I have been into genealogy for a long time, trying to trace my family lineage. Sadly, circumstances beyond anyone’s control seem to have stalled a lot of my efforts and there is no way to find out exactly where some of my parent’s relatives came from. My mom’s side is the worst. I was told a sad story many years ago while interviewing someone about the records for the orphanage my grandfather’s father was in as a child. With such a small area to keep records in they used to burn records when they got to many. His birth certificate was in those records one year as they were burned and there is no current way to track down his information. On mom’s mother’s side, a lot of the records were destroyed in WWII. Her parents were from, according to family stories, somewhere in Hungary.
Well, Yahweh has a way of working all things out for our good and what he did a few years ago was miraculous.
I had talked with my mom several times about how I had left mainstream Christian denominations and was studying the bible more in depth. I had hoped to find where I belong in God’s earthly kingdom and how I truly believed. When it came to religious discussions, she did her best to politely listen, but mom was mad at God for a lot in life.
Four years ago, this month (February), mom went into the hospital for an emergency – something wasn’t right. She had stomach pains, and her heart rate was off. So, the doctor felt she should get some tests. When the tests came back, she and I cried together – doctor said she had cancer in her liver and it had spread to her colon. We explored a number of options, but mom just kept saying she was “tired and I just want to be done.” It hurt, but I understood. She was 73 and felt that she had lived long enough. Dad was gone, her mom was gone, and so many of her friends had died. She had already beat breast cancer years earlier, and she just didn’t want to fight any more.
Unhappily, we all accepted what was happening and decided to let mom do things her own way. That same year, 2014, I had decided to make some delicious, traditional Purim cookies for Jim and I to celebrate the holiday. I was on the phone with mom one day, and I felt a strange need to tell her I was baking "Purim cookies." She asked me what these cookies were all about – she wanted all the details. So, I told her about the Purim story, about Esther, Haman, the King, Mordecai. She listened as patiently as she always did when we talked Bible. Then I described the traditions for celebrating Purim and the Hamantashen, describing what they traditionally meant.
Suddenly she became excited and said, “My mother used to make me cookies like that every year when I was little!” She explained just how my grandma used to make them and said they were her favorite cookies! I said something about how it must have been at Christmas that grandma baked them because she used to bake so many different things for the holidays when we were little. Mom insisted that it was NOT at Christmas and it was NOT at Thanksgiving, either. She was adamant!
Mom explained that her mother baked her cookies just like Hamantashen, but she only baked them AFTER the typical American holiday season. She said her mother always said these cookies were special for “this time of year” and she always baked them sometime in February or March. Her mother never explained to her why “this time of year” was important, nor did grandma ever explain to my mom what was so special about the cookies. Grandma said her own mother had always made them yet didn’t explain why they were such an important family tradition. Mom just knew beyond doubt that her mother always baked the cookies sometime before my mom’s birthday in mid-March.
There were some differences between Grandma’s cookies and mine:
~ Mom called Grandma’s klotchkes. I have researched this term so many times but have not found a single recipe or reference to this spelling anywhere. The closest I can find is kolaches, which are very similar to Hamantashen. They have similar fillings but are a different shape. Mom was insistent on the spelling, though, and even said she would try to find her mother’s recipe. Sadly, mom got very sick too quickly and was never able to find it for me in her recipe box.
~ Grandma filled her cookies with poppy seed, apricot, or date fillings, while I much prefer date, fig, apricot, and raspberry jelly filled cookies.
~ My dough recipe is always citrus flavored with lemon or orange juice and natural oils, while grandma’s was more like a sugar cookie or almond flavored.
It was such fun listening to my mom who sounded like a little girl recalling how her mom baked cookies each year, filling the house with the smell of fresh baked sugary treats and yummy, homemade fillings. She reminisced about dipping her fingers in the fillings and snitching pieces of dough when her mom wasn’t looking. Talked of giggling and enjoying that time together and getting scolded when she got caught sneaking bites. She wished and wished that I could send her some cookies, and she imagined how she would just relish the flavor and savor every bite.
You know what I had to do, don’t you? Of course, I had to bake enough cookies for mom to enjoy some, too! I set to work making the pastry, homemade fillings, and baking cookies. I packed some very carefully into plastic tubs and tried to cushion them with paper towels inside the containers, so they wouldn’t jiggle and break. I wanted them to arrive as safely as possible, and then we mailed them.
I tracked the package and then called mom the day before they were to arrive and told her she had to go pick up the mail that next day. She asked why, and all I told her was I sent a little something. Even though she tried, I did my absolute best to not even hint what it was! I was so giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait for her to get her box.
