I am sitting in my living room listening to recordings I have taken recently of my family. There are recordings of my grandmother Audray (aka “Maudy”) Rees singing classic folk tunes with her Alzheimer's support group, “Giving Voice”. There are recordings of my cousins Maddy and Sarah impersonating a good Minnesotan; recordings of Maudy driving through her old neighborhoods in Minneapolis + St. Paul narrating as we drive along; recordings of my cousin Jay on the NYC subway and in Union Station in D.C.; recordings of my aunt Carol where she debates whether Judaism and the Jewish holidays are central in her life. All of these recordings whistle through my ears like the dust blowing settlers across the country in the Great Migration.
My maternal family came to the United States around the Civil War, first settling in Virginia and then Detroit, Michigan and eventually taking permanent root in Duluth and then Minneapolis. My grandfather’s family helped to found Temple Israel in 1878. It was the first Jewish congregation in Minneapolis and was originally named Shaarai Tov, “The Gates of Goodness.” Gustave Rees, Ralph Rees, and Baszion Weinschenk Rees were some of the founding members of Shaarai Tov. Baszion was Gustave and Ralph’s mother. In my brief preliminary visit to Temple Israel, I was able to cull some information on Gustave, Ralph and Baszion.
According to Temple Israel, “Mr. Gustave Rees came to Minneapolis in 1871 and joined his brother Ralph in the clothing business. Besides being president of the Cemetery Association, Mr. Rees is a charter member of the congregation Shaarai Tov, and one of the president trustees, also a trustee of the B’nai Brith. Mr. Rees has taken an active part of the community affairs and done his share in bettering conditions in the community. In 1880 Mr. Rees married Ella, the daughter of Isaac Milius, of Memphis, Tenn., and they have three daughters: Mrs. Meta Rosenstein, and Miss Eva and Inez.”
Ralph Rees was the older of the two brothers, and according to Temple Israel, “Mr. Rees has probably been more helpful in a general and individual way than any other Jewish citizen. He was a charter member of every Jewish organization, and until his health gave way a few years ago, he retained an office in each of these associations. For twenty years no man was better known on the North side than Ralph Rees. He gave his entire time to the amelioration of the emigrants. A charter member of the Montefiore Burial Association, Mr. Rees was its president from the time of its inauguration until last year. He was a charter member of the B’nai Brith, first belonging to the St. Paul lodge and served the Minneapolis organization as its first presiding officer and for four years afterward, and 10 years at secretary. An organizer of the congregation Shaarai Tov, he served one term as president and 17 years as secretary. One of the Minneapolis initiators of the Free Sons of Israel, Mr. Rees has been its president as well as holding several other offices in association. In 1894 Mr. Rees married Mrs. Sophie Heilpern of Minneapolis.”
Lastly, “Mrs. Baszion Rees was the founder of and first president of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. She recognized that the time had arrived for the women of Minneapolis, few though they were, to band together and furnish assistance when the occasion demanded women’s help. She called the group of fifteen women together in her home, and inspired them to lay the foundation for a principle and service, which has been so varied and helpful that the vast sphere of its accomplishments can never be fully known. She died in 1895 survived by four sons and one daughter: Mrs. Celia Sulzberger, Ralph, Gustave, Theodore and Julius Rees.”
Stumbling across familiar faces along the walls of Temple Israel made my heart turn inward. As a perpetual question asker, I focused my energy on gathering an oral history from my grandmother over the course of six days. It was the little things, though, that stuck with me--memories of things I had long forgotten (the cherry trees in their backyard of 64 years with deliciously juicy cherries), details I never knew (that my aunt was a cheerleader in high school, that my grandmother and her mother were supposed to move to California not Minneapolis originally, that my great great great grandparents were charter members of the synagogue, and more).
I still feel like I am uncovering details about Rose Rees (Julius Rees’ mother) and all the good that she did for Minneapolis/St. Paul. I have stumbled upon a family of good samaritans, of humans looking to help their Jewish communities, of women who were in the forefront of political movements, (whether that was votes for women, or making sure that women had an equal voice in the workforce). Rose and Baszion are examples of that; Rose was a past president of the National Council for Jewish Women-Greater Minneapolis Section. Her passion for “world peace was a guiding principle of NCJW, as well as at the World Affairs Council of Minneapolis, which she founded.” Her and Baszion were incredible ladies that I hope to learn more about in the months to come.
I have had images of dyeing Rose’s novel in onion peel water, yellowing the pages and drying them like farm women dried laundry in the prairies. Her words, my words, woven together like the quilts my maternal great-grandmother Ethel patch-worked together with coarse yarn.
As I learn more about Audy and Bob’s families, and the immense and deep lineage that I have to the Jewish community, I feel drawn to old songs, to folk music, and to digging further into the core of what drives the Rees family: hard work, diligence, a commitment to change and activism, and striving for peace in a world where glimmers of hope are all we can grasp.
My six days with my 86-year old grandmother reminded me what a force of nature the Zack-Rees’ were/are. My grandmother does more in her days than I do in a week, and she is truly living fully. She is a living, breathing example of Midwestern stoicism, from the songs Giving Voice sings to her walks around Lake of the Isles in -30 degree weather. We’ve got the same build, a similar sense of humor, and she, like me, loves to look at old family photos and heirlooms. She doesn’t fain talking about the past; she relishes it, just as I do, and as she sings in her rehearsal for Giving Voice, she smiles at me, eyes twinkling,... "So kiss me and smile for me/Tell me that you'll wait for me/Hold me like you'll never let me go/"Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane/Don't know when I'll be back again/Oh Babe, I hate to let you go"..."Happy Trails, to you...we'll meet again, some day..." and I can't help to think about the look her mother gave her, my grandfather gave my mother, and so on.
I feel called to make Onion Dances; we have no oral history for our ancestral family, no written documentation, and for me, that means turning parts of our Jewish ancestry into a piece of dance theater that reveals, unveils, and unearths truths, secrets, and mysteries about these shadowed figures of the past.
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Many thanks to Temple Israel for their comprehensive history of the synagogue as well as the National Council for Jewish Women’s Minneapolis chapter for their information on Rose Rees/ the Rose Rees Peace Awards.