Words from the Grave
Not the written message but the lives that we live
've been thinking a lot lately about the power of the written word to connect us to those who have long passed from the world.
On a recent visit to my mother's apartment, I came across an autobiography that her father wrote in the year prior to his death. I am his oldest grandson, and the only grandchild with any memories of my grandfather. But I was only five at the time of his passing, and those memories are few.
Because he remained a towering figure in our lives — the great man in the family tree — I always wondered what he would have thought of the course chosen by four of his grandsons to return to his own father's life of Torah learning. (Rabbi Yitzchak Sender a"h, a longtime rosh yeshivah in Skokie Yeshiva and author of numerous seforim, once told me that my great-grandfather was his melamed as a boy on Chicago's West Side.)
Reading his autobiography, I felt I could hear my grandfather speaking to me from a distance of 60 years. From the penciled corrections on the typed manuscript, I could even gain a sense of his literary style. That style was honed on a high school curriculum from a long-gone era — four years of Latin, four years of French, and three years of German, in addition to four years of English.
My grandfather describes four times he was almost killed as a youngster. Reading about them, I felt that on my next trip to Boston I should make the brachah "she'asah li neis b'makom hazeh," as Rabbi Chaim Volozhin did whenever he crossed the bridge from which the Vilna Gaon's mother had fallen from her mother's arms as an infant, only to be found bobbing on a pillow in the cold Romanova River.
The story about falling through the ice of the Charles River when he was five I knew, though not the part about regaining consciousness in a room full of people crying over his imminent demise. Two of those near-death experiences involved my grandfather's role helping to support his family from an early age. The family could not afford coal with which to heat their lodgings in the winter, and my grandfather would comb building sites (with permission) to gather scrap wood for heating. On one occasion, he crashed through a floor on the third story of a building, and plummeted all the way to the basement. He was eight.
When he was 15, his father told him he would have to leave school and go to work in a factory to help pay the bills. My grandfather refused. He told his father that he would pay rent instead. Shortly thereafter, he was dragged two blocks by a trolley when he stumbled trying to board with a heavy load of papers to hawk to passengers.
Along with the excitement of "hearing" my grandfather's voice for the first time, I must confess that I felt a certain sense of yeridas hadoros. My brothers and I went through university and were able to learn for years in kollel on the trust funds my grandfather established. That was a far cry from his own experience. He showed up at Harvard weighing 70 pounds, after having lost 15 pounds working the preceding summer doing piecework in a factory. The college authorities insisted on testing him for tuberculosis before they would let him matriculate. During the three years he took to graduate, he waited on tables 30 hours a week and taught review courses before finals for his less studious and far richer classmates.
After arriving in America from Slonim, my grandfather's family lived in a series of apartments in Chelsea, Massachusetts, without indoor plumbing. I suspect that he would have been surprised to learn that he was the beneficiary of "white privilege." But one thing he did know about was anti-Semitism. As the top economics graduate of his year, he was hired out of college by a Chicago bank. But when he showed up for work, and the person who had hired him realized he was Jewish, the position suddenly disappeared, only to be filled a bit later by a much lower-ranking classmate with the proper genealogy. But my grandfather had the last laugh. When the bank approached him years later to ask why he never availed himself of their services, he let them know in no uncertain terms.
My grandfather was five years younger than my grandmother, who survived him by almost four decades. It was moving to read the way he expressed his indebtedness to her: "Fan[nie] married me when I was young. My character was still pliant. . . . [W]hat I am today and what I represent in my life, my beliefs and my communal activities, is to a large extent the result of her handiwork. She molded me like a sculptor working with soft clay."
Much of the autobiography is taken up with my grandfather's philanthropic activities, almost all of which centered on Jewish education and the fledgling State of Israel. These were clearly the pursuits closest to his heart. And they give me cause to think that he would have been happy that so many of his descendants returned to the strict Torah observance of his childhood home, though he would certainly have been surprised by the development of a vibrant American Orthodoxy.
THE POWERFUL EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE of connecting to my grandfather for the first time made me realize that I could do something similar with my father. Unlike the case with my grandfather, I can instantly summon up hundreds of memories of my father. But that only means I miss him more.
In his last ten years living with my mother in Eretz Yisrael — the ten years he described as the happiest of his life — my father sent over 600 long e-mails to a group of friends and relatives. My brother was able to gather them all. And now I can "hear" my father talking again, and enjoy the dry sense of humor that always came out in his writing.
True, the e-mails are not a replacement for my father. I cannot seek his advice nor watch him kvell over the more than 50 great-grandchildren born in the 12 years since his passing. But as a means of feeling his presence, they are unsurpassed.
I AM NOW TEN YEARS OLDER than my grandfather was when he passed away, and I would like to leave something similar to his autobiography for my descendants.
I'm currently putting the final touches on a collection of over 100 pieces on people I have known and encounters I've had along the way. Most of the subjects are unsung heroes, Jews who lived ordinary lives of quiet dignity and salutary influence. While going over these pieces, it suddenly hit me: If I had to pick one book of mine to leave over for my descendants, this would be the one.
Rabbeinu Yonah explains the verse ish l'fi me'halalo to mean that a person is judged by what he praises. And the thing that I like most about these pieces is that they are almost uniformly positive. I'm not so lacking in self-awareness as to think that they fully represent me as either a person or as a writer. My children will no doubt remember a critical side as well.
But at least they do convey a message I would like to pass on: Look for the good in everyone you meet, learn from that good, and use the wisdom thus attained to improve your own lives and those of everyone with whom you come into contact.
There is an old Jewish tradition of leaving over ethical wills to one's descendants. Having experienced the joy of having something tangible to remember my grandfather and father by, I can only urge everyone to try to write something in that genre.
But much more important, in the end, is not the written message but the lives that we live. If we do that properly, the influence on our children and their children and their children's children will be more powerful than anything we can write, even if they know nothing of the great-grandparent for whom they are named.