Not too long ago, my bubbe and zayde lived in a crowded apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a place filled with books and Yiddish newspapers strewn over the armchairs (the Forward, Die Morgen Journal, Der Algemeiner). There was a sense of holy, righteous and predetermined doom, as though all the travails of the Diaspora resided in the heavy air of that apartment — its bookcases, its plastic-sheathed couches, tea drunk in yahrzeit glasses, and supermarket (Red Apple) bags scrupulously saved for all kinds of future use.
They were never young in my lifetime, only old; but as a small child, given my intense love for them it was ludicrous to me that they should die. And they had no interest in dying as far as I could tell. We would visit them every Sunday. My father would unhappily ferry us over from Queens — first in his ’59 Chevy and then later in the upgrade, the “magnificent” 1970 Chevrolet Biscayne. He would circle in it endlessly until he found a parking space, which was sometimes never. I thought this Sunday ritual of visiting them would go on, if not forever, at least till the end of recorded history, but despite my hopes and strong protests, they did die, eventually.
Now I visit them in the cemetery at Rosh Hashanah time. In the shadow of their tombstones, I remember them, but I also want to forget them. I want to remember them because I loved them. I want to forget them because I love myself.
My bubbe (of blessed memory) wore on her person the dust and debris of the centuries — the Cossacks, the Chelmnitzky massacres, the pieties of the Polish rebbes (she was a daughter of the Tiferes Ish – the Novominsker rebbe). On account of her sufferings, both physical and soulful, “life” had taught her to say “Oy vey iz mir”, and she would utter these words at the drop of a hat. An attack at Lod Airport? Oy vey iz mir. A heat wave in Far Rockaway? Oy vey iz mir.
Unlike others of her generation, she held neither a wish nor a hope for assimilation. Instead, deep inside her, she had the irrepressible human hope that we would become a more perfect version of her. Free of the constraints and provinciality of the shtetl, she prayed that we become fully of the modern world, medical doctors preferred, and talmudic scholars, too, if not also miracle workers — but please, for heaven’s sake, look a little more American! Thin out those peyes and don’t wear your tzitzis outside the pants!
It wasn’t all ideology by any means. As in most Jewish grandparent households, food was also at the center of our existence. My grandmother would make supper for us — usually meatballs and spaghetti. It was from her place in the kitchen that the women in the family ruled and continue to inspire, devastate and haunt us for generations to come. My zayde on the other hand, was an adventurer, irrepressibly buoyant. He was sure that all the doom, the tragedies, the attacks, even the Cold War, were a precursor to, even proof of the coming of the Messiah. He too, son of a rebbe, and son-in-law and nephew of one of the great Polish rebbes, had to make peace with America. To wear the Hasidic hat or the fedora? Full beard or clean-shaven? He compromised with a goatee — a shpits bord.
In both of my grandparents there was on one hand, an exultation in freedom from the Old World, but on the other hand, the injunction to revere, preserve, venerate, and pass down its ways.
A short time after the war, when he came to America, my grandfather became intoxicated with Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik — the rav. He attended his lectures enthusiastically. In the summers when the Rabbinical Council of America’s conventions were held in Lido Beach, New York, Zayde would make a beeline after Havdalah to catch Soleveitchik’s talks. To him, the rav was the perfect embodiment of the beautiful old world and the promise of the new one. He was not just a talmudic genius whose Latin was as good as his Yiddish, he was a major philosopher and chancellor of Yeshiva University to boot. A mayster, he would say, shaking his head and repeating himself, as if in a trance.
But at Yizkor and at the cemetery, I am seized by the paradox: I want to remember. I want to forget. I want to remember. How could I not? The mere fact of being a Jew imposes a burden of consciousness and a feeling of debt to our forebears, certainly to the last generation of survivors. But I also want to forget, forget the whole thing, the whole burden of life and death, the chain and claim of Judaism. Perhaps I could embrace something more New Age, something worn more lightly, not so demanding and heavy with emotionality, the sacred burden, the messianic impulse, so that I can live my own sweet, horrible life.
But at the end of the day, I am here — at the cemetery, living in the shadow of my grandparents and in the shadow of the great idea under which they lived: how a certain people – nomads from the land of Canaan — can and will go until the end of time.
I place my stones on the grave. Another Rosh Hashanah, another cemetery visit. Perhaps I’ve realized I am very much like them.
My grandparents were relics of a world that had ceased to exist, fragments of a lost civilization, but the memories of what was and what had been in the Old World smoldered in their minds and ignited a fire in mine. As very articulate Polish Jews, they showered brilliant but inchoate sparks on me, 10,000 tiny fragments. Others and I prolong their memory in prose and deed; their lives and their souls are immortalized at Yizkor. They died, but they did not die off.
Simon Yisrael Feuerman is a psychotherapist in New Jersey and director of the New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies.