The Things We Carried

When we asked readers for the stories of their family heirlooms, we were overwhelmed with poignant and moving entries. Family heirlooms provide a physical and literal connection to our past, but Jewish ones do even more: They provide us with an emotional and even a spiritual connection to our community — going back generations.

We were inspired by the story of a 91-year-old woman who has held tight to the spoon she was given in Auschwitz. And by a woman who traced her family’s Jewish roots back 22 generations to pre-Inquisition Spain after inheriting a hamsa. And we laughed as we read about an ashtray “stolen” from a bar mitzvah.

Click on the icons on the left to read the full story of each heirloom

Each of these stories gives us a glimpse into the private life of a Jewish family and the untold stories of what it means for us to be Jewish.

We hope they resonate with you as much as they did with us.

Additional research by Anna Goldenberg and Anne Cohen. Photos are courtesy of the owners of the heirlooms.

  1. Hamsa Pendant

    Genie Milgrom
    Miami

    When my Catholic maternal grandmother died, she left me this hamsa as well as an earring that led me on a 15-year quest for my own Jewish roots from pre-Inquisition times. I have since then taken back the religion of my ancestors. I was able to prove that I descend from an unbroken maternal lineage that goes back 22 generations, and I have located all the supporting documentation of Inquisition judgments. All of this was possible because this hamsa and the earring were carried for generations from Spain to Cuba and finally to Miami, where I live. I owe my identity to this hamsa.

  2. Ashtray

    David Wolkin
    Silver Spring, Md.

    It wasn’t passed down to me, I found it.

    In the summer of 2002, I helped my mom and Aunt Linda clean out their parents’ house. We sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.

    Aside from quite a lot of clothing (Grandpa Murray was a natty dresser), I walked away with an ashtray that I found in a drawer in the front hall. I have no idea what it was doing there, and it’s possible that it had been sitting there for decades. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that objects tell stories, and I wondered what this ashtray signified, “‘stolen’ from Allan Abrvanel’s bar mitzvah” in 1960.

    Ten years later, I googled Allan on a whim and we connected. We figured out that my grandmother had manufactured the ashtrays for Allan’s bar mitzvah (and mistakenly misspelled his last name on the ashtray that she kept). When I moved to Maryland last fall, I met Allan in person, and he showed me his bar mitzvah pictures. I loved that my grandmother had her own business at a time when such a thing was less than common. I can only guess how many simchas she touched with her tchotchkes, and the stories that they would have told. But I’m hardly surprised that the most random thing I took from their house facilitated a new connection for me. I have no idea why she kept that ashtray. But I know why I do.

  3. Hamsa Pendant

    Genie Milgrom
    Miami

    When my Catholic maternal grandmother died, she left me this hamsa as well as an earring that led me on a 15-year quest for my own Jewish roots from pre-Inquisition times. I have since then taken back the religion of my ancestors. I was able to prove that I descend from an unbroken maternal lineage that goes back 22 generations, and I have located all the supporting documentation of Inquisition judgments. All of this was possible because this hamsa and the earring were carried for generations from Spain to Cuba and finally to Miami, where I live. I owe my identity to this hamsa.

  4. Ashtray

    David Wolkin
    Silver Spring, Md.

    It wasn’t passed down to me, I found it.

    In the summer of 2002, I helped my mom and Aunt Linda clean out their parents’ house. We sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.

    Aside from quite a lot of clothing (Grandpa Murray was a natty dresser), I walked away with an ashtray that I found in a drawer in the front hall. I have no idea what it was doing there, and it’s possible that it had been sitting there for decades. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that objects tell stories, and I wondered what this ashtray signified, “‘stolen’ from Allan Abrvanel’s bar mitzvah” in 1960.

    Ten years later, I googled Allan on a whim and we connected. We figured out that my grandmother had manufactured the ashtrays for Allan’s bar mitzvah (and mistakenly misspelled his last name on the ashtray that she kept). When I moved to Maryland last fall, I met Allan in person, and he showed me his bar mitzvah pictures. I loved that my grandmother had her own business at a time when such a thing was less than common. I can only guess how many simchas she touched with her tchotchkes, and the stories that they would have told. But I’m hardly surprised that the most random thing I took from their house facilitated a new connection for me. I have no idea why she kept that ashtray. But I know why I do.

