Archive for Juaneno

Sarah’s Brain

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Family History, Life and What about It, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 2, 2011 by Louise Steinman

Sarah Rebecca Steinman, eldest daughter of my younger brother, is named for her two great-grandmothers. She’s named for Sarah Konarska Weiskopf (my mother’s mother), born in NowoRadomsk, Poland and for Rebecca Nusenov Steinman (my father’s mother) born in Cherniakhiv, Ukraine. My female lineage is embodied in this beautiful young woman, whose mother (née Pedersen) is of Norwegian Lutheran descent.

When Sarah was growing up, her mother offered to join a synagogue, but my brother, then preoccupied with starting his business, was not focused on his daughter’s religious education. Sarah accompanied her mother to church on Sundays, attended Bible camp/

My husband and I wanted children, but have none of our own. From the time she was eight, Lloyd and I eagerly anticipated Sarah’s arrival for a week’s visit each summer. At the end of her stay, we’d watch tearfully as her small figure, laden with her pink backpack and dangling novelty keychains, disappeared through the gate at Burbank Airport.

When Sarah came to visit—I’d flip the switch into Super Aunt. Art museum exhibits. Trips to the beach. Sarah saw her first Shakespeare play (“King Lear”) one summer; another summer, her first Kurosawa film. We watched the film “Gandhi” together and discussed the meaning of non-violence; we watched “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which led to a conversation about the civil rights movement. Sarah loved to pick tomatoes in our garden, fill a bucket with enough oranges from our tree to squeeze for fresh juice.

Already a dreamy child, my niece in those years was wont to slip into a non-communicative mode that could be unnerving. I saw it as my challenge to provoke her, elicit her opinions and observations. (I was channeling my own mother.) One summer afternoon, en route to some cultural destination, I popped into the car’s tape player the cassette recording I’d made of a long-ago Steinman Passover seder.

The tape was a sound collage of my mother Anne, my grandmother Rebecca, my Russian cousin Maya—none still living– in the kitchen preparing a Passover feast. I loved the sound of my mother’s voice– her ebullient phrasing and enthusiastic fervor about the holiday meal. There was the comforting sound of my Grandma Becky’s Yiddish-accented English, warning me as I stirred a pot: “Don’t let the oil jump up and bite you.” My cousin Maya, a recent immigrant from Kiev, protested that her English was not yet good enough to read from the Haggadah. My mother insisted yes it was! There was a dispute over the Russian word for “parsley.” Animated voices preserved in amber. They felt so close; how could they be gone?

I looked over at Sarah. No reaction. Completely impassive. She stared straight ahead. Was she even listening? I was irritated, how could she not have feelings about the sound of her grandmother’s voice?

The answer was obvious. She didn’t know these people. These voices awakened no direct memories. They did not stir the part of Sarah’s brain where emotion was stored. How quickly direct transmission from generation to generation lapses! My grandmother Rebecca died before Sarah was born. My niece didn’t remember my mother Anne, her own grandmother, who adored her. I know she now ardently wishes she did.

Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneño tribal leader in Orange County, wrote about finding a recording of the voice of a tribal elder, made in the 1930s. It was on a dusty shelf in the Smithsonian. Anastacia de Majel, then in her 70s, was one of the last speakers of the Juaneño langauage. According to the news account: Perry said, “We wept. It was truly like our ancestors were talking directly to us.” She discovered things about her ancestors and how they lived that made a deep impression on her. “I didn’t know that animals would talk to my ancestors and that my ancestors understood them. I didn’t know that the stars communicated with my ancestors or that when a crow flies overhead that I’m supposed to say certain words to them. It was humbling to acknowledge how much our ancestors knew.”

What did my ancestors know? I never met my mother’s father, for whom I’m named. My mother never met her own grandparents, nor did she even know their names. I was so fortunate to spend so much time with my grandmother Rebecca, a great storyteller. I attribute my fascination with Eastern European culture and Jewish history to her stories about growing up in Ukraine; when I watched her radiant face as she lit and blessed the Friday night candles, it offered a glimpse of the possibility of communing with the Divine.

Ultimately, it was Sarah—around age 12—who decided she wanted to study Hebrew for her Bat Mitzvah. My brother even joined her studying Hebrew at night, and the ceremony gave great delight to the entire family.

The other night, Sarah (now twenty-two and soon to graduate from USC) and I were working at the computer in my office at home. I noticed Sarah staring at a hand-tinted family photo on my desk. “Who is that?” she asked. It was a photo of my Aunt Ruth, Sarah’s great-aunt. I was happy to tell Sarah what I knew about Aunt Ruth, how, when my grandmother made the journey from Ukraine to New York, she pinned a little muslin sack containing the family valuables to the underside of Ruth’s pinafore. You could trust Aunt Ruth with the family valuables. Ruth Steinman had a congenital heart defect—a little hole in the heart– and died at age 14. My father was anxious to name his first-born Ruth, in memory of his ally, his best friend. My sister Ruth, born while my father was away at war, is named for this plucky Russian aunt of ours.

The exiled Egyptian-Jewish writer Edmond Jabès speaks of “permanent rupture” as a state of being in his writing and in his Jewish heritage. He writes, “I don’t believe in continuity. Continuity is made of ruptures, and we ourselves are this rupture.”

Sarah Rebecca Steinman is the rupture; she is also the continuity.


[photo of Sarah by Lloyd Hamrol]

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