Shortly after the Hamas attack in Israel last month, I called my cousin Susan in Florida to ask if she knew if our mutual cousin’s daughter and family, who had moved to Israel many decades ago, was still there.
Susan, who is more in contact with our extended family than I am, hadn’t been in touch with them for a long time and didn’t know.
But what she did tell me was that her own grandson, a university student, had returned at the end of September from a special study program in Tel Aviv.
A week later, Hamas made its terrorist incursion into Israel, including massacring attendees at a music festival. Her grandson’s friend was there. He was killed.
You don’t have to know someone who was there or maybe have once been to the place yourself to feel the outrage, empathy, shock or anger when something terrible happens somewhere. Our general sense of humanity should take care of that. But it does bring it so much closer and makes it feel much more real with that personal connection.
Ours is a religiously eclectic family. We are Lutherans (like I was raised) and Jewish (like Susan), with a smattering of other varieties of Protestants and a strain of agnostics, if not atheists.
I lived my early growing-up years in a strongly Irish Catholic neighborhood. When I was a child, I thought all families were like this. I was familiar with the Catholic Missal and Stations of the Cross, Jewish ceremonies and customs and, of course, all things Lutheran.
It was something of a shock to learn as I grew from childhood that was not universally true, and that people could hate other people from other religions – without even knowing them – just because they prayed or believed differently. That made no sense to my child brain.
I was Susan’s maid of honor. She was supposed to be my matron of honor a few years later, but she was nine months pregnant at the time and lived several states away, so one of my Lutheran cousins stepped in to do the honors.
I know that a lot of people know all about their heritage and often base their views of people and the world on that. I’m descended from immigrants, as I’ve mentioned before, so the picture is less clear. My father was born in Germany. My mother is the daughter of immigrants, her mother being from Austria. Her father, a man who spoke several languages and who died before I was born, came from Germany … or so we thought.
When I was newly married, another cousin was involved in a genealogy project and came across an old census report. It listed our shared grandfather as coming from Russia, as did other documents she discovered. When my Uncle Charlie, one of the oldest in the family, visited Spokane, I asked him what he knew about his father’s country of origin.
All he could contribute was that when he was young, mail would come to their apartment from another country, He was drawn to it because of the unusual stamps on it. The return address had a last name that was similar to theirs (or maybe exactly like theirs, but the handwriting made it look different to a child) and a location of Ukraine.
I’m guessing Grandpa was Ukrainian and probably had brothers or sisters or cousins who all went on to have families … meaning that I likely have relatives in Ukraine. I’ll never know, of course, but it does make the current Russian invasion into that country feel so much more personal.
One more brief story. When Bruce, now my husband, was my boyfriend and we were both students at the university of Florida, he was riding his motorcycle in a rural area of Alachua County and came across two women stranded at the side of the road. They were out of gas, so he went and got some for them.
They were grateful and engaged him in conversation. When he told them his name, they asked if he might be related to a Carl Pettit, a man they worked with during World War II at a plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That was Bruce’s father.
A young man who grew up in prestatehood Alaska talking with two ladies in Florida who had known his father in Pennsylvania. A very six degrees of separation moment.
You never know if the person you meet is someone you are somehow connected to or if your own background might have some surprises in it – or if something going on somewhere in the world might involve people you are related to or care about. And that person who wears a hajib or yarmulke or supports different political views – that’s a person, too, not unlike you, who loves family and heritage and traditions, laughs and cries and bleeds the same blood you bleed.
I’m not naive. I know there are bad people and bad organizations who do unspeakable things, including some from within our own ranks, but how is it that we can extrapolate that everyone from that ethnicity, religion, nation, race or political way of thinking is a devil?
As individual people, we are different and yet the same, just like I thought we were when I was a child. I just wish we could hold on to that.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at email@example.com.
More from this author