Category Archives: Heirlooms

How it all Began: 15 years ago, 15 hours of tapes

Fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a personal historian did. I hadn’t heard about the value of preserving one’s life stories. And then everything changed.

My budding interest in personal history began one sunny morning in San Francisco. I was sitting in my grandmother’s lovely second story apartment.  We had just eaten breakfast together and were sipping cups of lemon tea and talking about our lives.  My grandmother, Frances was 95 years old. I was 45.

That’s when the moment happened.

My grandmother casually began to speak about her long life and the year she came to San Francisco from Sellwood, Oregon.  The year was 1922 and she was 20 years old.  She was making that big ‘break’ from the grips of parental control.

San Francisco was quite a place to live in the 1920’s.   This was a decade full of events that would forever impact a young impressionable woman from the quiet suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

My grandmother told me about dancing the ‘Charleston’, watching Al Jolson perform at a ‘speak easy’ while bottles of pure grain alcohol were hidden under the table, just in case the establishment was raided.  She spoke about her new short, cropped hairstyle, and wearing her custom-made ‘flapper-style’ hat that fit close and tight to her head (see photograph above).  She recalled hearing about Charles Lindberg’s now famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial that shocked the nation.

I sat in awe as I listened to this sharp and introspective woman speak.  Then I stopped her. “Grandma, this is too special,” I explained. “Would you mind if I record this conversation?” She was surprised that I wanted to do this, but didn’t put up a fight. She almost seemed excited that I cared that much about her stories. So off I went to Radio Shack to purchase several audiocassette tapes so that I could record her memories.

So that was the beginning.  Over the next five years, and through many visits to San Francisco, I was able to obtain 15 hours of my wonderful grandmother’s stories and reflections. What a treasure these recordings have become to my family! Every once in a while we sit down as a family and listen to them. My kids and grandkids love it just as much as I do.

This experience turned me into a vocal advocate of preserving personal history.  I am pleased to know that since those first interviews at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I have gone on to help many many others to record their memories. And that each and every one has become a priceless family treasure, just like ours.

Are you as excited about family stories as we are? If so, tell us how you first got interested!

The Delicious Journey of a Lifetime (Guest Post)

My name is Beyhan Cagri Trock and I recently published a 350 page cookbook/memoir called The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking. Being an architect by trade, I never intended to write a book at all.  But in 2008, with the downturn in the US economy and very little work for architects, I found myself taking stock of my life, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. It occurred to me that I come from a fascinating family with a story that needed to be told. Instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting for the phone to ring, I set out to preserve the memories, culture, and cuisine of my complicated family. I ended up with a 350 page treasure that has been written up in several magazines and recommended by leading cookbook authors.

A Story Worth Telling

I am the third daughter of Hayri (Zeki) Çağrı and Berta (Beti) Revah.  He was a Turk, she a Sephardic Jew. In 1940, while working down the street from one another in Istanbul, their paths crossed and my parents fell in love. Because there were enormous cultural taboos surrounding interfaith relationships, theirs was a forbidden love which forced them to turn their backs on their communities, friends, and most painful of all, their families.  When Zeki met Beti, two worlds collided. Their ancient and distinct traditions, cuisines, and religions became embroiled in a dance both passionate and heartbreaking. They defied the odds by remaining lovers until the end of their lives.

Their life dramatically took a new course in 1957, when my father retired from his job as chauffeur for the American Embassy in Ankara. He was given the choice to receive either a pension or a Green Card. He chose the latter. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, hoping to grasp every opportunity and chase every dream.

I was three and a half years old when we settled in Washington, DC as pioneers. Not long after, our whole extended family followed; siblings, spouses and children. In the early 1960s, the Turkish population in D.C. was tiny.  My parents, always thrilled to meet other Turks, invited practically every newcomer to dinner. Many of these Turkish immigrants became life-long friends and our “aunts and uncles.” We eventually became the nexus of an “extended family” of 30 to 40 people, with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and nephews living a traditional Turkish life nestled in the shadow of the nation’s capital.

