My son Facebooked his cousin, Annie, a day before Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast to find out how it was affecting her and her family. He was excited in that way the weather announcer gets when a big storm is brewing. He sensed something big was about to happen.
Annie, the child of one of my first cousins, lives in southeast Houston, just off Galveston Bay. She Facebooked back to let Nathan know that her family had fled their home and were going to wait out the storm at her aunt’s house some 30 miles away. And so they waited while the wind and rain pummeled their neighborhood. Ike hit Galveston on Sept. 13 with winds raging at 110 miles per hour, sending the gulf waters over the seawall constructed more than 100 years before in response to the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
More than 6,000 people died in the hurricane that hit Galveston on Sept. 8, 1900. Some estimates of the death toll are even higher, with 10,000 as a rough guess. There probably is no way to know the real cost in human lives, of those who were washed away when the Gulf of Mexico swallowed the tiny island, destroying a city that had been on the cusp of becoming a major port and commercial center for the south.
The storm has always held mythic status in my family’s history, looming in the background as one of those devastating historic touchstones that connects you to a particular time and place. It is tied up with our Jewishness and the very story of how we came to this country — and to Texas, no less!
The story, of course, starts far away in the city of Czortkov, a town in East Central Europe that sometimes belonged to Poland and at other times to the Ukraine. Czortkov was known for its yeshiva and for the Hasidic rebbe who reigned there, Rabbi Dovid Moshe Friedman.
The Jewish community of Galveston, which had been established around 1840, four years after Texas became a republic, needed a reliable schochet, that is, a ritual slaughterer, so that they could continue to keep kosher. In that way that is so true to being Jewish – you know, where anyone more frum than you is meshugenah and anyone less frum, a goy — the community had decided that the meat they were getting from New Orleans just wasn’t kosher enough. (What did they expect from a place that specializes in jambalya and crawfish etouffee?)
So in a tale that plays out something like the opening bit of “The Frisco Kid,” where Gene Wilder’s nudnik rabbi draws the short stick and ends up heading to America, my great-grandfather, Yaakov Geller, was sent by his rebbe to become the schochet in Galveston. He set out for America in 1892, leaving behind his wife and two children. He came first to New York and then continued on, to what I imagine must have seemed like the outer edge of the world at the time — Galveston.
His wife and two oldest boys followed the next year. And I guess life continued well enough. Reb Yaakov ran his meat business. He headed the Galitzaner shul, and had three more children — Annie, Abram and Max – by 1898.
In 1900, Galveston was on the brink of discovery. As Erik Larson wrote in his book about the hurricane, Isaac’s Storm, “As the years passed, Galveston got bigger and more glamorous. Its future as a deep-water port seemed assured.”
But fate had something else in mind. When the hurricane hit, it began biblically, with a plague of small frogs hopping about the island, according to Larson. It ended just as biblically the following day, with much of the island laid to waste and thousands dead.
The hurricane hit on a Saturday, which would, of course, have been Shabbat. I never knew my great grandfather, so I never got a chance to ask him what that day must have been like. But my mother tells the story that her zeyde swam home from shul that day, the waters having risen so high that his feet no longer touched the ground.
I like to imagine him walking to shul in the morning, the rain just starting, then leading the service, perhaps giving a drosh about the upcoming high holidays. Would he have had to raise his voice to be heard above the wind and rain? That part of the family history is lost forever. The details I will never know.
At Rosh Hashanah we ask to be inscribed in the book of life. At Yom Kippur, we say that our fate is sealed. In between we repent and atone, asking forgiveness from those against whom we’ve transgressed. In 1900, the holidays fell only a few weeks after the hurricane. How would my great grandfather’s congregants – men and women who had survived the worst storm in history, who by virtue of having been there, must have lost someone close, a child, a parent, a wife, a husband, a cousin a friend — have heard the words of the unetaneh tokef, a central piece of the Rosh Hashanah lliturgy?
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
My great-grandfather and his family made it through the hurricane intact. He and his wife, Sarah, went on to have three more children, one of whom was my grandmother, Leah. Galveston went on to construct its seawall, which raised the grade of the island and now extends 10.4 miles along the island’s Gulf side. It has staved off the waters time and again, including a second punishing hurricane in 1909. One of my great aunts used to tell us that she remembered the water rising up the back door of the house, which like most of the Galveston homes, were built on high stilts.
After that, I get the idea that the Jewish community had had enough. They, like many of their neighbors and the commerce of that once rising city, moved inland. Houston, instead, became the large, successful city that Galveston was poised to be. The forces of nature, God and man have peculiar ways of interacting.
The seawall held back Ike, and Annie and her family are just fine. My cousin David, her father, emails me that they rode out the storm with his sister, Sara and her family. She had a generator, so they never lost power. The kosher meat they all stored in her freezer was preserved. By the following Monday, power was restored in his south Houston home. There was some very minor damage and the kids are out of school for another week. Our Uncle Murray—in the Texas version of walking to school three miles in the snow—remembers that after Hurricane Carla in 1961, they lost power for two weeks, but the schools resumed before it was restored. He recalls doing homework by candlelight.
We all have a lot to be thankful for. Maybe it’s living where we do, in the time we do, being blessed with strong Jewish communities that take care of their own. We tend not to reckon with the forces of nature, thinking we can always triumph. But each year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there’s a moment for doubt —at least for me —when the weight of what I’m measuring does and should seem so much vaster than who I am.
Have an easy fast.