While I was researching and writing Riva’s Journey: a Memoir, (now available on Amazon), I uncovered tons of facts about conditions in Eastern Europe during the late 19th-early 20th centuries that I wasn’t able to incorporate into my grandmother’s story. I hated to let go of all that information, so I decided to use it to create a presentation for my community’s History Club. I wanted to talk about how fully half the world’s Jews came to live in the Kingdom of Poland, under what sort of conditions they lived their lives, and the profound socio-cultural-political changes that happened in the century and a half after the first Polish partition in 1772. What led so many Eastern Europeans, Jews but also millions of Poles, Russians, and others to pick up and cross the Atlantic in search of better lives? To round out the story, I decided to expand the presentation to discuss the Atlantic crossing and the reception the immigrants received once they arrived in New York.
I’ve given this presentation twice now—once to a group at my synagogue and then to the History Club. Both times, I’ve realized that I probably bit off more than I could chew. There’s so much material that covering it in only one hour doesn’t really do justice to the subject. Still, I hated to leave anything out, and people did seem to enjoy hearing about all of it.
The whole experience reminds me that originally, decades ago, I prepared to teach history, a subject to which I was drawn because I always wanted to know “what happened? Why?” And each time I revisit an era, I not only find answers to my questions, but also discover new insights and deepen my understanding of the events I’m studying. Maybe I’m returning to my academic roots after all this time. Whatever—I’m enjoying the detour.