Saturday, December 06, 2008

Reflections on a Yarzeit

I've spoken about my grandfather before. I knew his yarzeit was coming up but I didn't get around to checking the exact date until it was almost too late.

I was a child when he died; a combination of my parents waiting almost ten years after their marriage to have children and his own poor health meant that while many of my friends got to have substantial relationships with their grandparents, mine was greatly truncated. His religious mania and mental illness, resulting in cutting himself off from his entire family, didn't help matters.

I never got a chance to really say goodbye, and I never got a chance to properly mourn. I was supposed to be sad, and I was, but it was impossible to mourn someone I had been robbed of having the chance to know in the first place. What I was really saddest about was that I had never gotten a chance to ask him so many questions, and now I never would. I met him three times in my life and I can only hazily remember the last two. The the last time I was visiting his hospital bed and reminding him who I was.

Even in death, I got only shadows. The funeral was held in New York. Despite my begging to go, my father went alone. I have never seen his tombstone. I never got a chance to say Kaddish or even light a candle. I fasted for most of the day after we found out he had died, but I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing. When he got sick, I made a deal with him and God that I would get a Bar Mitzvah, and he would live. Somehow I thought it would buy God off, and maybe give him a reason to keep going. For a while after he died I became resolute that I would fulfill my promise-- even though he and God had broken their part of the deal. This plan died the day my father was harangued by a local Reform rabbi that their shul didn't perform "Quickie Bar Mitzvahs" and stormed out of his office cursing.

As a child, I fixated on my grandfather. I saw my grandmother once or twice a year and my mother's parents were long dead, but my grandfather was alive and missing. I was told I looked like him; I was told I had met him once and he really liked me. I was told that he and my father had had a big fight a long time ago and they didn't speak anymore. When I was ten, my greatest dream was to have a birthday where both my grandparents were in the same room. Not only didn't this ever happen, the one time I met and mentioned this to my step-grandmother she flew into a rage and almost slapped me.

My grandfather did not have an easy life. He was born into poverty on the Lower East Side to Yiddish-speaking immigrants (his first day of school saw him get sent home with a note pinned to his shirt questioning if he was retarded or not-- he couldn't understand anything the teacher said because he didn't know English), the oldest of six children. He dropped out of school in 8th grade to work in a family-owned rag shop. Somehow, he got himself into a drafting program in Maine, of all places, and became a cross between a draftsman, would-be-engineer, and salesman for stainless steel. We still have some of his sketches.

Sometimes he was kind. When he decided he was sweet on my grandmother and found out her family was against them getting involved (her family was considerably better off and had immigrated a generation earlier), he took a train to her grandmother's apartment and charmed her by singing Yiddish love songs. When he came back from business trips he always had candy or presents stuffed into his pockets for his children. He never missed a day of work in his life and there was always food on the table and clean clothes on the children.

But he also had a dark side. He was a highly functional alcoholic for most of his adult life; he would spend his nights locked in his workshop tinkering away at his latest invention that would make him rich; it never happened. He was paranoid at work and would get in fights with his bossed and quit jobs every few years; my father lived in eight homes before graduating High School. The greatest "adventure" was a year-long expedition to Venezuela, where my grandfather was convinced they would live like kings. Instead they found themselves trapped in the middle of a hostile revolution, at the mercy of thieving bureaucrats and a corrupt police force. In the end, the country nationalized all the businesses, and my family escaped on the last plane out, with only the clothes on their backs. Until the very last minute, my grandfather was convinced he could make it work. The only reason they got out at all was that my grandmother had forced him to sign over the money they got for their house in New Jersey over to her. She told him that if he wanted to stay in South America he was welcome to, but that they were going back home. He reluctantly came along, too. They had left with a fancy car, their own house in the suburbs, and a decent income. They returned so poor they had to split up their 4 kids among relatives for six months before they could afford a large enough apartment. They never owned another home, and my grandmother never forgave him.

This was all before he decided he was the Messiah and a Prophet. I can only wonder at my grandmother's reaction to his new insistence that everything had to be super-kosher, that she needed to dress modestly, and their sons wear yarmulkes and peyess to school. She had been raised Modern Orthodox by first generation Americans. His parents had been secular Communists who went to shul a few times a year. After many years of trying, she gave up and left him. He fell in with a group of Hasidim (we suspect, Chabad), and settled in as a "fellow traveler" for a good decade-plus. Toward the end of his life he was still Orthodox, though I don't know if he still received "visions."

I'm not a huge drash person, but today's Parsha is Vayetzei, and looking at it, I thought there were some interesting insights that dovetailed with my grandfather's life:

Jacob leaves B'eer Sheba and goes to Haran, after just having stolen his brother's birthright. Jacob's early life is spent dueling with Esau, and he achieves pre-eminence through deception and theft. But even as their differences are highlighted, Jacob and Esau eventually come back together and have some sort of reconciliation. They are still twins, still brothers. My grandfather's bipolar disorder meant that in many ways, he was like two men, one who was kind, gregarious and affectionate, and another, the paranoid, superior, overbearing patriarch, for whom there was always a right way and a wrong way, and the right way was his alone. My grandfather was also profoundly affected by the loss of his only brother, my father's namesake, who died at age 19 in World War Two. Without him I think my grandfather felt lost. It underscored the fact that he had to be responsible for everyone- for carrying on the family legacy, for taking care of his parents and sisters, for raising his own family- everything was on HIM.

