Memoirs That Tackle Big Life Questions

By Robin Jacobson. 

The Passover Seder is a night of questions – questions about the stories we inherit, the nature of Jewish identity, and what we owe to strangers who are oppressed or suffering. To stretch your mental muscles on these questions in advance of Passover, take a look at two compelling new memoirs: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro and Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger (winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Biography). You may even decide to mine these books for Seder discussion material. Both books are available in our Library.

Origin Stories

The author of multiple memoirs, Dani Shapiro thought she knew everything about herself and her family, prominent Ashkenazi Jews whose portraits lined her walls. So, when Shapiro’s husband bought “his and hers” DNA test kits, she was not enthusiastic (she already knew her ancestry), but agreed to participate.

As Shapiro narrates in Inheritance, her test results were puzzling. How could she be only 52 percent Jewish? Shapiro started researching and discovered, to her shock, that her biological father was not the beloved father who had raised her, but a sperm donor who was now a retired physician in Oregon.

This astounding revelation sent Shapiro reeling: “[M]y entire history – the life I had lived – had crumbled beneath me.” How could she survive, she wondered, “this new knowledge that I was made up of my mother and a stranger?” Shapiro’s parents were long dead, leaving Shapiro to grapple with the painful question of whether they had deliberately concealed the truth from her. Possibly, they were unsure of the truth themselves; Shapiro’s parents had visited a fertility clinic whose practice was to inseminate a would-be mother with a mixture of the sperm of the husband and of an anonymous donor, creating confusion about paternity.

What does it mean if your origin story changes? Are the people you thought of as your ancestors still your ancestors? Are family secrets inherently destructive? Shapiro wrestles with these questions in this soul-searching memoir.

Moral Education

Although Elie Wiesel z”l is renowned as a Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, human rights activist, and author, he often said that his most important role was as a teacher. Rabbi Ariel Burger had the good fortune to be Elie Wiesel’s student, protégé, and longtime teaching assistant. Burger’s moving memoir, Witness, is a window into Elie Wiesel’s classroom in Boston University where Wiesel taught and mentored students for nearly 40 years.

Blending literature, history, philosophy, religion, and current events, Wiesel taught from a wide range of texts: the Hebrew Bible, teachings of Hasidic masters, classics of Western and Asian literature, and contemporary authors. Wiesel’s students were as diverse as his texts; they came from different countries and backgrounds. One class even included the granddaughter of a Nazi SS officer.

As a teacher, Wiesel strove to do more than merely transmit information. Haunted by the fact that many perpetrators of the Holocaust had been highly educated and erudite and yet immoral, Wiesel developed teaching methods that emphasized ethics along with knowledge. He assigned readings aimed at sensitizing students to the suffering of others, and he urged students to fight evil and hatred. Echoing the moral message of Passover, Wiesel told his students, “Anyone who is suffering, anyone who is threatened becomes your responsibility.”

This loving memoir is rooted in the profound teacher-student bond between Wiesel and Burger. Such a bond is hallowed in Jewish tradition, making Burger a spiritual (albeit not biological) descendant of Wiesel. Witness, like Inheritance, invites reflection about the ancestors we inherit and those we choose.