9/14/2005

My Zaydie, the Swiss-Army Jew

My grandfather was a Rabbi, but of a different mold. He’s more of what I call a ‘Swiss-Army Jew’, or a ‘Utility Jew’, or a ‘One-Band Jewish Band’, or a ‘Jew-of-all-Trades’. He was a shochet, a mohel (though I hope he never got the two confused), a chazzan, a ba’al korei, a shammas, and a gabbai. I don’t know if there was any system or ideology or method to his Yiddishkeit, and I don’t think he had any formal schooling in anything, but had this incredible, visceral Jewish ‘gut’, a strong vindictive streak, and a fantastic Jewish sense of humor (which could be terribly bitter and biting) that served as the vehicle to teach some very valuable lessons. His entire context was Jewish, and he succeeded in translating it, and appreciation and love for it, in some way, to those around him. Had he wound up in Brooklyn like his contemporaries, I doubt his contribution would have compared to what he accomplished ‘out-of-town’.

He decided to open a shul in America. He went out to the suburbs, found a Jewish neighborhood with no shuls, and opened his ‘shtiebl’ which was also his home. I still remember his old balabatim with their taleisim like scarves jingling the change in their pockets on Shabbos morning.

At the same time, he was a closed book. I never had much of a relationship with him. I remember that he once showed me a Satmar responsum on yarmulke size to show me that the small ‘sroogie’ that I was wearing was inadequate. Of course, he didn’t show me the first siman in Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim, which the Satmar teshuvah was ridiculing, which takes a completely different view of the ‘shiur’ of a yarmulke. He was generally hard of hearing, and often chose to be even more so. In general, our conversations went like this:

Me: Hi, Zaydie, how are you?
Zaydie: Four O’clock.

His own father died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that decimated Europe in the late 1910s, when Zaydie was 7 years old and the oldest of 4 with one on the way. He never knew a normal family situation, never learned to show affection, and then emigrated with a young family to a different continent, language, and culture. These barriers were too much to overcome, especially since in my youth and teenage years I was too immature or too ‘cool’ to appreciate him. He passed away during my first year in Yeshiva after high-school.

There’s one story that happened with me which, for me, characterizes much of who he was and what his attitudes were. When I was in 3rd Grade, my father went away on a business trip (yes, the Rabbinate sometimes skips generations, sorta) and instructed me to call Zaydie every night to review the psukim that I had learned in Chumash that day. My class was learning the Parsha of Miketz, specifically 42:21, where Joseph’s brothers confront their own guilt for not having listened to Joseph ‘be-hitchanenno eileinu’. When reviewing w/ Zaydie, I translated this latter phrase as ‘when he found favor with us’. Zaydie corrected me, stating that it means ‘when he begged use’. I suggested that the root is from the word ‘cheyn’. He insisted that it was similar to ‘tachanun’, a concept that I wasn’t yet familiar with.

When my father returned home, he asked for a report on my Chumash-reading skills (and you still wonder how I became a Rabbi?). Zaydie informed him that I ‘don’t know teitch (translation)’. My father informed him that if that’s how I translated it, then that’s how I learned it.

That Shabbos morning, Zaydie (who had retired and moved, and attended a different shul) saw my Rebbi at Shacharis. He approached him after davvening and said, ‘You’re my grandson’s Rebbi?’. After an affirmative answer, Zaydie went to the bookcase, took out a Chumash, opened it to the verses that we had studied a few days earlier, and said to my Rebbi, “Sit down.” He pointed to the passuk and commanded, “Read”. I can just picture the scene - Zaydie simply overpowering this poor Rebbi (who undoubtedly deserved it) by sheer force of personality, in a way that no act of physical violence could.

Sure enough, my Rebbi mistranslated the psukim as I had. After correcting the Rebbi, Zaydie suggested that since the expertise in matters Jewish required from him constituted the ability to read and translate perhaps a half-dozen parshiyos and one Mesechta of Mishnayos, he really ought to make sure that he knows it.

Zaydie didn’t make us laugh (we didn’t get his jokes).
He didn’t make us sing (certainly not after the hearing started to go; he was utterly tone-deaf). He did make a Seder on Pesach night, though, but it was unspectacular.
I can’t really say that I loved him. I barely knew him.

But man did he leave an impression.
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