Jacob's earlier deception of Esau is met with being deceived himself by his Uncle Laban. Similarly, I feel that the sad irony of my grandfather's life is that by being so demanding and uncompromising in his ideal of "what a family is," "what good children do," "how my wife should act," he was ultimately left with no family to speak of. His inflexibility meant that the people that should have mattered most were, at the end, inflexible with him, and wrote him out of their lives. In another irony, his obsession with being Jewish in "the right way" resulted in a profound alienation of his children from anything Jewish for years. My father will probably not voluntarily enter a synagogue for the rest of his life. One uncle is a few-times-a-year-Jew, the other is active in a Reform congregation. Though my aunt originally made her husband convert (supposedly to please my grandfather), his lack of interaction with her ultimately was so painful they decided there was nothing in Judaism at all for them. Their children were raised as Lutherans. Had my grandfather not been so rigid, his call to religion could have been a model of possibility, instead of repression and opposition.

Lastly, Jacob has his vision where he is visited by angels. There were several times in my grandfather's life where he believed he was having visions. Sadly he was surrounded by people, particularly in his later years, who encouraged these "visions" and made him feel as if God was speaking through him rather than telling him to get help. The idea of Jacob receiving revelation is a very tricky concept for me to wrap my head around, but I have always felt personal identification with the story of prophets and would-be-Messiahs. In some ways, it is a very small club, being the family of a person who declared themselves to have been "IT." When I first started researching Chabad part of me wondered, "Why couldn't those crowds in Crown Heights have been congregating around Grampa instead of Schneerson?" The twists of fate, of which prophets get followers and which just linger in shadows, is a fascinating thing to look at throughout history. I feel kinship with the families of all the would-be-prophets and Messiahs of the centuries, and I feel sadness that when these people are remembered, it is as mere footnotes in the presence of the "great ones" they spent their lives around. (This has also given me a rather jaded view of venerated personalities like Jesus or Joseph Smith; I can't really take someone's claim of being a Messiah or prophet seriously-- or at least, any more seriously, than I can my own grandfather's.)

Jacob's revelations from God are treated as wonderful, impactful, moments in the Torah and Jewish history. In many ways, he personifies the Jews- he IS Israel. But I cannot think about the patriarchs and prophets receiving words from God without thinking about my own family, and how disastrous these "visions" were. When I think of the actual impact of a family member believing their faith trumps everything, including loyalty and love to their family, to their children, I think of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Though we celebrate Abraham's faith, we also wrestle with his choice-- that ultimately, he chooses to obey God rather than protect his son. I think it's significant that we don't really hear about Isaac and Abraham together after that. The betrayal of a father to a child is something tremendously painful, all the more so when done in the name of something that is supposed to be pure and holy.

My grandfather sacrificed his family on the altar. And, unlike Isaac, we were not spared. The saddest part is, neither was my grandfather.

Today, I said Kaddish for him for the very first time. Today, I lit a candle for him for the first time. Today, I remember him. I remember how much I wanted to learn from him, how much I needed him. How much I wanted to love him, to even know him.

I remember that these things were taken from me. I remember the disapointment and sadness of knowing I would never get to know him better. After he died, I interviewed relatives to try to know him as much as possible, but some questions can never be answered after the fact. I don't know what his favorite color was. I don't know what he thought when he got married, or became a father. I don't know what books he liked, or what gave him joy in life. And I never will.

Faith and religion are so important to me because my relationship with them is so complicated, just like my relationship with my family. I wrestle with these concepts every day. What is Judaism? Who is a Jew? What is a family? Who is my family?

I will struggle with these questions my whole life, and that's ok. But on today, as I remember my grandfather, I also carry with me the values of what must be taught with and respected as much as, if not more than, faith. Things like decency, and kindness. Patience, and forgiveness. I am probably among the most religious people in my family, certainly the most Jewishly-literate. But I can never, and will never, let issues like faith, religion, or politics, stop me from loving my family.

Today I remember. And I mourn. I do not mourn the man as much as the tragedy of his life and of our relationship, and the tragedy that I was denied a chance to know him more. I will remember him, but also his mistakes. And I will try my whole life to learn from them.

In loving Memory.

Mordechai Yosef ben Noach

I miss you.


Oyster said...

It was a similar story between my grandfather and me, with language being the barrier.

May HaShem comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

maffy said...

Not to negate what your post means to you, but I've been going through something with the changing nature of "family" since I got married, and have been praying for guidance. You spoke from your heart about your issues, but you touched me, too. I hope I can get past the issues of "faith, religion, or politics" and let go - let love - and, above all, learn from my mistakes.
Thank you for so eloquently sharing your wisdom.
Be well.

Jack said...

That was a nice post.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

never got a chance to really say goodbye

I know the feeling -- one of my grandfather's died when I was young, and never had the chance to say goodbye either.

Your post was a very fitting tribute to your grandfather's memory.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...

nice psot

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