  5. Hamsa Pendant

    Genie Milgrom
    Miami

    When my Catholic maternal grandmother died, she left me this hamsa as well as an earring that led me on a 15-year quest for my own Jewish roots from pre-Inquisition times. I have since then taken back the religion of my ancestors. I was able to prove that I descend from an unbroken maternal lineage that goes back 22 generations, and I have located all the supporting documentation of Inquisition judgments. All of this was possible because this hamsa and the earring were carried for generations from Spain to Cuba and finally to Miami, where I live. I owe my identity to this hamsa.

  6. Ashtray

    David Wolkin
    Silver Spring, Md.

    It wasn’t passed down to me, I found it.

    In the summer of 2002, I helped my mom and Aunt Linda clean out their parents’ house. We sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.

    Aside from quite a lot of clothing (Grandpa Murray was a natty dresser), I walked away with an ashtray that I found in a drawer in the front hall. I have no idea what it was doing there, and it’s possible that it had been sitting there for decades. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that objects tell stories, and I wondered what this ashtray signified, “‘stolen’ from Allan Abrvanel’s bar mitzvah” in 1960.

    Ten years later, I googled Allan on a whim and we connected. We figured out that my grandmother had manufactured the ashtrays for Allan’s bar mitzvah (and mistakenly misspelled his last name on the ashtray that she kept). When I moved to Maryland last fall, I met Allan in person, and he showed me his bar mitzvah pictures. I loved that my grandmother had her own business at a time when such a thing was less than common. I can only guess how many simchas she touched with her tchotchkes, and the stories that they would have told. But I’m hardly surprised that the most random thing I took from their house facilitated a new connection for me. I have no idea why she kept that ashtray. But I know why I do.

  7. Glasses for Salt Water at Seder

    Sarah Adler
    Mill Hill, London

    When my grandfather left his Lithuania shtetl of Mushnik, he had to leave with virtually only what he had on his back. One of the few things he managed to carry with him were his tefillin in a bag made by his mother, and two small blue goblets which had been used for salt water at the Seder. Somehow these managed to survive the journey across Europe, and we still have them and use them each year. For me this continuance reminds me how lucky I am to be in a country that enables me to celebrate Seder each year. This year the glasses have passed to my daughter.

  8. Torah Scroll

    Lisa Colton
    Charlottesville, Va.

    My great-great-uncle Moishe Gould was studying to be a rabbi when he was drafted into the Russian army. His brother was shipped off to America, and settled in Worchester, Massachusetts. Once he had a bit of money, he sent for his family, including Moishe and his wife. Moishe had been given a Torah by his father-in-law as part of his wife’s dowry, and they brought the Torah with them to Massachusetts in 1903. Moishe became the spiritual leader of Clinton, Massachusetts. In the late 1920s the community built a synagogue which today continues at Congregation Shaarei Zedeck. My grandparents and mother grew up in this congregation, and my family has made up about 50% of the membership for generations. The congregation is nearly entirely lay led, and my generation (and now the next, as well) have all come back to this synagogue for their b’nai mitzvah, to read from the Torah that their ancestors brought over from Eastern Europe.

  9. Dining Room Set

    Tom Freudenheim
    New York, N.Y.

    I revel in using the furniture designed for my parents when they married in 1932, with curly maple veneer (from the family’s lumber business) and matching marble. We always conducted Shabbat Kiddush on the sideboard; I now do the same. The cabinet, displaying family heirlooms and Judaica, is still used for that. And I especially treasure the dining table at which, as my father said, “every conversation eventually turns to Zionism.” Some of the movement’s giants sat there — Abba Hillel Silver, Steven S. Wise, Nahum Goldmann, Abba Eban, Golda Meyerson (Meir) and Moshe Shertok (Sharett). I remember my little boy’s wide-eyed wonder at it all — living at the edge of something I was assured would be world changing. As I sit at the same table these days, I can’t help questioning what my parents and their cohorts would make of the miracle and mess they worked to create.

  10. Shabbat Candlesticks

    Ann Goldman
    Red Bank, N.J.

