Few of us know anything about our families beyond three or four generations going back. This is a sad deficit, and so in helping to prepare young people to become bar and bat mitzvah, my synagogue schools initiated a family legacy project to help our students and their parents record as much of the history of their families as is possible.
We asked them to search for historic family documents, photographs, family trees, recorded memories, memoirs, and ritual items. We also asked the students to choose an elderly individual to interview.
This is an important and fun task for children who gain a sense of and identity with these members of their families and a greater sense of their family history. There is also great satisfaction that the older members of our families take in relating their stories to future generations.
To aid our students in the interview, I developed a list of questions they could use. Since most grandparents love telling their grandchildren about their lives, all the students need to do is gently prod their elder’s memories and, if they are fortunate, the floodgates open.
Here is the list that I give to our prospective b’nai mitzvah:
1. To begin, please write down the names of everyone in your family: parents, siblings, children, grand-children, your grandparents, and great-grandparents – their names and approximate dates of birth and death, where they were born and where they died.
2. Can you tell me your own earliest memories growing up? How old were you and where were you when you had those memories?
3. Where were you born? Did you have brothers and sisters? How many of them had children and grandchildren? Do you know your Hebrew name?
4. Were you named after a relative? What kind of a person was your namesake?
5. How did you celebrate your birthday when you were growing up?
6. Were you a member of a synagogue when you were young? Where was your synagogue? Do you remember the name of your rabbi and/or cantor/chazzan, and what do you remember about them?
7. What did you do for fun as a child and as a teenager?
8. Who most significantly influenced your life when you were young? Who were your mentors, and what did you learn from them?
9. Did you feel “different” in your school, and if so how? How did you cope with feeling different?
10. What factors influenced your choice of profession, employment or way of spending your time?
11. How old were the oldest of your relatives that you remember when you were young, and when and where were they born?
12. What can you remember about your parents and grandparents that I might be interested in knowing? What were they like? What did they do for a living? What were their hobbies? Were they athletes, readers, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, business people, laborers, tradesmen, or teachers? What was the most important accomplishment they would say they achieved in their lives?
13. What important hardships and challenges did your grandparents and great-grandparents face?
14. What were they most proud of at the end of their lives?
15. What languages do you speak and what languages did your grandparents and great-grandparents speak?
16. What countries have you and did they live in?
17. Did you or they experience anti-Semitism? Were you or they survivors of the Holocaust? What can you tell me about yours or their experiences?
18. Were your parents and grandparents observant Jews? Do you believe in God, or, are you a skeptic or an atheist? What about your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents?
19. Are there any Jewish ritual items in your family that are very old? Do they have stories attached to them?
20. If one side of your family is of another faith tradition, what is that tradition and how did your grandparents and great-grandparents practice their religion? Were they part of a church community? If so, where and what was the name of the church and their pastor/priest? Are there ritual items that they have and are there stories attached to them?
21. Did you ever visit Israel? What do you feel about Israel as the national home of the Jewish people?
22. Did you travel much in your life? Where have you been? When did you go there?
23. What world events most influenced your life, the lives of your parents and grandparents?
24. How would you want to be remembered by me?
Question for interviewee: What characteristics and virtues of the person you are interviewing do you most admire?