I don’t know how many people are familiar with the idea of “generational sin”. There are many ministries in different streams of the Christian faith today that deal with myriad flavors of this idea. The foundation of this notion is that we are affected in some way by what family members who came before us did.
I want to come at this from a different perspective. As is often the case, people often view things through a certain filter. If one looks for bad, one finds it. If one looks for good, however, one will find that, too. Let’s use my family as an example.
The most common time that we look back at family history is during a doctor’s appointment. This is when family history seems to have a context in our culture. I look at family history a lot when it comes to one of my daughters because she has a very serious disease. Whenever we see a new clinician, said doctor always asks about our family history, and I have to trot out the family’s dirty laundry; and, it’s filthy. My daughter has a childhood-onset schizophrenia spectrum disorder. This is an extremely rare disease in childhood so the first thing a doctor wants to know is: Did anyone in my family have a mental illness? It’s laughable. My family? I take a deep breath and almost vomit forth the truth.
“Well, let’s see here. My grandfather died by suicide, and everyone is secretive about him. He was in some kind of residential care for 40 years. His wife, my grandmother, also died by suicide, and she was very odd. My aunt, whom I never met, was also reported to be quite strange. My mother has borderline personality disorder as well as depression. My father is most likely a psychopath. You would say that he has Antisocial Personality Disorder. What else…hmmm. Clearly, everyone had weird brains.”
It’s clear that family history is significant in some contexts. Even the medical community acknowledges that, but we are talking about negative family history. here. The cultural habit is to look back upon our lives and even the past lives of our recent and not so recent forebears and compare. We might even hear family members compare us to others:
- “Oh, you are just like your Aunt Sylvia! She was so ill-tempered and stubborn! She paid for that. You will, too, if you don’t watch out.”
- “Look at that sweet tooth of yours. Your Uncle Harold was the same way, God rest his soul. His diabetes killed him.”
- “You are so like your mother! You’ve got a good mind. You just don’t know how to use it.”
- “Your father was a stubborn fool of a man just like you!”
- “I think your sister likes the boys a little too much just like your Uncle Steve!”
There is a lot of opportunity for judgment, criticism, and passive aggressive naughtiness in these circumstances. What if, however, there were another story to tell? A potentially more powerful one? I’ll use my family as an example again.
When I was quite young, my very odd grandmother, whom I rarely saw, was visiting my father, her son, for Christmas. She was a small, nervous, and somewhat swarthy woman with black hair and almost black eyes. She didn’t talk very much, and I had only met her three or four times. She did send me a birthday gift every year and a gingerbread house every Christmas. Her name was Miriam. Grandma Miriam and my father didn’t interact very much. He would fly her down for Christmas out of obligation. That I did understand. He would make me come visit when she was in town because, as he said, I had to.
One evening, when my father and his wife were occupied with something, Miriam took my hand and quickly led me into her guest room. She stood in front of the door to block it from opening as there was no lock. She leaned down so as to look me directly in the face. She took my hands in hers. She then began to speak softly but very quickly. She told a story. She talked about our family. We had lived somewhere far from there. We had to leave there. Someone made us all leave. We had to keep secrets. She had to keep the secret. She had to pretend that something wasn’t true. She talked of bloodlines and kings and fleeing. She spoke of the Dutch and Germany. Then, she took two pieces of old china out of her suitcase and gently handed them to me. She said, “Now you must take these and hide them. You must never tell anyone what I’ve told you. You must keep the secret now. And, you must never tell your father. Never. Now hide these. Hide them now.”
I was terrified. I didn’t understand anything that she’d told me. What did it all mean? What if my father found out that she’d given me something to hide? What if he hurt us? That was my biggest fear. As an 8 or 9 year-old girl, this felt too heavy for me to bear even though I didn’t understand.
Over the years, as I grew up, I struggled with identity. We all do, I’m sure of that. My struggle has always been with religious identity. I was raised exposed to many different streams of Protestantism. My father was a die-hard Pentecostal. My mother church-hopped whenever she felt guilty about her lifestyle, and her second husband was Catholic. My grandparents were Lutheran. I spent summers at Lutheran Bible camps. Extended family members were all missionaries, and there was not a little pressure on me to be one, too. I was confirmed at 14 years-old in a very orthodox Lutheran church but still didn’t consider myself a member of a faith system because ,as far as I could remember, I felt like a, well, Jew. As a child, I asked my maternal grandmother to show me a synagogue. I didn’t know why. I wanted to see one. I repeatedly read the Old Testament as a child. I studied Midrash and Mishnah in college. I went to ecumenical services at one of the local synagogues and yet I felt out of place as a Gentile; at the same time, I felt out of place in my own Lutheran church, too.
