Spoon.Final_.Front_“The Spoon from Minkowitz, A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands” by Judith Fein, photographs by Paul Ross Publisher is Global Adventure.us books (http://.GlobalAdvendture.us), $18.95, 233 pp. Review by David Steinberg Minkowitz? You’ve never heard of the shtetl Minkowitz? You will if you read Judith Fein’s “The Spoon from Minkowitz.” It’s a special and immensely pleasurable book. Special because it pulls together elements of genealogy, travel journalism, history, geography. Not a simple task but Fein finds a way to simply and entertain. It is a pleasurable book precisely because of Fein’s charmingly informal writing style. Her style makes you, the reader, feel you’ve been personally invited to join her for the ride. At its heart, the book is Fein’s attempt to learn more about where her ancestors were from in Eastern Europe. What did the village (shtetl, in Yiddish) look like 100 years ago? What does it look like today? What was shtetl culture like in this region. As a child, her strongest connection to those ancestors was through her maternal grandmother, who was born in the village of Minkowitz in what is today the western Ukraine. The grandmother shared what Fein called six clues about her life in the Old Country. Armed with those clues, Fein – with photographer-husband Paul Ross – set off on an adventure to the Ukraine from their home in Santa Fe. The clues, essential, threadbare bits, helped her uncover facts about life in Minkowitz of a century ago. Fein’s journey to the Ukraine spills over with welcoming people. There’s Andrew, who has been Fein’s Internet pen pal for 20 years. There’s Alex, Fein’s information-filled guide/historian on her tour by van through Western Ukraine and a part of Moldova. There’s the Yiddish-speaking Gypsy Baron of Moldova. There’s Rabbi Noah Kofmansky, who grew up in Siberia. There’s Dunca of Rohatyn; she’s a Holocaust survivor who as a child was adopted by a Ukrainian family and raised a Christian. On her journey, Fein encounters Jewish cemeteries, a social center that was once a synagogue, another synagogue where the still-revered 18th century mystic/rabbi Baal Shem Tov prayed and healed, a regional Jewish museum, and the nonJewish names of foods similar to what Jews called them (e.g. kugel and latkas). Fein is at last ready to head for her destination, Minkowitz. She meets the town mayor and Nina, the “keeper of the memories of Minkowitz.” They help Fein comprehend the historical truths of five of her grandmother’s six clues. One, Tuesday market. Two, she dried tobacco leaves. Three, she lived at the bottom of a hill. Four, the Russian girls went to school at the top of the hill. Five, the floor of her home was of goat dung. The sixth clue, the town of Kamenetz-Podolsk, Fein had earlier visited. The spoon in the book’s title is real, though maybe not from Minkowitz. Still, it helps the reader appreciate an emotional reason for Fein wanting to take the trip. Fein’s future father-in-law had given the spoon to the soon-to-be-married couple: “It was a soup spoon,” Fein writes, “that (the father-in-law’s) parents brought with them as they sailed in steerage from the Old Country to America. I held it, patted it gently, and treasured it because it made our ancient connection so real to me.” Another force driving her to write this book is identity. Fein says that “we can’t know who we are unless we know where we came from.” That’s been stated before, but in the context of this particular book, it is important to restate the point: You don’t have to have Jewish ancestors from Minkowitz, or from any place else, to undertake this kind of journey. To explore your own family’s roots is to open up a new world of self-understanding. (Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer. Her book “Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel” was published in 2012.)

From a current events standpoint, this book is especially timely. Ukraine is experiencing political upheaval. Russia claimed and seized Ukraine’s Crimea just months ago. Other parts of Eastern Ukraine are seeing fighting between Ukraine military and pro-Russian militants. The newly elected president of the Ukraine is pro-West. The turmoil is unlikely to end soon.

Several history books may be interest: –“Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, $18.99). –“The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate” by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, $28). Of particular interest is Chapter 10: Russia and the Independent Heartland.