Heidi B. Neumark is the author of the new memoir Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith, which focuses on her discovery that her paternal ancestors were Jewish. She also has written Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including The Christian Century. She is a Lutheran pastor in New York City.
Q: You write, "That there might be another possible position for my grandparents during the Shoah--that they might have been Jewish victims of Nazi horror--never, not for a fleeting second, entered my mind." What were your feelings upon learning the truth?
A: My feelings have ranged from stunned disbelief, to deep sadness, to gratitude that I have been able to find what had been lost and give voice to what was silenced.
Q: Why do you think your father never told you and your mother about his family history?
A: I can’t know for certain, but I think the most likely thing is that he arrived on these shores and made a decision that he was starting fresh and was not going to talk about this traumatic past. I think it may have been a way of coping with fear and pain by maintaining a total silence around it…also trying to protect those he loved from it.
Q: You write, "From a history of horror, I have received staggering gifts of truth, identity, and love." How have you incorporated the discovery of your Jewish family into your life, and into your work as a Lutheran pastor?
I feel more passionate than ever about work to “repair the world,” and I feel a renewed sense of inner resilience. Whenever I feel weary in work for justice or just whiny about anything in daily life, I feel the witness and strength of my grandparents rise up within me.
In terms of my ministry there are several things that stand out. I thought I was careful about anti-Semitic areas in Biblical texts and in preaching, but I have become much more so. I have become more interested in Jewish/Christian dialogue. I’m more aware and understanding of how people are impacted by trauma they may not even know about.
Q: What do your family members think of your book?
A: My immediate family members (husband, daughter and son) have all be hugely supportive. It was my daughter’s discovery on-line that set my research, and ultimately my book, in motion.
My husband, daughter and son accompanied me on various research trips. Trampling around old Jewish cemeteries in Europe may not be everyone’s idea of a dream vacation, but my husband didn’t let on if he’d rather have been doing something else.
Now that the book is out, they are my biggest fans. My extended family is proud and glad that I have been able to discover and share so much of our history.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: For now, between my full-time job as a pastor and the executive director of a shelter for queer youth, I have enough on my plate just working on sharing this book with others.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb