The Spoon from Minkowitz by Judith Fein

By Ekta R. Garg

July 9, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A woman spends her childhood clinging to six sparse facts that her grandmother reluctantly shares about their cultural heritage. When the woman gets a chance to pursue those facts by going on a journey halfway around the world, she packs her suitcase and a lifetime of hope and boards the plane. What she finds at her destination changes her forever. Travel writer Judith Fein shares her experiences in the slightly meandering but overall interesting memoir The Spoon of Minkowitz.

As a child Fein finds her Jewish heritage fascinating, particularly when she talks to her immigrant grandmother. Her own mother never shows much interest in Fein’s questions, and her grandmother answers with hesitation. Fein’s persistence pays off slightly. Her grandmother shares six pieces of information about her Russian village, Minkowitz, and her life there.

For Fein these pieces of information felt like precious gems. Throughout her career as an international student and then travel writer, Fein has ample time and arguably opportunity to make a trip to Minkowitz. She doesn’t, however. She doesn’t want to tempt fate and sully the memories she’s constructed from imagination of a charming Russian town with kindly people and simple living.

Events in her life come together to present her a chance she can’t ignore, however, so in 2013 Fein and her husband travel to eastern Europe. In her grandmother’s time, Minkowitz had formed a small dot on the map of the Soviet Union. Since the redrawing of map lines, Minkowitz now appears close to Ukraine.

During her journey Fein meets many people who have lived through the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic movements. The encounters understandably sadden Fein and heighten her awareness of how different, or even nonexistent, her life could be if her grandmother had stayed in Minkowitz. The point becomes even more real when she finally reaches the village.

Fein has spent most of her career writing about her travels, and her strong descriptions of the landscape and even her emotions reflect her experience. Her eagerness to share her story blurs the defining lines between experiences, however. At times readers may feel like they’ve followed Fein down a side trail, but fortunately Fein doesn’t stray too far down these warrens before returning to her intended goal.

The result makes the memoir feel less like a narrative and more like lingering over a meal at a friend’s house on a Saturday night. Case in point: the book’s title, which refers to a serving spoon Fein received as a wedding gift from her father-in-law. The spoon, he tells her, came from Minkowitz, reinforcing Fein’s desire to go there. It really doesn’t feature much throughout the rest of the book, however, acting more as a point of interest instead of as a fulcrum of the story.

Ultimately Fein goes through a life-changing event, and anyone can appreciate her emotions and sympathize with her desire to imprint the memory on her heart and soul. Readers may not necessarily receive information about the world they haven’t had before, but they will enjoy Fein’s emotional and physical journey. I recommend readers check out The Spoon of Minkowitz.

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