    My grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side. As the story came to me, she bought these particular Shabbat candles as the first purchase she made when she went to work after her high school graduation. They are unusual: three brass candle cups on top of two lions “rearing” and facing each other.

    I loved the piece, and my grandmother promised to give it to me when I set up household. I use them weekly, and for years never thought about the story, assuming that they were inexpensive candlesticks she had purchased. I have only seen two other examples of the same candlesticks, at the home of a friend’s mom who had inherited them and at the Mané-Katz museum in Haifa.

    It turns out that the candlesticks (like those in the museum) are 19th-century Polish brass-cast decorative candlesticks. I realized that my grandmother’s first purchase must have been made at a pawn shop or a secondhand store — that these candlesticks must have belonged to someone who brought them to America from Europe and then for whatever reason sold them and they were purchased by a young woman making her first serious purchase toward her adult Jewish life. They mean even more to me now: They had a nameless past before my grandmother, but knowing that they have this unknown history makes them even more special to me. I continue to use them every Shabbat.

  11. My ‘Jewish’ Nose

    Karen Green
    Chatham, Ontario

    I have a big nose. It’s large. It sticks pretty far out from my face and ends in a bulbous, well, bulb. It is my father’s nose, and my grandmother’s, as well. Perhaps I look just like my ancestors; the ones that never made it out of Europe. My grandmother is gone now, and so is my dad. I’m proud to look in the mirror and see shades of the people I loved, see a sign of my background and my heritage.

    I’m proud, in this age of vanity and perfection, to not consider my “Jewish nose” a curse. But it wasn’t always that way. I knew my nose was big by the time I was 10 years old. I didn’t hate being Jewish, but I certainly hated the mark it had left. It didn’t help that almost every woman in my family had gotten a nose job; it was as normal a thing as getting your driver’s license. I was offered a nose job for my 16th birthday. But my sister and I talked a lot about the women in our family that had changed their faces, about how they were denying their beauty, their strength and their roots. We wanted to be positive role models to our future daughters. We were not ashamed to look Jewish.

    I have those daughters now, and though their father is a Righteous Gentile with a perfectly straight nose, I believe they have inherited mine. I hope that as they grow, they will not think of their nose as a curse, but as a gift, linking them through blood and history to the people whose sacrifices have led them to this happy life. And if somebody tells them they have a “Jewish nose,” I hope they proudly nod their head in agreement.

  12. Ring

    Cheryl Jacobs
    Columbus, Ohio

    I always remember this ring on the hand of my strong and sturdy mother-in-law. She never really spoke of her time in the camps, but told tales of her childhood in Holland. When she passed away, my husband laid her possessions out and each family member chose what they wanted. I wanted this ring because it reminded me of her strength and determination to survive as a Jew. I miss her, but when I look at my hand I think of her every day. I am proud to wear it, and one day hope to pass it down to my daughter.

  13. Book of Devotions

    Sharon Katz Higgins
    McLean, Va.

    This tiny prayer book is one of the few precious things my mother, Lilly Salgo Katz, was able to take with her when she fled Germany alone in 1938. She was the only child of Hungarian Jews who, in the early 1920s, immigrated to Chemnitz, the center of the German textile industry, where my grandfather prospered in the manufacture of hosiery. By the 1930s, like most Jews in Germany, he had lost nearly everything. In 1936, at the age of 18, my mother left Chemnitz ultimately to find haven in the United States. That her parents must have sensed that their daughter might never return is evident in the things they gave her from what little remained of their valuables. My grandmother, who came from a very religious family, gave my mother her personal prayer book, “Eternal Devotions: Prayer Book for Jewish Women and Girls” by Simon Hevesi, the grand rabbi of Pest. My mother knew little Hungarian but treasured this book, keeping it with her as she made her way from Chemnitz to Berlin, New York and Cleveland before settling in Miami. My grandparents perished in the Holocaust, and my mother passed away last October at the age of 95. This prayer book is the one thing I have that I can hold and be certain my grandmother and my mother held also.

  14. Candlesticks

    Marcia Renert
    New York, N.Y.

