An Ancient Trail of Tears

Once more the little country had been invaded by a military superpower.
The capital city had held out for 2 1/2 years, but the enemy had finally broken through. Homes, public buildings and places of worship had been looted and demolished. All was fire, famine and destruction. Now its soldiers were rounding up many of the citizens for a long trek, separating neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother, parent from child. The skilled, the educated, the able-bodied, had been selected, and with too little time to settle their affairs or make their farewells, were captive and on the march into exile. How, they wondered, could their way of life survive in a distant, foreign land?
The superpower’s government intended to harness the creative gifts and the skills of these artisans, soldiers and scholars for the betterment of its own country. This plan worked. But in a generation or two, another government opened the border and allowed those who wished it, to go back. Some did. More remained, having established families and businesses and now even speaking the language of their adopted country. They flourished. They became scientists, philosophers, scholars, doctors, merchants and bankers. Outstanding religious writings still looked to throughout the world were a product of their many generations in this place.
Yet, in our lifetime, 2500 years after that forced march, their descendants once again put together the few belongings they were allowed to take, and scattered all over the world. Leaving behind homes, businesses and investments, they found their way to China, India, Europe, Israel, and North and South America. This diaspora separated the members of many families, dispersing them wherever they could find welcome.
This was the Babylonian Captivity, when in 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, taking back with him hundreds of its citizens. Their sojourn in Babylon ended upon the formation of the state of Israel, when Babylon, now Iraq, fearing their allegiance to the new state, saw to it that all but a few aged and unthreatening Jews went elsewhere speedily.
From the beginning of that long-ago journey came the first of many well- known writings: the 137th Psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon…”


Family Treasures


When you hear the phrase “family treasures”, you may think of old, heavily embossed silver, or of Grandma’s gold and pearl earrings.  Maybe your first thought is of an ivory satin wedding gown, a set of damask napkins worn through at the fold, or a faded photograph of Great-Grandpa with handlebar mustache and funny, long-outdated clothes.
Whether any of these, or other such relics, lie carefully tended on a shelf, or in a trunk in the attic, we must not neglect the richest treasures of all.  They are our family stories.  These unique anecdotes, whether handed down the generations or recounting a funny or touching incident of yesterday, entertain us, to be sure, but they do more.  They reflect us and define us both in themselves and in our conscious or unconscious choice of what to remember and retell.
In my family, the tale is often told of Great-Grandma’s stern insistence that her husband enlist in the Confederate Army.  “But, Sarah,” he is reported to have said, “I don’t believe in secession”; to which she replied, “Now, Elijah, no man in my family ever refused to fight for his home!”  He went, and she ran their farm singlehanded for the duration of the war.    She, and by extension all the women of the family, are thus portrayed as stubborn and independent.  Many of us are just that!
And that we are not religiously observant the story of our own four-year-old daughter’s first day in Sunday school exemplifies: upon her return from that first session we asked her what she had learned.  She answered, “There is somebody up there who takes care of us, and I forget his name but I think it’s Bob.”  A generation later we still speak of Bob at times.
What we find funny, poignant, or valuable in some other way, is and should be preserved.  Unlike the earrings, the gown or the photograph, which incidentally carry stories themselves, we don’t do this by packing away in cotton, mothballs or acid-free paper.  We tell the stories, and tell them again, and they bind us securely to one another over space and through time.