Tonight at sunset Rosh Hashanah begins, bringing hopes for a sweet and happy new year. We will dip apples in honey and taste that sweetness, inviting in good thoughts and wishes for all our family and friends.In many ways this has been a wonderful year, but in other ways it has been a troubling year. The world is filled with so much danger, hatred, and division. Hurricanes and floods have reminded us how fragile the planet is and how much we human beings have used and abused it. We’ve lost trust in so many of our institutions, and the meanings of “truth,” “justice,” and “honor” have become more and more elusive. Even basic principles of civility seem to be disappearing. Often I can barely read a newspaper or watch the news because of the sadness and anxiety it causes.
Part of that anxiety comes from studying the past. I’ve spent this year focused on my Katzenstein relatives. Their stories have at times left me devastated. Too many suffered because of the Holocaust, too many were killed. I have a better understanding of what hate can do, and so watching politicians play on hate and fear against “the other” has angered and frightened me over and over. Hearing hateful chants and seeing hateful symbols from the marchers in Charlottesville was terrifying.
But studying the Katzenstein family has also given me some of my most uplifting and joyous times this year. Beginning in the 1850s when my great-great-grandfather Gerson arrived in Philadelphia up through the 1930s when many of the Katzenstein cousins arrived from Jesberg, Germany, my Katzenstein relatives have made many contributions to our adopted country: fighting in the Civil War (on both sides), establishing successful businesses in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and many other locations throughout the country, fighting in World War I and World War II for the US, and taking on community and charitable projects wherever they’ve lived.
I’ve talked to many of my Katzenstein cousins on the phone and met (so far) three of them; in addition, I’ve had email contacts with many others. All have been so generous with their time and their stories; all are so proud of the long and interesting history of their family. It has made me so proud to be a part of this large, growing extended family. Today my Katzenstein cousins are doing many interesting things—some are cattle ranchers as their ancestors had been in Jesberg, some are merchants just like their ancestors, and others are in businesses and professions that their ancestors probably never could have imagined.
This was also the year that I finally went to Germany and saw the many towns where my direct paternal ancestors once lived—the Seligmanns from Gau-Algesheim, the Schoenthals from Sielen, the Hambergs from Breuna, the Katzensteins from Jesberg, the Goldschmidts from Oberlistingen, and the Nussbaums from Schopfloch. I didn’t get to every ancestral town; I didn’t get to Erbes-Budesheim where the Schoenfelds lived or to Hechingen where my Dreyfuss ancestors once lived. But I walked in so many of the places where my ancestors once lived and on the sacred ground where so many of them are buried.
And I met many, many wonderful people in Germany—including Dorothee, Beate, Hans-Peter, Ernst, Julia, Ulrike—and most especially my cousin Wolfgang Seligmann and his wife Bärbel and daughter Milena. That was a dream come true.
So despite the ugliness that colored much of this past year, I will look back on 5777 as a very meaningful and enriching year. My hope for 5778 is that it will be a year where people all over will pull together, work together, to prevent war, to stop hatred, and to take care of our planet and all its people who are in need. As it says in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), “”It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
May you all, whether you celebrate this holiday or not, have a sweet, happy, healthy, productive, and peaceful New Year! Shana tova!