In the meantime, Jim and I talked about the whole thing. Why would my grandmother, every year, bake a traditional Jewish Purim cookie around the time of year that Purim happens? Why would her mother teach her to make these cookies every year and why a family tradition? What made them so special for my mom’s family at “this time of year”? I then recalled how my grandmother used to use a lot of Yiddish phrases. I had realized that fact months earlier and had wondered why she knew them. Suddenly, it fit more into my family’s history than ever before. Little bits and pieces seemed to fall into place and we found ourselves asking, “Is my mom’s ancestry Hungarian Jewish???”
The next day I received the most precious phone call I had gotten in a long time. Mom was even more excited than before. She had opened her package and said she almost started to cry. My sister, who was visiting her, said mom opened the box and exclaimed, “OOOOOH! COOKIES!!!” And dove right in! Mom offered a cookie to my sister and niece who were both in the car with her, and they tried them but did not like them. Mom said, “So I told them, don’t you dare throw them away! Give them here! I will eat them!!! I will eat them all! And, Judith, I DID!!! I ate them every one of them!” Oh, my goodness I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. She bragged about how they melted in her mouth, reminded her of the ones she used to eat. They were so fresh and buttery. In spite of how she had been feeling, she was clearly happy!
Mom went on to tell me how they were perfect and tasted “wonderful.” They were exactly like she remembered from when she was a little child. She talked that day for the longest time about her childhood and about those cookies. Suddenly it occurred to me to talk to her, instead of from a religious perspective, but to tell her more about the Jewish Purim traditions to see if she recalled anything.
Mom didn’t recall anything about costumes or giving gifts of food. She didn’t recall a feast, special prayers or anything about the story of Esther. Yet she sure could remember those cookies and how important and special they were to her mother. She also recalled more Yiddish phrases than I remembered grandma saying. She told of her mother’s parents using Yiddish words and phrases all the time as she was growing up. I asked why they used them and how they knew so many of them. She honestly said she had never thought about it before – she had never asked.
I finally said something to her about how she and I have always wondered about her family history, and how she and I have never been able to find anything. I teased her about how many times she would call me after reading a new novel where she had seen a name similar to one of her parents’ last names. She would always exclaim, “JUDITH! I think we are (Irish, Italian, British, etc.)” She would then go on to explain how she saw a name in the novel that was similar. She would deduce how we must be that nationality. We would go online and search, and throw different spelling possibilities at each other, always to no avail. Each one simply leaving us still unsure of Grandma’s family history.
That is, until Purim 2014 when this cookie story erupted. I asked her, “Mom, do you think your mother might be Jewish? Hungarian Jewish?” She was quiet for a bit, but then she started to put other little memories together – most of them I forgot to write down. Looking back, I wish I had recorded them all. They are gone now unless Yahweh blesses me to recall them all and write them in my journals. All those little bits and pieces, alone, meant nothing all those years but, pieced together with the memory of cookies and all that Yiddish, clearly there is a history of Jewish tradition in our family.
After she and I talked that day, I searched to find information about Grandma's surname again. Nothing, as usual. But this time, I approached it from the angle of grandma’s parents being Jews who were fleeing Hungary. I discovered plenty of references which explained that during the era from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II some Eastern European Jewish families changed their last names to more Gentile names. In addition to changing their name, some adopted a Catholic belief system in an effort to hide their Jewish ancestry and faith. Looking back at my mother’s family, she didn’t recall much about being taught the Catholic doctrines, and she didn’t have any understanding of the faith, but she did know her mother and grandparents claimed to be Catholic.
Suddenly, we both came to the same conclusion. Mom’s family were Hungarian Jews. There are too many coincidences for them to be coincidences, too many things that line up. I pray that one day we will be able to trace her family’s journey from Hungary to the United States through records and such that might not have been available in the past. Yahweh is good to us always, and He has already revealed so very much about my family.
Mom passed away that year, in July, 2014. I miss her greatly at certain times of the year. Purim seems to be the time I miss her most. The memory of her excitement over a simple box of cookies and the stories she told with such joy will be a treasured memory for years to come. I still don’t fully understand what exactly prompted me that one day to start telling her about the cookies and about Purim, but I thank Yahweh for inspiring me to do so. It gave us both such a giggle and such sweet memories.
I guess it was for such a time as this. . . . .
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The Day I Recognized My Family History
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Lead Author (Bio)
Jim, (Judi's husband), has Sephardi Jewish ancestry and is a minister and head of Shofar Productions. Jim was a denominational pastor, hospital chaplain, and former director of a non-profit community organization.
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