Throughout those early years, we gathered for all-day American Turkish Association (ATA) picnics, leisurely family breakfasts where sometimes twenty of us would sit for hours around the table, and scrumptious dinners at each others homes or at the fabulous Turkish Embassy parties. Every social gathering was centered on foods from home. Fabulous foods. Turkish staples like börek, eggplant, grilled lamb and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, and yogurt; Jewish and Passover dishes with strange Spanish names like agristada and burmuelos. Our food (like our language, music, and customs), had been handed down from one generation to the next. Whatever was “familiar” was comforting, and tied our family to our ancestors and to the world we had left behind.

Why Write this Book?

My parents are both gone now. Their generation is rapidly disappearing. I am now seated near the head of the table on Passover. My siblings and our cousins are gray-haired, and as I look around, I wonder, is it possible that one of us will not be here next year? Though my children have seen Turkey, prayed in mosques, and attended many a Passover Seder, I worry that they are outsiders to “my” culture. They don’t speak Turkish, save a few greetings and choice curse words. And though they grew up with Turkish food, they don’t really know where the dishes came from, or how they are prepared.  I’m the one who is expected to cook the traditional Passover dishes, but I’m not sure I can. I fervently cling to my receding Turkishness, all the while watching my children drift further out into the stew of the proverbial “American Melting Pot.” I worried that “our ways”– our foods, traditions, and memories– will fade away, and that the children of my children will never have the chance to know where they came from.

This is why I wrote this book. I’m one of those people Claudia Roden refers to when she says that the drive is still strong for Ottoman Sephardim to preserve family identity, the memory of parents, and an old life that was happy. I am one of the last of that generation of Turkish Sephardim who immigrated in the 1950’s when Turkey was still “Turkish.”  I’m aware that the traditions, foods, manners, language, religions, history, and values my parents brought with them from the old Turkey still live within me. And in 2008 I finally realized that if I didn’t tell their story, who would?

The Process

I’ve been back to Turkey half a dozen times since we immigrated here in 1958; sometimes as a student of architecture, sometimes as a relative, once as a bride. But it wasn’t until I started writing my cookbook/memoir that I began to seriously research my amazing family. I discovered that my ancestors and relatives not only lived through incredible historical times and events; in some cases they actually played dramatic and important roles in shaping them.

By interviewing family members, and reading journals, letters, diaries, and history books, I found that my father’s accounts of Anatolian battles, which I used to greet with a yawn, suddenly became real and fascinating. Why hadn’t I paid more attention? His stories were not at all like the abstract events and tedious lists of dates we had to memorize in 11th grade World History class. He had tried to open my eyes to tangible events more astonishing and compelling than any video game developer could create.

Dad had talked about Mongol hordes, stolen princesses, battles and conquests, secret alliances, bravery and treachery, Khans and Kings, nomads and slaves. He had always said, for example, that we were descendants of a Greek princess. Here was her name! And Tamerlane’s conquests? They brought our family to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. Dad had said “We are Turks. We have Turkish blood in our veins.” On the other hand, Tant Ida spoke to me about the Jewish blood in my veins. “We are Sephardic Jews,” she would say proudly. “We left Spain, we left Bulgaria, we even left Turkey, but through all of it we preserved our Jewishness.”

At that point which occurs in everyone’s life when it is important to define oneself, I came to accept myself as a conglomeration of Turk and Sepharad. It then became my mission to tease apart a knotted tapestry of culture, symbolism, language and religion so that I could get a clear picture of their geneses.

Our house was a linguistic melting pot, and I became interested in how the languages spoken in our home served as a highly accurate cultural compass, pointing me down the various roads of my ancestry. Names were important clues. On my mother’s side, they were Latin based: names like Mari, Merih, Ida, Sara, Suzanna, Leon, Jak, Aron, Yehuda, Bulisa, Bella, Silvio. On my dad’s side, they were Muslim and Central Asian; Mehmet, (from the name Muhammad), Ali, Hüseyin, Lütfiye, Fehmi, Haydar, Gökhan. My mom’s fluency in Ladino (15th century Spanish), Greek, and French revealed the existence of robust and interwoven non-Turkish communities in Istanbul. I began to appreciate the cultural soup that was the Ottoman Empire.