    I have very few things that belonged to my bubbe. When she passed away, what little valuables she had were divided between her children, siblings and cousins. My mom got a pair of pewter candlesticks that she kept on her dining room breakfront. When my mom passed away, my sister and I decided to break up the pair and each take one. Sadly, my mom never got to meet her one granddaughter, a beautiful girl my sister adopted from Guatemala who is named Maddy, for my mom. One day, those candlesticks will be a pair again. I hope as Maddy grows up, she’ll want some of the pieces of her family history that — even though she wasn’t born into it — has shaped who she is and will become.

  15. ‘Bubbe’ Locket

    C.Z. Steinhart
    New York, N.Y.

    We call it the ‘Bubbe Locket’ because it all started with a bubbe — my mother — who kept in it a picture of her parents, my bubbe and zayde. Those pictures were still in there when I gave it to my niece last year for her bas mitzvah — a locket which originated with her great-great-grandmother, given by her bubbe to me, with a picture of my bubbe, for whom she was named. It makes me happy to know that the Bubbe Locket will adorn the neck of another Steinhart woman for, God willing, many years to come. And while my bubbe would never have thought of accepting an aliyah, she would have been so proud to see her great-great-niece reading from the Torah!

  16. Russian Babushka Dolls

    Lynda Sussman
    Baltimore

    My grandmother came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, after being chased out of Russia when she was 13, along with her entire family. Grandma Julia worked in a match factory and was a budding socialist. She called a strike while living under the tsar and was lucky to make it out alive. My family and I lived a few blocks away from her, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I spent many happy hours stacking and unstacking these Russian babushka dolls. She left this for me. Now, my multiracial granddaughter Savannah enjoys playing with the dolls.

  17. China Set

    Aliza Zeff
    Jerusalem

    When my grandmother asked whether I had any interest in her china set, my heart skipped a beat. The china set, I knew, was exquisite. Little pink buds with green vines wrap themselves around its edges. I was honored to have the set. First, because my grandmother wanted me to have it. Second, the set belonged to her mother, an immigrant to America who ran her own business in a town with virtually no other Jews.

    I use the china only during Passover. Last year, our family’s first as new Israeli citizens, we had not yet received our shipment of possessions from home. I missed having the china adorn our Passover table. This year, in our new home, we hosted a Seder for 22 people. The Limoges china made it — from France to Minnesota, to Oregon, then Philadelphia and finally to Jerusalem. Out of curiosity, I looked up the china online before Passover and found out that it was made in 1914. This beautiful, delicate set of china that represents the story of my family spent its centennial year, as it will next year, in Jerusalem.

  18. Soup Spoon

    Julie Rosenbaum
    Royal Oak, Mich.

    I only learned about my grandmother Irina’s soup spoon when I last visited her in Israel in 2012. It’s not a prized possession or even something that has been passed down for generations. This soup spoon lives in a cluttered drawer in my 91-year-old grandmother’s small Petah Tikvah apartment, where it has sat since she moved there in the 1970s. This soup spoon was my babi’s only possession during the most miserable year of her life, spent at Auschwitz. Most of what her family owned in her native Czechoslovakia was left behind or looted. The spoon itself is sturdy but not heavy, and is worn and weighted with memories of moments not worth reliving. At the same time, there’s a reason my babi keeps that spoon around, amongst all the other silverware she has accumulated. She doesn’t need it anymore; now she has plenty of “things,” and people to share them with, but it will always be a reminder of my babi’s strength and triumph.

  19. Etrog Box and Kiddush Cup

    David Jacobowitz
    Teaneck, N.J.

    When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Wolborz, on the main road, was directly in the blitzkrieg’s path. My father, Abram Jacobowitz, gathered up his family and set out with thousands of others on the road to Warsaw, seeking safety from the tanks wreaking murderous havoc on the countryside. Prior to departing Wolborz, he placed his father’s treasured Kiddush cup and some jewelry inside a silver etrog box and carefully wrapped it in towels before burying it next to his home. He lost his loved ones to the Treblinka extermination camp and was a slave laborer in the Piotrkow Kara glass factory. He escaped in 1944 and spent the last 10 months of the war hiding in the barn of a Polish Righteous Gentile along with other Jews.

    When the Russians liberated the area in 1945, my father returned to Wolborz, hoping to find anyone still alive. Sadly, that was not to be. He unearthed the precious etrog box with its contents, and subsequently used it every year of his life. He lovingly gave it to me several years before his passing in 2004.

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