And then, about seven years ago, I remembered what Grandma Miriam told me. I pondered it. This secret that I had been keeping all these years. What was I protecting? What was it my turn to hide? We were Jewish. Grandma Miriam was a Crypto-Jew (secret Jew) along with her family. (see A Brief History of Crypto Jews) Put simply, the Crypto-Jews, otherwise known as Conversos or Marranos, were the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, the Sephardim, who were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism to avoid the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 but adhered to Judaism in private. This is the most widely known group of Crypto-Jews. Many of these Jews fled the Iberian Peninsula for the Netherlands, Morocco, England, and Southern France and eventually headed to the colonies of the New World. Rodridgo Lopez, for example, was a Jewish physician who fled Spain for England to avoid the Inquisition and eventually became the royal physician to Queen Elizabeth I.
As I have painstakingly traced my family’s lineage, I have confirmed my grandmother’s story. And then some! Everything she said was true. She was, in fact, Jewish, and her family–my family–did originate in the Iberian Peninsula. Some ancestral grandparents joined the Huguenots in Southern France because it was such a powerful anti-Catholic movement. Some remained in Amsterdam because it welcomed Jews during this period in history, and many traveled to New Amsterdam, what is now New York, for a shot at a new life. What became clear is that everyone retained their Jewish identity even if they only held onto it behind closed doors. What was even more interesting is that a Morisco entered the bloodline. A Morisco is, like a Marrano, a Muslim who was forced to convert to Catholicism lest they be beheaded or tortured to death in the Inquisition. There were secrets to keep indeed particularly from my father, a known racist.
Why is this important from a narrative point of view? Why might something like this matter to you, a reader? Well, as I have learned this about my family and ancestral grandparents, one thing has struck me. What must it have taken to survive the Spanish Inquisition? What must it have required to publicly give up your essential identity in order to save your life and the life of your family while simultaneously keeping it a secret? For generations? The will to survive astounded me. The drive to progress in the face of daunting circumstances blew me away.
The Spanish Inquisition followed the Jews and the Muslims and anyone else who disagreed with the Catholic Church all over Europe. This is one reason the Jews and Muslims kept moving from one land to another. As the Catholic Church’s reach extended further, so, too, did the Jews’ need to move beyond it. There were Jews on the first ships to land in the New World. They were among the first colonists. This idea that our ancestral grandparents, aunts, and uncles survived and even flourished under tremendous opposition inspires and emboldens me. It is easy to look back at our families of origin and see the pain particularly if there was alcoholism, abuse, incest, and abandonment. It is even easier to let those things define us. We can, however, have different origin stories if we look back further. If we look a little harder.
My ancestral grandparents fled the Inquisition, lived in the Netherlands, and eventually sailed across the Atlantic in order to start a new life. I have other grandparents who were also Jewish and many Jewish aunts, uncles, and cousins. They, too, fled Europe and became colonists. Yes, they kept their identities a secret, and that took a huge toll on my family and most likely contributed to Miriam’s instability. But, it also contributed to their desire to survive and flourish. The faith had to be passed on. Life must be preserved.
We can cast varied lights upon our family history then. We can look back upon our origins and only see what went wrong or see the generational momentum and strength that got us here. We deal with the bad. We heal it. We purge the poisons. We, however, must acknowledge and celebrate the blessings and strengths of those who came before us. What sacrifices must have been made so that we could be here today? What tenacity, strength, perseverance, and creativity runs in your veins? What fortitude of will is in your DNA? What desire to flourish no matter what is in your blood? If you are here today, then this must be in your origin story, too. You need only look for it.
For me, keeping my promise to Miriam has been important, and it has been something tied up with tremendous fear as well. The fear was passed on to my daughters, too. All of them understood Judaism in a deep way apart from me from a young age, too, and all of them felt something akin to terror should they be found out. Generational fear of discovery is strong. It’s why groups of people who hide survive. It’s called epigenetics. Holocaust survivors, for example, pass on certain emotional wounds acquired in the camps and during WWII to their offspring. This is just one example that supports the notion that it is important to look at our family histories. Explore our narratives and origin stories. What is informing them? There are often real things to overcome. Real things working against our flourishing.
For me, I had to make a decision to speak to a rabbi. I had to “out” myself as it were, and it felt like I was doing something wrong. I was trembling the whole time. I was going against the grain of hundreds of years of family history. It’s not a small thing.
Alas, it was time for that secret to end. The Inquisition is over. My ancestors came here so that they could, one day, practice their faith freely. They came here so that their children’s children could be free. Well, that’s me, isn’t it? That’s you, too.
So, with this in mind, what might your story be?