Thursday, March 17, 2016

Interview with Judith Fein, Author of THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands

How to crack the mystery of who we are, why we love, and where we came from can be the greatest mystery of all. Judith Fein embarks on a quest to call on ancestors and urges us to do the same..

Interview with Judith Fein, 
Author of  
The Spoon from Minkowitz: 
A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands: 

            Finding roots is the solution for a rootless life.”

 I heard the Eastern European ancestors of many people like me
 calling out. “Remember us. Don’t forget us. Our story needs
 to be heard. Write our story. Write your story."
—Judith FeinThe Spoon from Minkowitz

Title:      The Spoon from Minkowitz:  A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands
Author: Judith Fein with Photographs by Paul Ross
ISBN: 978-0-9884019-3-8
Paperback             Pages: 256       Price:     $18.95
Discussion Guide Included
Pub. Date: Jan. 5, 2014 (Available in all e-book formats.)
Author Website

Note: This interview was written by Marlan Warren and originally published as a press release in 2014 in, and picked up by the BBC Record.

     Judith Fein is a travel journalist’s travel journalist. Like a latter-day Marco Polo, she has globe-trotted without maps or preconceived notions from Mog Mog to Vanuatu. By her own account, she has swum with Beluga whales, consulted with a Zulu sangoma in South Africa, and eaten porcupine in Vietnam (“not with relish”). In 2011, when Fein and her photojournalist husband Paul Ross visited Tunisia during the Arab Spring, the French-speaking American Fein found herself on the radio, speaking to Tunisians about Democracy. Her popular travel memoir Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel conveys her need to find out where people of different cultures come from and what makes them act, think, and behave the way they do. After decades of travel, there was one frontier that still eluded the “I-live-to-leave” Fein: the mystery of her own ancestral roots.

     Fein’s book, The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, takes us on the trip she finally made in 2012 to the shtetl her Jewish grandmother left behind in an obscure Russian (now Ukrainian) village.

     The Spoon from Minkowitz has garnered stellar reviews. Catharine Hamm, travel editor of the Los Angeles Times, found The Spoon from Minkowitz “as tense as a thriller and as tender as a love story.” Zelda Shluker, editor of Hadassah Magazine, noted the book is “unlike any other back-to-roots book…driven by the author's almost mystical quest to recover the past…Her curiosity, openness and passion take us along on a journey that turns out to be ours as well.”

     We had the opportunity to catch Judith Fein for a moment when she was not in perpetual motion to talk about the deeper meanings of genealogy as explored in this book:

For those who have not yet read your book, what is “the spoon from Minkowitz”?
My grandmother was from a village called Minkowitz in what was then Russia. That fact plus five others were all she would ever tell me about where she was from and why she left; she didn’t want to talk about the past. My mother told me virtually nothing.

When I met my husband Paul, we were immediately attracted. But here’s the kicker: when I asked Paul's parents about their ancestral roots, it turned out his father’s family came from…Minkowitz

Okay. So the “spoon.” When Paul told his parents we were getting married, his father offered us the only thing left from his parents’ shtetl of Minkowitz: a soup spoon they brought with them to America. I treasured that spoon because it made our ancient, ancestral connection so real and concrete. We made a place of honor for it under the chupa  (Jewish wedding canopy) on a satin pillow.

You followed your intuition and things miraculously started happening—as you did in Life Is a Trip. Would you call your process “right brain”?
I explored the context my ancestors, and the ancestors of so many others, came from by just showing up and going from town to town looking and learning.

Perhaps it is “right brain.” I prefer to call it “following the arrows.” It’s about keeping eyes and ears open, and following wherever the arrows point, even if you don't know where they are leading or what you will find there. If you trust you will end up in the right place, you will somehow get there. 

This book is like a Jewish Roots, the Alex Haley book that traces his African American family history. And in some ways, it’s like Safran Foer’s Everything Is IlluminatedHow would you pitch The Spoon from Minkowitz to a Hollywood producer?
Hmmm.. I’d say it’s a female Everything Is Illuminated meets Life Is a Trip.

If there is a link between The Spoon from Minkowitz and Life Is a Tripwhat is it?
In Life Is a Trip, I take readers to l4 exotic climes where they experience new and different ways of dealing with life issues—everything from love to death to ambition to family tension. In The Spoon from Minkowitz, I take readers into the land of their ancestors, and into the depths of their own souls.  

Why is connecting to our ancestors so important?
Finding your roots can be a solution to feelings of rootlessness and lack of belonging.   It can give meaning to your existence to connect to those who came before you, and to honor their lives. If not for them, you would not be here.

