her granddaughter. Shawn and I figured it out: My grandmother was once Shawn's cousin's stepmother, which makes Shawn my almost ex-step-cousin once removed. Whatever, we're family!

Depending on how you do the calculation, half of American marriages end in divorce. This is often cited as a negative, but it can have positive outcomes, too: Until I was 22, I had six grandparents! And, of course, I was everyone's favorite granddaughter, so just imagine all of the birthday and Chanukah presents. (For the sake of full disclosure, my own parents are happily married, so I never went through a first-hand divorce.)

Alice was married several times. Although she has had a rocky relationship with her Jewish heritage, she always married Jewish men--and she always divorced them. Alice has taught and continues to teach me how to build and invest in relationships--whether with a significant other, a job, or a friend--and how to recognize when a relationship is not healthy for me. She's now single and an empty-nester for the first time since she was nineteen. Now in her seventies, after four decades of living in Los Angeles, she upped and moved to New York City. And she's never been happier. She's an inspiration.

A few days after such a neat conversation with Shawn, I received a Facebook message from a stranger: Amy R. had been looking through her friend's Facebook photos from the White House event. Her mom walked into the room and saw a photo of me and told her that we're "related."

This is the message I received:

Apparently, your grandma 'adopted' my grandparents, Ruth and Henry K. in Detroit. My grandparents were survivors and they always spoke lovingly of your mom and grandma. Have you ever heard this? I have such a tiny family and really welcomed the news.

I immediately called my mom, who confirmed the story, telling me about "Uncle" Henry leading family seders and recalling Amy's parents' wedding. My mom called her dad, Grandpa Bernie. Grandpa Bernie called me back, crying. Family is the most important thing to him, with or without quotes.

I went to the White House--and came home with two new cousins. One from the messiness of divorce, and one from a hodgepodge family formed after the Shoah (Holocaust). This is my Jewish American Heritage.

Eli Winkelman is the founder and National Coordinator of Challah for Hunger (CfH), which bakes and sells challah bread to raise money and awareness for social justice causes. She is a Joshua Venture Fellow and a 2010 Ariane de Rothschild Fellow.

cross-posted at Jumpstart