(From the Way-Back Files – Woman and Earth, March 1996.)
I am standing in the center of the room, staring up at a woman who seems very tall to my four-year-old eyes. She has thick white hair, glasses, and a navy-blue dress with white polka dots. My father is standing behind me in his work clothes. They are talking; but now, when I try to re-enter that memory-picture, I cannot hear her voice. It’s as though someone has pressed the mute button.
It is my first memory and the only one I have of my Romanian grandmother. And, even though I didn’t know and love her as I did my maternal grandmother, she somehow took hold of my imagination. Her Romanian-ness fascinated me. It was colorful, exotic, and mysterious. All the other Jewish kids I knew were of Russian or Polish descent; and there was no other family member alive to tell me what my Grandma Dena’s homeland had been like. Later, when I grew up and began to write stories loosely based on her life, I went into search mode, pulling together what bits of information I could find. But there didn’t seem to be much about Romanian Jews: the only book I managed to lay my hands on was Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), and the picture he sketched of his father’s Romania was…well, sketchy.
Then, too, there was a curious feeling of disenfranchisement. This was my experience, and yet it wasn’t. Romania hadn’t, from what I could gather, treated her Jews much better than Russia had...although, as poet and Chicory Blue Press founder Sondra Zeidenstein – herself of Romanian Jewish descent – said, they seemed to have had more of a cultural life than the Russian Jews had had. Still, I had the sense that I imagined my grandmother had had – of being of the country yet not of the country. Of belonging yet not belonging.
Perhaps in Romania it is easy to have this feeling because there are so many different influences at work and no clear definition of what Romanian really is. Originally part of the Roman Empire, it is, as Hannelore Hahn, the President of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG), points out, “the only country in Eastern Europe that speaks a Romance language. And its major influences on its educational system have been the classics and French culture.” To the west, in and around Transylvania, which once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there’s a heavy Hungarian influence; to the north, in Moldavia, the culture and traditions tend to lean more toward Russian-Ukrainian. And the southern part of the country, once a possession of the Ottoman Empire, shows a definite Turkish influence. A Gypsy counterculture (for want of a better word) also exists, although that probably isn’t as strong as it was prior to World War II.
Of that other perennial counterculture, the Jewish one, little remains. Interestingly enough, though, most of the Jews who originally settled in Romania were Sephardic (a term that basically means “Spanish” but that refers to any Jew who follows Sephardic liturgy and traditions) Jews from Spain, Turkey and the Balkans: documents show Spanish Jews living in Walachia as early as 1496, courtesy of the Inquisition. The Ashkenazi (German-speaking Jews) came later. More undercurrents. The country that my grandmother left as a child of 12 in 1896 was a melting pot in which none of these diverse nationalities ever really melted.
It has remained a place of paradoxes, especially for women. Hahn, who traveled there this past May, recalls how an American professor told her, “The women of Romania are alive….[T]hey work often at two jobs, they take care of their children and everything else. Not so the men. Their spirits are broken.” Hahn herself perceived a feminist spark in the universities, where the department heads were men who needed female professors to translate for them because they themselves knew no English.
But it’s also a country that has been brutal to women. Under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the mandatory pregnancy policy led to many women dying from coat-hanger abortions. “And if you got caught having an abortion or using some type of birth control,” says Angela Green, a 27-year-old Romanian woman who has lived in the U. S. for the last nine years, “you would be in prison for a long time. And if you were to go to a doctor because you had an infection from an abortion, or you were bleeding, the doctor wouldn’t treat you unless you signed a paper saying what you had done.”
Green has that same sense of belonging/not-belonging that I have, even though she isn’t Jewish. The country she left behind is still very much “a man’s country” with “a man’s religion” in her opinion. “The man’s up here,” she says emphatically. “The woman’s all low at the bottom. In any discipline you look at, it’s the same way – family, religion, education, careers.” Back in Romania, she would not have had the kind of career she has here, “although there are some women who go to medical school and a few who are good chemists.” Most of the poets, composers/songwriters, and the like are male, she says: she knows of a few female singers, “but where the creativity comes in and the things that women could actually be doing, I mean, I don’t see too many women.” Craftwork does provide a creative outlet of sorts for “the farm women in the villages in the winter,” Green adds, “because there is no farming [then]. They make their own clothes, they make rugs – you name it, they make it. In the village, everything is hand-made, and the woman is the one who is doing that.”
It’s not much of an outlet, but it’s something. And that’s more than Romanian women have in other respects. Few drive. Domestic violence is very common. There are no agencies for battered women to turn to: the only shelter they can hope for is with their families, which may not be all that much help. “I think the majority of women are being abused physically and emotionally by their men,” maintains Green. “It’s a way of life, I guess, and they accept it for what it is. I’ve seen it around my mother, my father, both sides of my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, neighbors, friends.” She tells me how the village priest asked her maternal grandmother if she forgave her abusive husband when he was dying. The old woman, who “had a lot of scars both on her heart and on her body,” shot back, “No! Let God forgive him!” Green says she’s glad to be married to an American man: “I find myself fortunate because I could have ended up with an abusive man…a controlling man.”
The status quo of Romanian women at present is akin to that of American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with some vital differences: there are no feminist literary journals to express themselves in, no strong women’s networks pushing for change. As Green sees it, the networking has to evolve in Romania, not here, to be truly effective. And she doesn’t know a lot of Romanian women in this country who are willing to go back to help get that evolution started.
“Education is the most important thing,” maintains Green. “If you give women the freedom to go and educate themselves – to go to college and learn what they can be – I think a lot of things will be changing. So the opportunity to educate, to have different positions and jobs other than being a housewife and a farm woman is the most important thing.” Under Ceausescu, such opportunities just didn’t exist, she says; and the system hasn’t really changed since the same people are still in power. They no longer call each other “Comrade,” of course. But the basic mindset is still the same, as is the attitude toward women, and it will, she thinks, take a couple of generations to change both.
Green herself can’t escape that sense of being caught between worlds. Most of her family is, after all, still in Romania. “I’m young – I’ll probably make a new family. But it will never be the type of family I would have if I had stayed there. I find myself, I’m losing the tradition. I’m losing a lot of the customs. And I’m actually losing the skill to write and speak the language. I used to dream in Romanian language. I don’t do that anymore.” There was, she adds, a transition period when she dreamt in both Romanian and English. Now she just dreams in English.
I find myself, I’m losing the tradition. Without realizing it perhaps, Green has voiced the dilemma facing Romanian women who have left their homeland: namely, that in order to find themselves as individuals, they’ve had to lose or let go of a tradition that no longer serves them. The trick for Green and her countrywomen is to craft a culture of their own – a new “family,” if you will – using the best of what they’ve brought with them. To learn to dream in both Romanian and English.
My grandmother, Dena Cohen Banks