Times they are a’changing. Today’s grandparents are called grandpa, gramps, poppa or maybe Saba, and grandma or nana or maybe Savta. My grandparents were called bobbeh and zaideh. My zaideh, the most beloved person in my life, died one month short of my ninth birthday. I remember him today as though he were sitting next to me, stroking my hair, gently pinching my cheek, slicing a piece of apple, peeling an orange with his pen knife to place a taste of sweetness in my mouth. Occasionally he would find small bits of chocolate, coupled with wet kisses and warm hugs.
When I was about seven years old I once asked him, “Zaideh, what can I be when I grow up?” And I remember well his reply. “Es iz nit azoi vichtik vos arbeit ihr ton. Di vichtik zach iz nur tzu zein a mentsch” (It is not so important what work you do. The most important thing is to be a good person”.)
Zaideh was the shamash of his small shul, Linas Hatzedek, and was a learned and pious Orthodox Jew.
One Shabbat, my father and I walked to zaideh’s apartment. It must have been a two or three mile walk and it seemed forever to get there. The long walk did not bother me. I was anxious to be with my zaideh and to be hugged and kissed by him.
While there, my father went into the bathroom, a windowless small room with a pull chain toilet, and in violation of Shabbat he lit and smoked a cigarette, flushing the remains in the toilet.
Some minutes later, zaideh had to go to the bathroom. When he came out, he spoke gently to my father:
“Yankev Lev, fun mir darfst du nit tzu behalten und fun almachtiken Gott ihr kennt keinmal nit behalten”.(Yaakov Lev, from me you don’t have to hide and from Almighty God you can never hide.)
Some grandparents read stories, nursery rhymes and fables from books to amuse and interest their young grandchildren. My zaideh used to sing to me Hebrew and Yiddish songs and prayers and recite to me stories of Bible heroes. By the age of six, I heard tales of Abraham being tossed into a fiery furnace by king Nimrod, of the young David who slew the giant Goliath with his slingshot, of how a brave Moshe defied the mighty Egyptian pharaoh and saved the Hebrew people.
Once, near Chanukah, he told me a story about how wicked soldiers surrounded Jerusalem and wanted to kill all the Jews. A rabbi pretended to be dead and his body was carried out of the city by his students. Outside he met the general of the enemy army and spoke with him. The general was so impressed that he granted the rabbi’s wish and that is how the Jewish people survived.
I don’t remember if he knew or recalled the details of that story but many years later, as a grown man, I found it in a volume of the Talmud.
During the years 66-70 of the common era, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman legions under the command of the mighty general, Vespatian. The city was suffering from a terrible famine and hundreds of Jews were dying of hunger. There were Jewish terrorists in those days, known as the Zealots (kana-im) but referred to by pious Jews as the Biryonim (ruffians & bandits). They destroyed many years of food supplies and water purposely to arouse the anger of the Jewish population which would hopefully entice them to fight and revolt against the Romans.
The leader and commander of these extreme Jewish militants was a man named Abba Sikra. He was the chief of Jewish murderers known as the Sycarii, for the knife or dagger which they used to kill any Jew who opposed them. He had an uncle, brother of his mother, the famous Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yochanan sent a message to his nephew requesting that he come to meet with him in secret. He asked him, “How long will you continue to destroy the world by famine?” Abba Sikra replied, “Uncle. There is nothing I can do. It is now beyond my control. If I oppose what we have been doing my comrades will kill me”.
Rabban Yochanan asked his nephew to come up with a plan which would allow him to be smuggled out of the city. The gates of Jerusalem were guarded by the Zealots and no Jew was allowed to leave, under penalty of death. Abba Sikra suggested to his uncle to pretend to be very ill. A short time later, his pupils were to announce that he was on his death bed, and later to announce that Rabbi Yochanan had died.
His students would then place him in a coffin and pretend to carry him for burial outside the wall of the ancient city.
As they approached the guarded gate, a Zealot soldier drew his sword and wanted to pierce the coffin and the body to be certain that Rabban Yochanan was indeed dead. His students shouted at him in bitter anger “How dare you defile the body of our sainted Rabbi?” Feeling ashamed, the Jewish Zealot soldier opened a passage in the gate and allowed the students to carry the coffin outside for burial.
Once outside the gates, Rabban Yochanan came out of the coffin and made his way to the headquarters of the Roman legion.
Upon meeting general Vespatian, Rabban Yochanan greeted him. “Peace be with you, o mighty Caesar. Peace be with you. O mighty Caesar”. Vespatian was angry. “I am the general of the Roman legion. I am not the Emperor. How dare you greet me as Caesar?”
As they were speaking, a messenger arrived from Rome to announce that the Emperor was dead and the Roman Senate had declared Vespatian to be Rome’s new Emperor.
Amazed at Rabbi Yochanan’s wisdom, he offered to grant him one wish.
Rabbi Yochanan knew that he could not ask the Emperor to withdraw all of his legion from Jerusalem and to spare the city and the Holy Temple. He understood that Rome had invested too many years and too many soldiers for the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem in that fateful year, 70 of the common era.
So Rabban Yochanan made the one request which the Emperor had granted him. “Give me Yavneh and its Sages”. The request was granted. When Jerusalem was set ablaze, Yavneh became the new center of Jewish learning and scholarship. The Mishnah was written in Yavneh and the rabbinical Judaism which we observe today was born in Yavneh, thanks to the wisdom of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
So finally, putting the pieces together, I understood the story which my zaideh was telling me 76 years ago. The tales my zaideh taught me live on even though he died so very long ago.
The stories, the hugs and kisses, the songs, the unbounded love of zaideh for me and me for him live on.
Grandparents, by whatever name your einaklach call you, remember to hug them, kiss them, tell them the stories of your life, share your Jewishness with them. In them you will remain eternal even though the flesh no longer remains.