"Anthem" by Leonard Cohen

"The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away
or what has yet to be...

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in"

Friday, October 24, 2008

Melrose Abbey

Melrose Abbey in Black and White
(photo taken by Beth Kotkin, 8/2004)

Melrose, along with the other Border Abbeys of Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso, had been repeatedly attacked and burned during the Border Wars between Scotland and England. The rest of the destruction was done during the Scottish Reformation, when many Scottish Catholic Abbeys were defaced of all "idolatry".

This beautiful shell is all that remains of what once was a thriving community of industrious monks. For a time before the bloody Border Wars that devastated this region, it was the center of knowledge and commerce in the British Isles. Ideas, books, scholars and goods were exchanged directly from Melrose with major centers of European learning during the "Dark Ages".

My most ancient Scottish ancestor, Gualter (William) de Somerville, was from a Norman family that came to England from Normandy with William the Conquerer in the invasion of 1066. He fought at the Battle of Hastings, and was rewarded with lands first in Northern England (which his descendants lost in punishment for being part of the revolt of English Lords against the Crown in 1213 that led eventually to the signing of the Magna Carta). Gaulter de Somerville came North to Scotland with David I in 1107, and was awarded lands there as well.

He was buried somewhere here in this cemetery while the church was first being built in 1142...

I stayed in a b&b in Melrose for a week during the Fall of 2004, so I had plenty of time to explore the area while I was in town. I walked the length of the graveyard many times in search of his grave, and looked at as many of the ancient headstones as I could.
Many of the graves are extremely old and the stones are very friable. Their markings have worn off over the centuries. I do not know which one was his or even if his grave had been marked at all.

But it gave me comfort to know he was there somewhere, and that he had walked these same lands almost 900 years before...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ellis Island:My Tribe (1997)

Ellis Island (1997)
Originally uploaded by musicmuse_ca
My daughter took this shot of me when I visited Ellis Island in 1997. I took her there so I could show her the place where my father and my grandparents came when they immigrated to the USA from Vitepsk Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

My grandfather came over first. He smuggled himself out of Russia to avoid imprisonment and being drafted. He was a follower of Trotsky, a Jew and a wanted man for his political activities. Pogroms were on the rise, but he had to leave his pregnant wife behind. It was either that or imprisonment. He fled on his own to establish himself in NYC.

At the Ellis Island site, I was able to find the record of his passage here:

The ship he took from Germany was the Grosser Kurfurst. He arrived at Ellis Island on 6/27/1912. He was 22 years old. His occupation was listed as "sailor", his race was "Hebrew". He settled in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and eventually got a job in the garment industry.

I never knew he was a sailor! Apparently, this is how he must have worked off his passage, by becoming part of the crew. He sent for his wife, Chane and son, Abram (my dad) a year later. They made the move with his sister Liebe (22 years old), another sister Jenia (24 years old), and my great-grandfather Isak who was 57 years old at the time.

They came across from Germany on the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, arriving at Ellis Island on July 26, 1913. Dad was 10 months old and my grandmother was 22 years old.

It is hard to imagine all that they must have gone through to make this journey, but I am very glad they did. This country has been built on the backs of immigrants and slaves and indentured servants. Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself, I remember the sacrifices and struggles that they went through to keep things in perspective.

I guess my grandpa was a "socialist" and my dad an original "red-diaper" baby. Grandpa was also a kind man, not at all religious but he lived by many of the Jewish traditions he was raised in.

I don't know about others, but I am proud of the many "tribes" that are part of my heritage. Isn't that what the strength of diversity is all about?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life on the Faultline

Life on the Faultline
Originally uploaded by musicmuse_ca
It is 19 years today since the Loma Prieta Earthquake in Santa Cruz. I remember standing in a parking lot, watching the earth roll like an ocean wave beneath my feet. We all walked around seasick for days afterwards.

We live here clinging to the edge of a great continental plate and overlooking one of the deepest underwater canyons in the world in the Monterey Bay. The beauty that surrounds us comes at a great price. In the natural world, there are the annual fires, followed by the winter rains and floods and mudslides. Summer brings drought conditions tempered by the cooling fog off of the Bay.

Our houses are built on rocky outcrops, up on stilts, sitting on top of shifting sands. We can't seem to get close enough to the ocean. We all want to live as close as possible to the tide pools and the wilderness that lie just beneath the water's edge.

We do whatever it takes to make it work....

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