Language gave other clues. The fact that mom spoke Turkish without the strong Jewish accent of her siblings indicated the young age at which she left the Sepharad community. The way my grandmother pronounced my name Beyhan with a slavic ‘kh” pointed to her Bulgarian background. My father’s knowledge of Arabic and Farsi pointed to the influx of Muslim and Persian culture in his Turkish ancestry.

Because father’s family has spoken Turkish for many, many generations, it was a safe assumption that at some point in history his people resided in the mountainous Eurasian Steppe of Central Asia, domain of nomadic Turkic peoples since antiquity. This is where I decided the story of the Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl would begin.

Deciding How to Tell the Story

For the past two years, people have been asking me, “Is it a cookbook or a history of your family?” When I said, “Both,” I got confused glances. Realizing that this is not your average cookbook, I decided to divide it into two parts. Part 1 is the story of our family. Part 2 includes 101 of the recipes we brought with us from Turkey.

Part 1, the narrative, describes the dual histories of my parent’s ancestors. First comes “The Turkish Muslim Side” which traces my father’s family from its Central Asian beginnings. I talk about the Turkic people, nomadic horsemen, their lifestyle and how it influenced modern Turkish cuisine. How the Mongol Hordes were responsible for my family’s appearance on the Black Sea, how there were Byzantine princesses in our ancestry, and even how my fez-wearing mustachioed grandfather rescued a kidnapped American actress in Istanbul.

The second section, “The Turkish Jewish Side,” traces my mother’s family from their Jewish origins in Palestine through their fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 to arrive in the Ottoman Empire. I talk about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire and about how strict social religious doctrine can be a double-edged sword when it comes to preserving families.

The third section, “Coming to America,” describes life after our arrival in the U.S. a half-century ago. My parents built their life here in fits and starts, by trial and error.  I talk about what Washington, DC was like then, and what it feels like to grow up an immigrant. I include anecdotes about trying to fit in, and also about the more difficult task of preserving Middle Eastern culture and traditions as the years go by.

Part 2 of the book is the Recipes. Over the years I had collected recipes from my mother, father, and aunts. These were the delicious family recipes I had grown up with. I cooked every one of the 101 dishes presented in the book, sometimes making several attempts before settling on the formula that tasted most like what I remember eating as a child. I meticulously photographed every step of every recipe, keeping in mind that many readers may have never seen what the dish is supposed to look like. I also kept the novice cook in mind, providing instruction on basic things like how to cut an onion or clean fresh leeks. And of course I provided a tantalizing “beauty shot” of each dish, enough to make your mouth water! Then I added notes about who taught me the recipe, or who made it best, or other stories about the dish.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when Esin Atil, Ph.D. – Historian of Islamic Art – Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution said this about my book:  “I highly recommend The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking, which not only covers a variety of ethnic Jewish and Turkish recipes, but traces an unusual blend of cultures in mid-20th century Istanbul as well as a unique love story.  It is at once a cultural history, a biographical study, and a valuable source of culinary experience.  I wish more cookbooks included the historical/biographical backgrounds of the people who created the recipes.”

A Rewarding Experience

Researching my family roots and cuisine was an enormously rewarding experience, and I recommend it to everyone. It allowed me to develop close ties with new-found relatives in Turkey, Venezuela, and Israel – strangers who were suddenly willing to share their pictures and memories with me. I uncovered recipes that were first made in Bulgaria, and brought to Turkey by my grandmother. I learned a great deal about world history and how political events impacted my ancestors’ lives.

Best of all, I got to spend quality time with my tants (aunts). In the process of interviewing them, I was blessed to gather not only recipes, but memories and anecdotes about their lives; stories that I would never have heard otherwise. For example, I never knew that in the early days of the Turkish Republic, Tant Mati’s father was forced to do hard labor in a work camp. I learned this tidbit while we discussed tricks for reducing oil in fried eggplant. Tant Ida and I actually belly danced together in her kitchen while she showed me how to make eggplant-filled pastries called börekitas. Cooking with them in their kitchens gave me the opportunity to notice idiosyncratic habits that they would never have mentioned if they had simply related their recipes to me. I learned the most subtle of tricks, like knowing which utensil is best to scoop the pulp out of a zucchini squash, or how to catch the seeds when you squeeze a lemon.

