Israel: A Kafkazi Family Legacy
By Esther Tzvaygenbaum
Without even realizing it, Israel has been part of my story, my being, my destiny from before I was born.
I come from a very humble and loving family of Kafkazi mountain Jews, Jews from the Caucasus region - my mothers side being from Azerbaijan and my father’s side knowing of two worlds: one of European Jewry from his father, who escaped from Poland during WWII and the other is the Kafkazi world, his mother being a native “mountain Jew”.
After 9th grade, I went on a summer program to Israel - my first of many life-changing experiences emerging from my search for my own Jewish identity. Like most Israel programs do, it was full of long bus rides, late night shmoozes and of course, many opportunities for falafel. But some things were not on the itinerary.
They didn’t warn me about this connection, the unshakable bond and perhaps most importantly, this missing piece of myself that would be explored and found.That summer opened up a new world to me, and my passion for Israel started growing.
Upon my return, I began to realize the deep relevance and role Israel played in the lives of my family, before I had developed my own relationship with her. My father would tell me stories how his father, after escaping Poland and continuously searching for refuge, yearned in the deepest place in his heart and soul for a home and a settled life.
Already a man who had escaped from an attempted destruction of his people, who had run across countries, endured Soviet prison, my grandfather had to rebuild his life multiple times. Due to circumstances of life and his health, he never got to see the land he had envisioned as expressed in the dreams of those before him. Nevertheless, he still had the strong spirit of life and hope for the future that my father so proudly carries with him. I believe it was this connection to the ancient Jewish homeland of Israel that I have inherited.
As is the history of the Jews, there is often a point in which we have to leave for refuge, in any part of the world we may be in. As my family started to realize our time had come, my grandmother continued this push for Zion in our family, begging us to go there.
My mother’s family had already made the move and were starting to settle into their new life in Israel. They chose to go to the land of their heritage, to be surrounded by people who would understand their culture and could be in a place they would not be threatened. The door to our destiny had opened.
But, my parents were bringing three young children, my grandmother and my great grandmother - 4 generations of family. The challenge of settling in Israel was too daunting, and soon we arrived in America. My two sisters and I grew up speaking perfect English, learning all the state capitols and reciting all 44 presidents in order. I watched my parents learn a foreign language, start new careers and build for us a foundation of the best Jewish life they could.
Until that first summer in Israel, I never knew what was missing and how the circumstances made it that I was 6,000 miles away from where I felt most at home. It was like a missing puzzle piece that had been found, as if it was just waiting my whole life to return to its state of being whole.
These stories of hope and yearning from my family remind me how Israel, at one point was only a dream for our nation as a whole, was a yearning of thousands upon thousands of years, for a home, for the fulfillment of a promise; it was the missing part to our yet unfulfilled destiny, the missing part of ourselves.
Many generations never got to see the actualization of their longing for a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland. I am one of the lucky few. I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to discover what I was missing in my life. I was able to go to Israel and enjoy the process of discovery. Beyond that, I am blessed to have encountered my family’s legacy of their love and longing for Israel.
Such a deep, personal connection to Israel does not develop automatically. I know that it is not to be taken for granted and that many do not get these opportunities. The fact that I get the privilege of helping people expand their own link to Israel makes me feel that I am in a way fulfilling a shared dream of the generations of my family and the Jewish people before me.