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Greenstein: Family reunions are ‘spiritual reminders’

By: Jason Terrell | June 24, 2024

By Rabbi Micah Greenstein | Special to The Daily Memphian

When I sat down to write this month’s column, the T-shirt of a grandmother standing outside the National Civil Rights Museum at a summer family reunion came to mind.

It said: “REMEMBER, as far as everyone knows, we are a nice, normal family!” 

In a few weeks, I will join my wife’s relatives for my mother-in-law’s Mendelson Family Reunion at a nondescript hotel in Florida.

Being a spouse at these family reunions for decades has given me the advantage of “observer status” as my children continue to meet distant cousins they never knew. 

Family reunions are a unique American tradition. Many, if not most, of us have experienced them, but perhaps we don’t realize the roots.

These gatherings date back to when Black Americans were freed from slavery. Following Emancipation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, people formerly enslaved sought out family members from whom they were separated while enslaved.

They were looking for children, spouses, parents and siblings through newspaper ads, letters, word-of-mouth and, ultimately, reunions.

These events therefore became an opportunity for reconnection and a symbol for family resilience. As one elder attending a reunion put it, “These aren’t gatherings; they are bridges that connect the generations.”

Hopefully, that wisdom will carry me through the buffet line, as well as game and skit night, with distant relatives at my wife’s family reunion.

Regardless of one’s ethnicity, color or creed, at every family reunion there is an empty chair where a grandfather or grandmother once sat.

The chair may be vacant, but reunions are rightful occasions to remember the people who shaped us are still seated among us because they merit a place in our hearts forever.

The proof and most poignant legacy is the new babies at every reunion bearing the names of ancestors who were earlier links in the family chain.

I view summer family reunions as spiritual reminders for what sets people apart from other species. As cute as dogs are, you don’t see animals in the wild reuniting across generations. Only human beings do that.

We are the first beings in recorded history where four generations have gathered in the same place at the same time simply for the purpose of being together. If that isn’t a living miracle, then I don’t know what is.

Reunions, of course, transcend blood relatives. Witness college reunions where the genuine love of lifelong friendships never fades.

Ruth Brin, the literary pioneer famous for her authentic Jewish poetry, expresses eloquently the blessing of family, regardless of how crazy or atypical one’s own family may be:

“A good family is a special and wonderful thing — people who trust each other and who care for one another. A good family is more than a group of relatives, A good family is one where every member is cherished for his or her uniqueness, A good family is where a listening ear can always be found, Where hearts and minds are open to one another in love. Whether working in the home or outside of it, in a good family, everyone works together, allowing each other the space to grow and learn, each in his or her own way. A good family is a blessing from God, A blessing to be treasured and enjoyed.”

Throughout these summer months in Memphis, look past the T-shirts and consider what’s really going on at the family reunions taking place all over town. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

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