Recent research shows that connecting to your ancestors can help with difficult problems and enhance problem-solving skills: there's an awareness that those who came before you overcame great odds, and you can too.

Roots travel is about talking to grandma and older relatives. In my book, I encourage you to dig deep into family roots to find out who you are and where you come from.

Ours is a rare culture that doesn't honor and connect to our ancestors. Everywhere I have traveled, I've experienced ancestor worship, ancestor ceremonies, ancestor altars, ancestor honorings. Other cultures call on the ancestors for guidance and help. It’s time to welcome this powerful awareness to our shores—with humor, heart, and information.  

So what’s next for Judith Fein?
What’s next for me is what’s next for The Spoon from Minkowitz. The critical response to the book has been wonderful, and I am planning ancestor events and talks in various cities.



     Suddenly, I felt as though there were people behind me, following me. I turned around, but no one was there. I continued walking. Again, I felt the presence of a lot of people in my wake. I spun around and was greeted by a chorus of voices. Although I didn’t see anybody, I heard the Eastern European ancestors of many people like me calling out. “Remember us. Don’t forget us. Our story needs to be heard. Write our story. Write your story."


     When Paul told his parents we were getting married, his father offered us something very meaningful and personal: the only thing left from the shtetl. It was a soup spoon that his parents brought with them as they sailed in steerage from the old country to America. I held it, patted it gently, and treasured it because it made our ancient connection so real to me...


     The ceremony started, and I have only two distinct memories of it: We recited our own wacky vows, and we made a place of honor under the chupa, on a satin pillow, for the spoon from Minkowitz.

     “What’s the spoon for?” my mother whispered. “Are you using it for cough syrup?”

                                                 - THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ
                                                     A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands ©Judith Fein


Praise for The Spoon from Minkowitz

“AS TENSE AS A THRILLER AND AS TENDER AS A LOVE STORY Judith Fein’s story of her quest to connect the dots of her life will have readers laughing, crying and, most of all, cheering her on.”—CATHARINE HAMM, Travel Editor, Los Angeles Times

“FROM SIX CLUES PROVIDED BY HER GRANDMOTHER, JUDITH FEIN DISCOVERS HER DEEP JEWISH ROOTS IN A UKRAINIAN VILLAGE. More than that, she finds her spiritual center and lets readers share her heart’s journey. This is a compelling book that moves well beyond the borders of Judaism and even beyond Holocaust history to a universal story of love.”—BILL TAMMEUS, former Kansas City Star Faith section columnist, former President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and co-author of They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust

“JUDITH FEIN'S SEARCH FOR MINKOWITZ, THE SHTETL HER GRANDMOTHER LEFT WHEN SHE WAS 17, IS UNLIKE ANY OTHER BACK-TO-ROOTS BOOK. It is deeply, idiosyncratically personal, driven by the author's almost mystical quest to recover the past. Her curiosity, openness and passion take us along on a journey that turns out to be ours as well.”
ZELDA SHLUKER, editor of Hadassah magazine

"FIRST YOUR EYES WILL ROLL, THEN YOUR JAW WILL DROP. The popular multi-dimensional travel writer Judith Fein's persistent curiosity does more than open doors: it seemingly tears the fabric of space-time. This is such a great story. It's as if Joseph Conrad took his journey up the river into deepest darkest Minkowitz. And the best part: for many of us, this is our story, too.” 
DANNY RUBIN, screenwriter, Groundhog Day

Author Bio

     Judith Fein lives to leave. An award-winning travel journalist, she is either on the road or on her computer. She has contributed to more than 100 international publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, National Geographic Traveler, the Jerusalem Post, Hemisphere, Islands, New Mexico Magazine, Travel Age West, Organic Spa, and Spirituality and Health. She is the author of the acclaimed book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Judith has been a keynote presenter for many conferences, including the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and Tedx San Miguel de Allende. She is a frequent guest on broadcast media, was a regular contributor to The Savvy Traveler for six years, and has been heard on the BBC, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. Judith Fein and her photojournalist husband Paul Ross teach public speaking and creativity as applied to writing, PR and Marketing.

     Judith Fein is the co-founder and executive editor of the award-garnering experiential travel blog, "Your Life Is a Trip" [], which has more than 125 contributors. She blogs about travel for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and occasionally she and Paul Ross take open-hearted people on very unusual trips. In her LBTW (Life Before Travel Writing), Fein ran a theatre company in Europe, lived in Africa, and then worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, playwright, and theatre director in the U.S.A.