SAMS Roots Interview – Debbie Hougie

Debbie Hougie

debbieDebbie has been a SAMS member since 1996. Here she talks about what SAMS means to her, her Lithuanian roots and the importance of maps:

I grew up in Leeds, where there’s no United Synagogue; synagogues are independent and have their own Beth Din. Services at my family’s shul were traditional: women upstairs, men downstairs, and I hated it. I felt very disengaged from it and very unhappy and didn’t like going to shul. My bat chayil involved standing at the front of the upstairs area with the rabbi looking up and talking to us. I was an outdoorsy girl and a bit of a tomboy too, so the idea of having to wear a skirt and having someone lecture me was my ultimate nightmare. But I found myself a little bit at university. We set up a Jewish feminist group and the first-ever women’s service held under an orthodox kind of banner took place at Manchester in 1986. I heard about SAMS when I moved to Hertfordshire and thought it could be the synagogue for me, and it was. I’m very happy at SAMS. It feels right and is very dear to my heart. I love its egalitarianism and its outlook, I like being part of a small community, and I find the type of people who belong to SAMS are my kind of people.

As a geographer, maps are really important to me. I get a lot more feeling from a map than I do from a page of words. I can tell a lot more from a map. When I was quite small I used to look at a particular page in the big Times Atlas that my parents had at home, which relates to what happened later. The family story goes that my great-grandfather Yosef arrives in South Shields from Lithuania in the early 1870s and, as he gets of the boat, the customs officer says, ‘So pet, what’s your name?’, and my great grandfather says, ‘My name is Yosef Tibianski’, and the customs officer say, ‘I’m sorry pet, I canna spell that. The guy in front was called Pearlman so that’s your name now.’ We know that’s not exactly what happened because immigrants had to go and register later, but that is apparently how we became the Pearlmans.


Debbie’s map of Lithuania, including Kretinga

What we know to be true is that we were from a little place called Kretinga in Lithuania. I used to look at the Kretinga area on the map for hours, wondering why there was dark green and light green, where the rivers were, imagining the landscape. The map brought the stories alive for me and made me think that maybe this place, Kretinga, actually existed. Maybe it wasn’t just a story.

A few years ago my dad and I happened to be together watching Who Do You Think You Are, with David Suchet. His name was originally Shochet, and his family was from Kretinga. In the programme he went there on a wobbly railway line, and there’s a picture of him looking at a Jewish graveyard there, but there’s nothing to be seen, so we thought nothing of it. Some time later we managed to get hold of the naturalisation papers of my great-grandfather Yosef’s nephew. The papers clearly showed that he was born in Lithuania, and that his name was Tibianski, proof that the story was right. When my dad turned eighty, he said he wanted to go to Kretinga, so we took him. Nobody on this side of the family had been there, so nine of us went and had the most tremendous time. Lithuania is amazing. All those landscape imaginings I had as a child, there I was actually in them, through this very map! We only had five days, but it’s not a very big country.

The landscape isn’t my kind of landscape – I like hills, mountains and big skies, and it’s just not like that – but I felt a deep and important connection to it. Was it because of the map or could I be genetically linked to a place that everybody wanted to leave? We found the Jewish cemetery with at least two hundred gravestones. They were very difficult to read but my brother-in-law found a Tibianski buried there. We all put stones on the grave and said Kaddish at the cemetery gates.

As part of this trip we went to a place called Seda, not far from Kretinga, but it felt like something out of Fiddler on the Roof, very rural with wooden houses with metal roofs and barns. They have lamp posts and television aerials now, but you could just imagine it as it was. We’ve become so urban. And Yosef’s descendants have done very nicely. Among them are lots of lawyers, judges, two MPs. Only one geographer though! And only four generations ago the Tibianskis were living as peasants in Lithuania.

Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 7 April 2016