Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Here? Why Now?

I'm an anthropologist/adventuress who over the years has placed herself in remote and culturally challenging parts of the world. I've stayed in remote parts of the New Guinea Highlands, little villages in Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Thailand and the Yucatan. I've attended huge festivals in India, visited small islands nestled in Peru's Lake Titicaca and wandered around Bali, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba. I've been to places where children would sneak up to touch my skin to see if the white color was real and I've been ask to pose in pictures with Indian families because I looked so weird to them. Altogether I've embraced a certain comfort in being an outsider. Its given me the freedom to present whatever "Leanna" I choose to.

Like many Americans of Jewish Eastern European descent, I've embraced the struggles of other peoples...and other ways. I've explored countless Hindu and Buddhist Temples, Islamic Mosques, and Christian and Catholic Churches. I've rarely if ever set foot inside an ancient Jewish synagogue. While growing up, I absorbed Yiddish expressions, transliterated biblical Hebrew prayers and the unique culture of an elightened and neurotic people. While I'd feel a certain kindredness, I'd often find more solace in pagan and invented ritual. There was this old world darkness to being Jewish...and there was much of me who sought to distance myself from the burdens of my people. Being an anthropologist, gave me license to study (and often embrace) the practices of the other. I'd snuggle in the huts of the Enga tribe of New Guinea, the Mayans of Mani, Yucatan, the Luo of Kenya and the peoples of the Northern provinces of Thailand. Being a self-invented other, amongst the culturally exotic became my praxis.

This journey is in many ways much scarier. I won't look foreign. My skin tone and facial features will match theirs. I will be returning to my geo-cultural homeland. The places where barely a century ago my family had lived for many generations. This trip in many ways feels more difficult. As far as I know, none of my relatives remain. My maternal grandfather, Abraham Moskowitz , left Iasi, Romania as a teen while my maternal grandmother, Bessie Moskowitz, also from Iasi, migrated to New York City as a child. They never returned. I hope to be able to visit the synagogue where Abraham and the generations before him had their bar mitzvahs. I've been told that there may be a cemetary where I might be able to view the gravestone of my great grandmother Sura Moscovici. If not, I still want to feel Romania. I want to discover what about me carries the energy of that part of the world?

My father was born in Poltava, Ukraine (then part of Russia) in 1904. Soon after, his father, Petrov Wulfovitch, migrated to New York City in fear of a military draft and repeated pogroms. Five months after my father, Isidore Wulfovitch was born, his mother Olga Powsner Wulfovitch and her daughter Sonia and older sons Samuel and Sol migrated to America. With little love for their homeland, they assimilated into the Jewish world of early 20th century New York City. They allowed their last name to be converted to Wulf. Later my father's older brothers shifted the spelling to Wolfe to sound even more American, perhaps like the acclaimed writer, Thomas Wolfe. And a bit later, my father changed Isidore to Irwin, completing his Americanization and becoming Irwin Wolfe.

While my parents briefly visited Bucharest, Romania, they never returned to our family's home towns. I gather that today Poltava is a nice city..and I do hope to see it and Iasi, as well. Along the way, I'll be taking in whatever strikes me--perhaps new found vibrancy since the lifting of the iron curtain and hopefully new friends and a deeper sense of why I am me.


  1. I remember dad saying that they changed it to Wolfe because of the English General James Wolfe (who fought the French in the French and Indian War)