That’s my journey, in a nutshell. I hope this inspired you to launch your own personal journey through time and into the kitchen!

Beyhan Cagri Trock is an architect based in Bethesda, MD. To learn more about her family’s incredible history and delicious recipes, visit www.ottomanturkjewishgirl.com. The Reel Tributes team tried some of her dishes, and we give them a ringing endorsement!   

Mining for Memories: Looking and Listening for Gold (Guest Post)

Note: This post was featured on the wonderful blog Women’s Memoirs. To read the post in its entirety, including the introduction by Kendra Bonnett, please visit http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-writing-book-business/memoir-writing-tips-interviewing-and-the-art-of-listening/

I remember Mary, a very elderly woman I once interviewed. She wanted to preserve her life stories but was struggling with how and where to begin.

I asked Mary, “Do you have a family heirloom that is a precious piece of your family’s story?”

It didn’t take her but a moment or two before she said, “Yes, I do. It is one of the most cherished things that I own.”

“Would you share that with me?”

Within a few moments she returned to her chair gingerly carrying a hand carved wooden pipe rack, which housed three pipes. She held the pipe rack in her frail hands, as if the items were sacred.

My curiosity intensified, as she gently caressed the items. “Please tell me about what you are holding.”

“These were my father’s pipes,” Mary began.

As she spoke, her face took on a serene and tender expression. “He died nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember how in the evening hours, after supper was done, that my father would sit next to the fire in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe. Even after all these years, I can still remember the fruity aroma of that pipe tobacco as it smoldered in the bowl of the pipe. I remember sitting on the floor at his feet working on a wooden puzzle or looking at a picture book. My mother was there, too. Nothing could have improved this moment in time.”

Mary continued: “My father and mother were nurturing parents, and I always felt their love.” And then she got quiet, lost in her memories.

“Mary,” I asked, “How did your parents show their love for you?”

“They listened to me. They listened to me talk about my childhood dreams. They gave me their time and attention, and I knew that they cared about what mattered to me.

“One day when I was about six years old I was given a kitten. Not long after getting the kitten, it ran out of the front door of our home and was hit by a car and killed. I cried and cried over the loss of my kitten. My mother took me in her arms and rocked me softly. I still remember how quiet she was. She hardly said a thing, but I knew that she cared about how I was feeling.”

A pipe rack holding three pipes…and the memories arrived. As interviewer, I hardly had to say a thing to Mary because her memories flooded into her mind as she held, smelled, felt and saw the memories in her mind’s eye. Sometimes that is all it takes to find memories more priceless than gold.

Like her parents so many years earlier, I listened.

 

Sixty Years, Sixty Letters, Sixty Memories

Last month I reached a milestone in my life — my sixtieth birthday.  Sixty birthdays have come and gone. My two daughters are now adults and successfully living independent lives. I have three adorable grandchildren and that young handsome guy I married so many years ago has a full head of gray hair and remains the love of my life.

There is not much that I need or want at this point in my life. I am well aware that buying a birthday gift for me is not an easy task for my family.  However, this year my elder daughter gave me a gift that will forever be a priceless treasure to me.

Unbeknownst to me, two months ago Annie sent a letter to my family, as well as to new and old friends.

She wrote:

Would you please jot down a favorite memory you have of my mom so that she knows that her nearest and dearest are thinking of her on her birthday? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you can just write it down on a piece of paper and sign your name — the more nostalgic the better. The goal: to accumulate sixty years of memories filling sixty envelopes.

On my birthday, after I had blown out the candles on my cake, my daughter hugged me and handed me a thick stack of white business-sized envelopes. Wrapped around the stack was the following note:

Happy Sixtieth Birthday Mom!  

You are loved by so many people and you have made so many people’s lives better by simply being you.  I’m honored and blessed to call you my mom!

