If ever there was a harsh reminder that Tu B’shvat is not a cel­e­bra­tion of the spring, this year would be it. Just a few short weeks since Jerusalem was cov­ered in snow, and only a mat­ter of days since the Mid­west regained func­tion from its lake effect/​severe weath­er storms; it’s a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to pic­ture almond blos­soms sway­ing in a warm breeze by Thursday.

This is also my first year liv­ing in New York City, where that image is kind of dif­fi­cult to pic­ture in any weath­er. I won’t try.

Back in Octo­ber, Gabi Gle­ich­mann wrote a blog post for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil that was so beau­ti­ful our own staff kept for­ward­ing it around to one anoth­er: A Jew­ish Fam­i­ly Tree: The Gen­e­sis of The Elixir of Immor­tal­i­ty.” Read­ing Gleichmann’s descrip­tion of what pro­voked him to write his first nov­el, I began to con­sid­er my own fam­i­ly tree.

My mother’s side has a tra­di­tion of re-map­ping the entire fam­i­ly tree at every wed­ding. A long stretch of butch­er paper is pinned up against a wall, blank but for the names of the fur­thest ances­tors we can trace back, appro­pri­ate­ly con­fig­ured at the top of the sheet. From there, the wed­ding guests have to col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly pro­duce the fam­i­ly tree. Over the course of the recep­tion or rehearsal din­ner, the map grad­u­al­ly mate­ri­al­izes as rel­a­tives approach the makeshift board, remind them­selves of the exact rela­tion between them­selves, the names already in ink, and the peo­ple stand­ing around them, and scrawl their own names in. Par­ents write in their chil­dren; the bereaved their par­ents, grand­par­ents, great-grandparents…

It’s a love­ly tra­di­tion, and it’s always a moment of great pride. But Gleichmann’s writ­ing sharply remind­ed me of how mis­shapen a result it must have pro­duced at my parent’s wedding.

Most fam­i­ly trees meet lat­er­al­ly, with the subject’s par­ents’ lega­cies mapped across a hor­i­zon­tal plane; mine, to ride the metaphor, is the ever-widen­ing trunk between the branch­es and the roots.

My mother’s fam­i­ly left the Russ­ian empire late in the 19th cen­tu­ry. They made a life for a cou­ple gen­er­a­tions in Eng­land, where one of our ances­tors rose to some promi­nence as a rab­bi — des­ti­tute, but revered — before emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca and set­tling in the Mid­west, lat­er relo­cat­ing to California.

My father’s fam­i­ly, on the oth­er hand, was all but wiped out. Their (present-day) Beloruss­ian and Roman­ian vil­lages were easy and obvi­ous tar­gets of the Nazi geno­cide, and the few who had struck out for Amer­i­ca by chance were left marooned in the Land of Oppor­tu­ni­ty, with no one left to send for.

So my mother’s fam­i­ly is tree branch­es, liv­ing, breath­ing, blos­som­ing before our very eyes, while my father’s fam­i­ly anchors into the ground.

I know, of course, that tree roots grow, too. But because you can’t see them, because they’re buried, it’s dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize their true expanse or ful­ly com­pre­hend their effect on every­thing above-ground, cru­cial as we vague­ly know them to be. I think it’s the same way with fam­i­ly lega­cies mut­ed by the Holo­caust: we are aware, vague­ly, that the vic­tims relat­ed to us exist­ed, that they affect­ed those who sur­vived for us to know in some dis­tant way, but we don’t have any­where near a com­plete sense of what our fam­i­lies were before they all but ceased to exist. And we don’t under­stand how that loss poi­sons our lin­eage from there, not really.

What stirred me in read­ing Gabi Gleichmann’s reck­on­ing with his own absence of tan­gi­ble ances­try was how he cre­at­ed some­thing out of that loss, how he trans­formed this great void into some­thing liv­ing and beau­ti­ful and sprawl­ing for his chil­dren and on:

I told my wife I was deter­mined to give our boys a present: a Jew­ish fam­i­ly tree, one that was even more exten­sive that the 350-year his­to­ry of the Cap­pe­len fam­i­ly. It would go back a thou­sand years. I would cre­ate it with my pen and my imag­i­na­tion. After all, the lives and under­tak­ings of all those oth­ers were still alive with­in me. All of us are itin­er­ant time machines; our rec­ol­lec­tions enable us con­stant­ly to trav­el back and forth in time, through our own life­times and through­out his­to­ry as we sum­mon bygone eras into our own present. The mem­o­ries of the depart­ed and the dis­ap­peared remain alive and well, puls­ing beneath the sur­face of our own days.

I also remind­ed myself that only the art of the nov­el is capa­ble of bring­ing back to life the dead and the for­got­ten, history’s myr­i­ads of anony­mous indi­vid­u­als, by giv­ing them faces once again and erect­ing a memo­r­i­al over them.

He sees the roots.

Look­ing for Tu Bish­vat reads? Try here.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.