Twenty years ago when Ellen Cassedy's mother died, the novelist, journalist and lecturer was determined to study Yiddish as a memorial to her mother and to connect more deeply to her own Jewish heritage.
"I felt all those people who came before my mother were passing out of my reach," she said.
That desire led Cassedy on a transformative journey to Lithuania; that experience and her "awakening" will be the topic of presentations Cassedy will give in Cleveland on Fri., Dec. 2, and Sun., Dec. 4.
After her mother's death, Cassedy enrolled in an adult education Yiddish class and found it consoling to "connect to the sounds inside of me," she told the CJN from her home in Washington, D.C. "My mother often sprinkled her vocabulary with Yiddish words, and I agreed with Kafka's statement, ‘Gentlemen, you will find you understand more Yiddish than you realize.'"
The "mother tongue" came easily to Cassedy, 61, and her studies eventually brought her to Lithuania, her mother's family's ancestral homeland, to study Yiddish at Vilnius University with leading Yiddish scholars.
While in the "Jerusalem of the North," Cassedy met Lithuanians who had lived through the war. "Suddenly the lines that were so clear-cut in my mind between Jews and their persecutors were not as easily defined for me," she said.
"While speaking with Jews and non-Jews, I realized that it was not only the Lithuanian Jews who had suffered terribly at the hands of German and Soviet oppressors," she said. "Many Lithuanian bystanders were also victims. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia."
After traveling around the country and speaking to bystanders, victims, collaborators and rescuers, it became clear that anti-Semitism still exists in Lithuania, Cassedy said. "But we cannot dismiss whole populations of people as anti-Semites. Today there are brave Lithuanians who are exhuming the past to build a more tolerant future; they refuse to keep their heads down any longer and are willing to take a hard look at things, to heal old wounds, and to develop a dialogue to prevent future genocides."
By connecting to her own roots, Cassedy was able to open up to others who have a complex heritage, she said. "Some people use genealogy to prove they are related to George Washington," she said. "But Jewish genealogy should honor the everyday people, those who were not royal, but whose lineage goes back to latkes, bagels, study houses and borscht."
firstname.lastname@example.orgEllen Cassedy speaks
WHAT: "Celebrating Jewish genealogy: How connecting to our roots helps us build an ethical future."
WHERE: Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple
WHEN: Fri. Dec. 2, at 6:15
WHAT: "Lithuanian encounter: How one woman's journey into the old
Jewish homeland changed her view of bystanders, rescuers, victims and herself," sponsored by the Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland
WHERE: Park Synagogue East
WHEN: Sun., Dec. 4, at 1
INFO: email@example.com or 216-381-5910
Ellen Cassedy ("Lithuanian life lessons shape writer," CJN, Nov. 25), will also present at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah's Synaplex Shabbat on Sat., Dec. 3, at approximately 11:15 a.m., in addition to her appearances at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Dec. 2 at 6:15 p.m.) and Park Synagogue East (Dec. 4 at 1 p.m.).