Love,
Annie

As I held the letters in my hands, my eyes filled with tears.  I was touched by Annie’s thoughtful effort.  As I read the letters, I was amazed by the number of people who responded to my daughter’s simple request. And as I continued to read, I was astounded by how many events I had forgotten.  I had forgotten – but my family and friends had not. Recollections of simple things done together. Simple, but meaningful.

My aunt and uncle sent me a copy of their formal wedding day photograph taken over fifty years ago.  In the black and white photograph I am standing in the front row and I am seven years old.  My aunt enclosed a note saying “A memorable day – so glad you could be part of it.”

My dear 85 year old friend, Betty reminded me of a sad trip we took together to the veterinarian’s office.  She recalled how I put my hand on hers as the vet administered an injection that put Betty’s cat out of pain.

According to my Aunt Lou, I deliberately omitted gardenias from my bridal bouquet, because I knew she was allergic to their fragrance.

And there were many more stories like these. Touching reminders of the great 60 years of my life. Annie’s effort,  and all of the many memories, touched my heart and mind far more powerfully than a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers ever would have.

Think about this simple effort when your loved ones’ birthday is drawing near.  If you choose to follow my daughter’s example, you will be giving the best gift anyone could ever receive —  the gift of sweet memories!

Eisensteins in the Attic: Rediscovering Your Own Film Treasures (Guest Blogger)

Clack…..clack…..clack…clack..clack clack/clack/clack….

We all know the sound of an old 8mm or 16mm projector throwing Kodachrome home movies up on a wall. For all too brief a moment we look into a coruscating window on a lost or fast disappearing past. Images roll in: jump cuts, lens flares, shaky camera work. We squint maybe, trying to improve the focus. Real, but also somehow surreal, those old film images; transporting and magical.

That time machine costs how much?

I think of old home movies as a kind of time machine – but a time machine that really exists. What would we pay for just such a machine if we didn’t have one?

What wouldn’t we spend to peer through a time tunnel at our old grandpa digging in his “victory garden”, or to see mother on her wedding day? Old home movies are exactly that time machine, and yet we don’t always know – or value – what we have.

Dan Streible knows a thing or two about old movies. He is a professor of film at New York University and the founder of the Orphan Film Symposium – the biennial gathering of scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images.

Dan says people underestimate the value and power of home movies – “these millions of feet of rediscovered family films, the millions of feet of film shot by mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles and friends throughout the 20th century (that) now make up the best record we have of daily life as it was lived during the past two or three generations.”

Of course, he is talking about other people’s home movies. And if you are lucky enough to have some of your own? Well, chances are they would be like Eisensteins in the Attic – dusty masterpieces of their kind left unwatched and slowly disintegrating*.

Priceless images in dusty boxes

Priceless images are stowed away in shoe boxes all across America, locked up in now unplayable film formats like Super 8, 16mm and 8mm; or in early cassette formats like Video8, Hi8 and Digital 8.

And if you did take the trouble 10 years back to convert to VHS, S-VHS or VHS-C? Then you did a great thing. But VHS is now obsolete; and sadly, the quality of VHS was poor from the start. You’ll get a much better result today retransferring from the original films or video cassettes.

The good news of course is that every old film and video cassette format can now be converted to digital video. Most people get their old home movies transferred to DVD. But here’s a tip: When you go to the expense of transferring, why not create an uncompressed video master file and get that put on a hard drive. (Uncompressed video is the best quality you can achieve.) Then, use those home movie master files to create your DVD, your YouTube or iPhone video (or whatever else becomes the device de jour).

Turn home movies into a personal documentary

And best of all, you can use that home movie master file to help create your own personal or family history documentary – your “Reel Tribute”. The only thing then remaining is to dim the lights, toss in the DVD, and become transported into “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas”. You may miss the old “clack clack clack” of the projector, but the experience will be every bit as magical.

*Sergei Eisenstein: Pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist famous for his silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sole copy of his unfinished Bezhin Meadow was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid (“Shoulda had it transferred...”).

Thank you to video biographer and Association of Personal Historians board member Jane Shafron for this article. In recognition of the importance of preserving our home movies, Jane has recently added video transfer services in Orange County CA to her suite of family history services. Jane was recently named one of the Top 10 Personal History Bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis.