12:38pm

Tue April 19, 2011
Opinion

Breathing Life Into Bland, Blunt Birth Certificates

Jake Halpern teaches journalism at Yale University.

President Obama's birth certificate, the one that his campaign released in 2008, is one seriously boring document. It tells us almost nothing about his actual birth — other than the bare-bones details. I assumed all certificates were like this until one day, a few weeks ago, when my dad discovered his father's birth certificate — which was issued in Poland, 107 years ago.

The document is packed with juicy details — I won't go so far as to say it's a swashbuckling tale of adventure — but, in terms of story development, it's way better than Obama's. It mentions, for example, the name of the presiding midwife — a woman named Chaje Rader from the town of Hutar. It also provides the name of the guy who performed the circumcision — Mr. Benzion Klein — and it even indicates that Klein was the town's butcher. This makes sense. I mean, you wouldn't want the town's blacksmith doing the deed — would you? The document notes that grandpa was an illegitimate child. There is even a part of the document offering the name of the godparents who witness the birth.

What I am driving at is this: If you read in-between the lines, a story of sorts emerges. A guy is born in a small town where no doctor is available — just a midwife to do the delivery and a butcher to cut the foreskin. Some old codger, the gray-haired godparent, shuffles over to the house in heat of summer and bears witness to the whole thing. Then some municipal official intercedes and announces, matter-of-factly, that the baby is illegitimate. It's interesting: The birth certificate says that Grandpa's parents were actually married, by a religious figure, a rabbi. Yet the marriage wasn't recognized by the state — and this was often the case for marriages in Eastern Europe conducted by a rabbi. This is an indication that Grandpa, his family, and his people weren't really integrated into mainstream society; and helps explain why, 21 years later, Grandpa immigrated to America.

Grandpa left Poland under a false identity with someone else's passport. This was, presumably, the only way out. We're not sure why, and he's not alive to offer an explanation. But here is the interesting part: He brought his real birth certificate with him, tucked away, hidden in some deep, inner pocket. If anyone had gotten suspicious and searched him they would have discovered his ruse and Grandpa might not have made it to America. So why did he do it? Why'd he take the risk?

He did it because his birth certificate contained the story of his life — it was a very, very condensed autobiography — it told the tale of who he was, where he came from, what life was like there, and why he left. And tonight at Passover my family will take a moment — as it always does — to remember Grandpa's exodus.

Birth certificates nowadays serve a strictly bureaucratic purpose; but if we learn anything valuable from scrutinizing the president's certificate, it ought to be that its brevity, its lack of detail, its sheer boringness, represents a lost opportunity to know more about what life was like at the very moment that this man was born. This is truly the first chapter in his story and, sadly, from a literary and historical perspective, it's a very poor read. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related Program