My dad is the fifth of eight children, and my grandpa, Poppy, was the youngest of eleven. An extended family as large as mine will certainly have its differences, but one shared part of our identity has been our Christian religion. Though over time our family has grown to include various denominations and degrees of religious observance, we were all brought up in a church. The same distinctions that are so trivial and accepted in my family today, however, were far more pronounced and rigid in my grandparents’ time.
Growing up, I was aware of the religious divisions between our ancestors’ various nationalities. I knew that Poppy was raised in an English and Scottish Episcopalian household in southwest Philadelphia, and that my grandma, Nana, was born to a French Canadian and Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts. Yet my prior understanding of our heritage was completely changed at our most recent Christmas reunion. There, one of my aunts revealed that not only had Poppy’s mother, Ruth, been German, but she had also been Jewish.
Rather than talking about an issue like religion outright, Nana and Poppy would have me read about it. They accumulated thousands of books over the years — enough to completely fill the three-story suburban Philadelphia row house where they lived for almost half a century. Full floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the downstairs rooms, the second-floor hallway and almost every bedroom, and more books were carefully arranged on every other level surface throughout the house. Sprinkled among the countless books were antiques, furniture, paintings and trinkets my grandparents had collected from their travels and expert yard-sale browsing, ranging from a bronze bust of Tchaikovsky to a portrait of Queen Isabella I of Spain to an intricate golden menorah to a small statue of the meditating Buddha. Nana and Poppy would give me books for every Christmas and birthday, and whenever I visited them I would leave with a bag full of new ones to read.
Nana and Poppy’s intellectualism and constant encouragement to read enabled me to learn so much about history, yet they kept their own closely guarded. After their deaths nine months apart in 2014, I realized that I knew almost nothing about their backgrounds or families beyond the few details they had shared.
Nana and Poppy’s intellectualism and constant encouragement to read enabled me to learn so much about history, yet they kept their own closely guarded.
In a bout of curiosity last fall, I researched Nana’s ancestry with the help of an old family tree. I spent hours poring through historic censuses and birth and death records, eventually mapping her family back through Massachusetts and Quebec to the French village of Mauprévoir in 1660, correcting a few names and places in the process. The most distant of Nana’s paternal ancestors I could directly identify arrived in Quebec in 1680.
Tracing Poppy’s lineage proved to be far more difficult. I knew very little about his extraordinarily large family – I had only learned his mother’s maiden name, Kramer, from his obituary. In the twenty-four years I spent with him, Poppy had been intensely private about his background. We never discussed his past, or his personal perspective on faith and religion.
Discovering Poppy’s Jewish ancestry underscored how little my family knew about his background. What else about our family remained a secret?
Neither Poppy nor Nana had ever mentioned Ruth’s heritage to their eight children or nineteen grandchildren. Instead, Nana had first told one of her daughters-in-law after Poppy’s funeral in late February 2014. Nana’s own mother had died when she was young; Ruth had effectively become her adopted mother and in her words, taught her everything she knew. But even my aunt knew very little about Ruth beyond these few details. Could Ruth have been born Jewish and converted?
In conversations with my dad, aunts and uncles, a few vividly recalled the family’s observance of Passover Seders and Hanukkah celebrations, with my grandparents inviting Jewish family friends over for Christmas to decorate the tree and going to their homes to celebrate Jewish holidays. Nana in particular loved traditional Jewish cooking. And although my oldest uncle remembered celebrating Passover and Hanukkah until he was nine or ten years old, Nana and Poppy never mentioned why they were observing both Christian and Jewish holidays, beyond explaining the differences between the faiths.
Neither Poppy nor Nana had ever mentioned Ruth’s heritage to their eight children or nineteen grandchildren.
My oldest aunt echoed my uncle’s memories, noting that Nana and Poppy never brought up Ruth or her family’s roots. Ruth died when my aunt was still a small child, and she recalled that Poppy became very quiet whenever his mother was brought up in later years. Family history was not the topic of conversation or reminiscing. In hindsight, this silence struck her as odd given how open and connected our extended family has become.
My aunt eventually discovered Poppy’s heritage not from Nana herself, but by going through her mementos and belongings. Shortly after Poppy passed away, she helped Nana sort through boxes of old possessions. One contained dozens of letters, cards and photographs; Nana saved everything Poppy had ever written to her.
While sifting through the decades-old documents, she happened upon a photograph of Poppy’s maternal grandparents.
Written on the back was a short but striking caption: “Pop Pop Kramer – German-Jewish.” When she later asked Nana about the caption, Nana quickly stopped the conversation—“We’re not talking about that.”
Another aunt elaborated that Nana and Poppy met and fell in love at a time when there were still overt tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Despite Nana’s family’s consternation, they eloped. Beyond the circumstances of their marriage, Nana and Poppy were unorthodox in their approach to Christianity and religion in general. Poppy rarely attended church, and first spoke to my parents about his religious views only in the weeks before his death. And though Nana was a staunch, lifelong Catholic and raised her eight children in the church, she held her own fiercely independent views. My aunt told me that Nana’s disagreement with the church’s stance on contraception caused her to clash with the local priest, and eventually resulted in her being denied Communion. Nana stopped attending, but she and Poppy saw to it that their children went every week.
The only person Poppy may have told about his maternal family was one of his daughters-in-law, whom he opened up to most in the last weeks of his life. One evening in January 2014, Poppy simply mentioned to her that his mother was Jewish, and never elaborated further. Like Nana, Poppy chose to confide in a daughter-in-law about a story he had never told his own children.
These stories revealed so much more about Nana and Poppy, as well as how they raised their children. But the only family members with memories of Ruth and the earlier generations were Poppy’s surviving siblings – his older brother and two older sisters.
