It’s thirty-six years since my great-grandmother Sadie died, but I can still hear her ask me in accented English, “Do you go to Cheder?”
That’s a guttural pronunciation, sort of like your are clearing your throat, Hay-der. If you are really curious click on that link and you can hear it in the first 15 seconds or so.
Towards the end of her life when old age and some dementia the question would sometimes come at me in Yiddish and then my grandfather would step in.
“מאַ, דאָס איז דיין גראַנדסאַן יהושע. ”
“Ma, this is Joshua, your great-grandson.” That would often be followed with him pointing at my mother and saying, “he is Phyllis’ son.”
It was also right about the time I took Yiddish in school so I appreciated the opportunity to practice without homework or need to engage in a conversation with our teacher.
Given my deep dive into our family genealogy I have been thinking about all of my great-great grandparents quite a bit, wondering what life was like in the old country.
Wondering what led them here and how closely their old lives reflected scenes from Fiddler On The Roof.
Among my Jewish friends it wasn’t unusual to have family from Europe. Most of us were very familiar with European accented English and hearing Yiddish.
Those of us who participated in Jewish youth groups and activities heard survivors speak about life in the camps and what life looked like before. Some knew those stories first hand from family.
Most of my family got to the states long before the Holocaust so maybe that is why I didn’t spend much time asking questions that are obvious to me now.
Why do we do what we do?
It is a tradition or so the sages have taught us.
My Great-Grandfather, The Cohen
Those are the tombstones of Grandma Sadie’s parents. Apparently my Great-Grandfather was a Cohen, part of the priestly class.Nun
If you can’t read the Hebrew there are two Hebrew letters at the top, Pey and Nun which are used as abbreviations for a phrase in Hebrew that translates as “Here lies.”
Grandpa Isaac Axelrod’s stone has his picture and what some would call “Spock Hands,” or a “Vulcan salute.” Leonard Nimoy took it from Jewish tradition. If you are curious you can read more about it here.
If I read no further down my grandfather’s stone I would know that meant but it is reinforced in the Hebrew below that says Yitzhak Eliezer, the son of Shalom The Cohen.
I have vague memories of hearing some of us were Cohens but I don’t remember much detail. My maternal grandmother told me a few stories about her grandparents, but not a ton.
None of them really focused upon religion so I haven’t a solid idea about whether my great-great grandparents were particularly observant but given the words upon the stone I have some questions.
Grandpa Isaac was born 118 years before me. His father Shalom was born 145 years before I came into a world far different than the one he knew.
Shalom lived just long enough he might have heard of and or seen cars. Isaac was familiar with cars, there is a newspaper story about one of my aunts and him being in an accident.
But he probably never imagined a time where his great-great grandson could travel around the world with relative ease.
If A Picture Could Speak
Told June a thousand years ago that I have seen a few pictures that felt like they turned the statement above into a an answer.
Pictures can speak and they have done so for me more than once and time has taught me not to ignore such things.
Just as I hear the damn bells inside my head and know there is an ethereal telephone line sharing thoughts between my head and another I know those pictures speak.
On a Zoom a while back I heard someone who thought they were on mute say the years had not been kind to me and I rolled my eyes.
That says more about the commenter than anyone else. No comment about character or what kind of people we have become.
I have a list of flaws and faults about myself that I sometimes consider. Some are things that are substantive and require work and others are things that are only issues if vanity comes into play.
Sometimes when I think about family members listed above and others not mentioned I wonder what sorts of things they wondered about.
Did they have time, energy or inclination to be concerned about whether their hairline had moved or issues with flecks of grey in their beards.
Were their marriages arranged by a matchmaker. Did their shtetls have their own Yenta and were they fixed up?
Or were they like the tailor Mottel Kamzoil and Tzeitel. Did they marry out of love or convenience? Would they look at modern relationships and shake their heads or nod in recognition.
What kinds of dreams did they have and how similar or different would they be from ours?
Some things had to be very different because the world isn’t the same as it once was and yet maybe there are some basic similarities.
In the prior post I asked if people would recognize my writing and can see application to some of the questions from above.
Because human history is dotted with a thousand examples of songs and stories that provide answers to those questions, at least in a general sense.
What I am missing are the details and the color that fleshes it all out.
Shouldn’t be a surprise to a guy with 27 different blogs and 198,000 posts. Shouldn’t be a surprise to a guy with 1,933,933 stories, most of which are never read but are still written down.
Tevye is correct about some things being done because of tradition and yet so many other things happen for no identifiable reason at all.
Someone asked me to explain why I want answers to some of the questions I ask and I laughed.
I am a curious fellow and have a million different questions, though I keep most to myself. Much of it is driven by simple curiosity and nothing more.
There isn’t always a burning need to have an answer that I consider logical, reasonable and rational though that sometimes exist.
I can’t always explain how and why I feel a certain way about people, things or experiences and I often don’t feel the need to.
But sometimes…well sometimes I am driven because the explanation or lack thereof feels so wrong to me I want to know more.
And I find myself wondering if that is just me or if there is an ancestor or ancestors who felt the same.
Dunno, but am curious for certain.
Maybe that is why I write, keeps me sane when I am dancing in the fire or maybe it is something else.
Dunno, maybe it is a tradition.