Ear­li­er this week, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote about how her work is informed by her father’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Holo­caust. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

If there is one con­sis­tent theme in the ongo­ing dis­cov­er­ies of my fam­i­ly his­to­ry it is mean­ing­ful coin­ci­dence. Some peo­ple call this syn­chronic­i­ty. Our sages call it has­gacha pratit, Divine prov­i­dence.

In 2009, I received an email from David Abit­bol, whom I had met the year before when I pre­sent­ed at the Jew­li­cious Fes­ti­val he co-found­ed in Los Ange­les. David had made aliyah and spot­ted a vin­tage pho­to­graph of a Jerusalem cou­ple named Alcalay dis­played near his apart­ment in the Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood of Nach­laot. He asked if they were my rel­a­tives. I didn’t know. My moth­er didn’t know. My grand­par­ents were no longer liv­ing so I couldn’t ask them. Months passed and the ques­tion lin­gered. If I could find more details about the image, I might dis­cov­er how we are related. 

If hob­bies can be Jew­ish, geneal­o­gy cer­tain­ly is. It’s a way of reclaim­ing our past despite cen­turies of per­se­cu­tion and loss. It’s also pop­u­lar among Holo­caust fam­i­lies” like mine who dream of dis­cov­er­ing a lost rel­a­tive. Before the pro­lif­er­a­tion of genealog­i­cal sites on the Net, I con­sult­ed an Israeli pro­fes­sor of Sefar­di his­to­ry, Yom Tov Assis at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem, about my moth­er’s fam­i­ly. Yom Tov told me all Alcalays are part of a large clan that left Spain at the time of the Inqui­si­tion and dis­persed across the Mediter­ranean. While he was still alive, my grand­fa­ther, the son of a Jerusalem rab­bi, told me we are direct descen­dants of an ear­ly Zion­ist thinker, Rab­bi Yehu­da Alcalay, the chief rab­bi of Sara­je­vo. In his writ­ings, Her­zl cred­its Alcalay with many of the ideas for a future Jew­ish state. To hon­or that his­to­ry, I insert­ed the mon­tage of del­e­gates at the first Zion­ist Con­gress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzer­land into my first book, Cool Jew. Two del­e­gates were both descen­dants of Rab­bi Alcalay, a grand­daugh­ter and a great nephew, who were mar­ried. Their names are David and Judith Alcalay; she was one of the rel­a­tive­ly few women in attendance. 

Months after David Abit­bol sent me the image of the unknown Alcalays, I was invit­ed to present at Lim­mud UK. Since I was trav­el­ing all the way from Cal­i­for­nia, I added on a vis­it to Israel and recruit­ed anoth­er friend, Rab­bi Yitzchak Schwartz, for help unrav­el­ing the mys­tery of the pho­to. I had met Yitzchak years ear­li­er when we both taught in a Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty retreat in Maui. Nach­laot’s labyrinthi­an streets eas­i­ly swal­low up new­com­ers but Yitzchak, who stud­ies kab­bal­ah in Nach­laot each night — all night — was hap­py to help. David had told me the image is one among many his­toric por­traits embed­ded in Nach­laot’s walls; these dis­plays hon­or ear­ly res­i­dents of one of the first neigh­bor­hoods out­side the Old City with weath­er-pro­tect­ed pho­tographs that rep­re­sent a Jew­ish twist on Lin­coln slept here.” On one wall, there might be the image of Tevyeh the Milk­man. On anoth­er, Rachel the seamstress. 

We wan­dered the neigh­bor­hood in an impromp­tu tour, care­ful­ly read­ing every cap­tion, enjoy­ing the charm­ing sto­ries, but there was not one Alcalay among them. The sun began to set and soon, Yitzchak had to leave for his evening rou­tine. I asked if we could quick­ly try just one more street before we gave up. We picked up our pace and turned anoth­er cor­ner. There, we dis­cov­ered a series of about 20 images, the largest yet, but one drew me direct­ly to it and I began to cry. The pho­to fea­tures a fam­i­ly, includ­ing one young woman I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized as my grand­moth­er. She had a stroke ear­ly in life and I bare­ly knew her, but I hap­pened” to have vis­it­ed her a week before she died and attend­ed her funer­al in the same ceme­tery as the Israelis mar­tyred at the Munich Olympics.

My aunt had giv­en me a copy of her fam­i­ly por­trait soon after my grand­moth­er passed away. I love it so much that I keep it on dis­play in my home. By the time I dis­cov­ered it in Nach­laot, I had already pub­lished it in Cool Jew. It accom­pa­nies a sec­tion on Jew­ish blood ties. 

My grand­moth­er, Yehu­dit Levy, z’l is shown seat­ed in the far right cor­ner, with her par­ents,
sib­lings, niece and nephew.

It was only because I was search­ing that I found what I was­n’t seek­ing, a bond to Nach­laot I did­n’t even know exist­ed. This amaz­ing series of meet­ings and friend­ships had led me to an unex­pect­ed gift dur­ing Chanukah, when my grand­moth­er was born. Her par­ents had named her Judith, in hon­or of one of the hero­ines of Chanukah, who slew the ene­my ruler, Holofernes. 

I was due in Eng­land soon but hoped to return to Nach­laot for the next major fes­ti­val, Passover. I dreamt of com­mem­o­rat­ing our redemp­tion and walk­ing the streets my grand­moth­er had, and where my great grand­par­ents had before her. 

The next install­ment of this sto­ry will appear in a third post in this series.

Read Part 3 of this series: For the Sake of Unification

Lisa Alcalay Klug (lisak​lug​.com) is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, author, speak­er and media coach. She is cur­rent­ly at work on a mem­oir. This post is a part of a blog tour cel­e­brat­ing the release of her new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ulti­mate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Learn more about the blog tour at https://​www​.face​book​.com/​e​v​e​n​t​s​/​505196389498488/. Join her Smokin’ Hot Mamalah Book Launch Give­away val­ued at $300 at www​.Mod​ern​Tribe​.com/​m​a​malah.

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist Lisa Alcalay Klug has report­ed for the New York Times, For­ward, Jerusalem Post, Asso­ci­at­ed Press, JTA, Los Ange­les Times and Israel Broad­cast Author­i­ty TV — among many oth­er out­lets. Her best­selling book, Cool Jew: The Ulti­mate Guide for Every Mem­ber of the Tribe, was a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards Final­ist. A humorist, slam poet and pop­u­lar pub­lic speak­er, Lisa has pre­sent­ed at more than 100 venues through­out North Amer­i­ca, Europe and Israel.