In late April, I first spoke with one of Poppy’s two older surviving sisters — the ninth of the eleven Hood children. We discussed her growing up in Philadelphia, and particularly her memories of her mother and maternal grandparents. Interestingly, she noted that Ruth never mentioned having any Jewish ancestry, though her mother had joked that she “wished” she was Jewish, since many Jews in the area were well-to-do. My great-aunt knew little about her mother or grandparents’ backgrounds or beliefs, but she did recall her grandfather, John Kramer, being “a very quiet man.” She reiterated that religion was not a topic of conservation, discussion or debate for the Hoods. Her father, Edwin, had stopped attending church after marrying Ruth, but the children were required to go each Sunday.
One of my great-aunt’s anecdotes about her parents was especially striking. She noted that while Poppy’s father Edwin was raised Catholic, Ruth was raised Protestant. Yet according to her, the rest of Edwin’s large family didn’t want to associate with him after his marriage to Ruth. Only one of his sisters allowed his family to come over for dinner or to celebrate holidays. Even though Edwin, Ruth and the children were in contact with Ruth’s parents, and lived nearby, they never went to Episcopal church together on major holidays such as Christmas or Easter, nor was my great-aunt aware of her grandparents attending church on their own or being particularly religious in general.
Evidently, my family’s history of intermarriages extended further back than I anticipated.
That same week I emailed Poppy’s surviving brother, the tenth of the eleven, asking him if we could talk about his memories. He quickly responded with the breakdown of the family’s past as he knew it—Ruth’s father was Jewish, while her mother was Episcopalian. Edwin’s father was Protestant, but his mother was Catholic, and Edwin and his ten siblings were raised Catholic. Evidently, my family’s history of intermarriages extended further back than I anticipated.
In a follow-up email, my great-uncle recounted an intriguing story about his mother from decades earlier. Ruth would often go to the market at Sixth and South Streets in Philadelphia for its wholesale meat prices. After shopping there for many years, the shopkeepers came to know Ruth by name. Once, a storeowner questioned why she was out shopping on that particular day. When Ruth asked why she wouldn’t be, he replied that it was a Jewish holiday – and Ruth just laughed in response. My great-uncle wrote that Ruth “knew [the shopkeepers] thought she looked Jewish, and for good reason.” But this was in hindsight—he remembered only finding out about his mother’s heritage about a decade ago, from his older sister.
Both my great-aunt and great-uncle insisted that I contact Poppy’s eldest surviving sibling—his 97-year-old sister, the fourth of the eleven. I finally spoke with her over FaceTime on Mother’s Day afternoon, and we discussed her childhood memories and her stories about Poppy, Ruth and Pop Pop Kramer. Though she remembers the family never openly talked about religion, Ruth had told her directly that her father was Jewish, and even jokingly attributed her success at raising eleven children to her Jewish heritage. My great-aunt said she knows almost nothing about Mom Mom and Pop Pop Kramer or their families. Pop Pop’s background and faith were never discussed, nor were Ruth’s personal beliefs, beyond the fact that she was raised Episcopalian.
My great-aunt also elaborated on the story of Edwin’s estrangement from his own family, which I had initially thought could have been connected to Ruth’s Jewish ancestry. Instead, Edwin was disowned by his devoutly Catholic siblings for marrying. The Hoods expected him to become a priest, and were taken aback by his eloping to marry a Protestant. My great-aunt doesn’t think that his parents and siblings knew about Ruth’s Jewish father, but the enmity between Catholics and Protestants was enough to divide the family.
The tolerance and acceptance my grandparents fostered within our family, especially around religious beliefs, is so remarkable in light of their personal experiences to the opposite—as is the fact that our Jewish ancestry remained unspoken for so long. I’ll likely never know the circumstances of the Kramers’ interfaith marriage, why Nana and Poppy chose to keep it a secret, why some of Ruth’s own children didn’t know about her Jewish father, or why the older generations kept this knowledge to themselves. Perhaps it was seen as part of the past, or the family wanted to keep it hidden considering the times. Perhaps it’s the clearest example of my family treating faith as something highly personal, and as a single aspect of one’s identity.
The tolerance and acceptance my grandparents fostered within our family, especially around religious beliefs, is so remarkable in light of their personal experiences to the opposite—as is the fact that our Jewish ancestry remained unspoken for so long.
But already, this months-long process of researching and exploring has allowed me to connect with many of my relatives on a far more personal level, and hear family stories that haven’t been shared in decades. I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the richness of oral history, and how facts are interwoven with memories and details that over decades grow into new stories of their own. And I’ve learned that an interest in genealogy is a family tradition—a tree compiled by Poppy has helped me with my own research.
Discovering our not-so-distant Jewish ancestry is especially meaningful given my immediate family’s affinity for Judaism. Few other Christians I know share devotionals from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with each other, or have a mezuzah in the entryway of their home—which my parents brought back with them from their twenty-fifth-anniversary trip to Israel. I, too, have been intrigued by the beauty of Judaism’s history and traditions, its humility and spirituality, and its deep-rooted trust in God. Yet I’ve had minimal exposure to the practice of Judaism or key events in Jewish cultural or religious life. I’ve never attended a bar or bat mitzvah, much less a Passover Seder, and I hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue until the age of twenty-five. Though no one in my family has identified as Jewish for generations, learning about Pop Pop Kramer has made this interest much more personal.
I’m still fascinated by the story of my great-great grandfather, and what remains to be discovered. As I continue to research and learn more about our disparate roots, one undeniable fact is that I am more proud than ever of our unique history—and how it has influenced the person I am today.
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