My story does not begin with me; no one’s does. Each of us is the product of the genetics and the experiences built up and passed down through generations, which combine to make us who we are. As the generations stretch back through the mists of time, pinpointing the start of our own individual stories can be a challenge.
In my case, determining a starting point for my ancestral story is relatively easy. All four of my grandparents were immigrants to the United States, born in lands then ruled by the Russian Czar. The stories of earlier generations, the products of lands where few records were kept, cannot be known other than in broad outline. Besides, there is an obvious discontinuity between my grandparents’ experiences as new Americans and the lives their forebears led under East European despotisms.
My father’s parents were born in a town called Borisov, in the region of Minsk, in what is today Belarus. The family name was originally Axenzoff and became Aronin as a result of an “only son adoption.” (Only sons were exempt from the Czarist draft, so it was common for childless couples to adopt children from larger families.) My paternal grandparents met and married in Europe and had their oldest child there, my fathers’s brother Hymie.
My maternal grandfather, who grew up with the name Cosoavrtitzky (later changed to Cohen in the US), was born in the Kiev region of Ukraine, in a town called Ulshana. My maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Ellenport, also grew up near Kiev, in a town called Stavische.
All four of my grandparents were part of the third wave of Jewish immigrants who arrived in this country between 1880 and 1924, from whom most American Jews of my generation are descended. Their stories will sound familiar to any student of the period. All of them, no doubt, had heard America touted as the goldeneh medeinah (golden land), where it was easy to earn a living. Compared to the Czarist lands from which they came, no doubt it was. But for most unskilled immigrants, earning a living in America required a lifetime of hard work. A few prospered but most, including all my grandparents, led working class lives.
My paternal grandfather (whom we always called by the Yiddish term Zaydi) was a garment worker who supplemented his wages by earnings as a part-time chazan. My maternal grandfather ran a small neighborhood grocery store. Their lifestyles were better than they could have achieved in Eastern Europe, but by our standards even middle class Americans in the early twentieth century hardly lived lives of luxury. Their consolation was the hope that their children — born and raised in America — could succeed far beyond anything to which their parents could aspire.
My Zaydi came here ahead of his wife and son, to prepare the way, and then sent for them. His parents and a younger brother had died in Europe, and he left a married sister with whom the family lost touch during World War II. Another brother immigrated here but never sent for the wife and child he had left in Europe. He was eventually discovered living in Atlanta with another wife.
My maternal grandmother, called Grandma Chava (or Eva), was the grandparent I knew best, for she lived with my parents from shortly after we moved to our house in the Bergen Beach section of Brooklyn until she died at age . She came to this country as a teenagaer, together with a stepsister of the same age of 95, to prepare the way for the rest of the family, which followed. She met her husband, my maternal grandfather (after whom I am named) here. He had arrived together with his widowed mother and five younger siblings, leaving two older brothers in Europe. They also lost touch during the war, a fairly common experience at the time. They are believed to have died in the 1941 massacre at Babi Yar.
My maternal grandfather’s mother, known to the family as Bubbe Tubeh, is an almost mythical figure in family lore. She was, by all accounts, an incredibly strong and resilient woman. She gave birth to 15 or 16 children (there is some dispute as to the exact number), only eight of whom survived infancy. When her husband, who had been a shokhet (ritual slaughterer), died, she chose to make a new start in America with her youngest six children, the oldest of whom was my grandfather, then 16. It took a lot in those days to immigrate to a foreign land. Many — both Jews and non-Jews — undertook the journey, but for a widow with six children, it took extraordinary courage.
While she was alive, Bubbe Tubeh was the glue that held the family together. Every Sunday, I’ve been told, the entire extended family, sometimes augmented by other landsmen (immigrants from the same European town) would gather at her apartment. Attendance was mandatory; everyone had to be there unless they were sick or had a wedding. One story I heard sticks in my memory. When my Aunt Bea (who was Bubbe Tubeh’s granddaughter) graduated from college and looked for a job as a teacher, Bubbe Tubeh insisted that her youngest son, Ben, help Bea find a job. Ben, by far the most financially successful of the family, had moved to a town north of the city, where he served on the local school board. He initially protested that many people were looking for scarce jobs, but Bubeh Tubeh was adamant: “She’s your brother’s daughter. You have to help her.” He did.
Bubbe Tubeh died long before I was born; I know of her through the stories told by her grandchildren. My Zaydi, by contrast, died — at the age of 90 — when I was fourteen. In the last year of his life, Zaydi experienced three milestones that to me have always symbolized the aspirations, professional and personal, of the immigrants of his generation. He was the sandek at the brit milah (circumcision) of his youngest grandson, my brother Scott. He saw my father, his youngest son, sworn in as a Judge of the New York City Civil Court. And he recited the sheva berakhot (wedding blessings) under the chuppah of his oldest great-granddaughter.
Both Zaydi and Bubeh Tubeh remained religiously observant all their lives, yet neither was able to pass on that religious commitment to the generations that followed. In truth, it’s not clear to me how much either tried. I have no doubt they would have preferred that their progeny remain religious, yet they were well aware of America’s corrosive effect on the religious tradition to which they remained loyal. America was not only the goldeneh medinah; it was also known to the religious elite of Europe as the treyfe medinah (non-kosher land). Like many thousands of Jewish immigrants of their generation, they took that risk as the price of the safety and potential prosperity that America offered. Even those for whom material success proved elusive still had the benefit of security. There were no pogroms in America.
I can’t say they made a bad bargain. After all, the more strictly religious elements of European Jewry largely followed the exhortations of their leaders and remained in Europe, where the bulk of them fell victim to the Nazi Holocaust. Without those who had voluntarily chosen to make their homes in America, there might not have been enough Jews left to salvage. On the other hand, without the enhanced commitment of those remnants who came to America in later decades (often called the fourth wave of Jewish immigration), the religious revival of American Jewry would not have been possible.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am, after all, a product of the third great wave of Jewish immigrants, not the fourth. The choices I have made were influenced by those made by my two grandfathers, and by their children, my parents. And it’s those choices, for better or for worse, that I leave as a legacy for my children and grandchildren.
Since I have chosen to live my life as an observant Jew, the influence of my Zaydi is obvious. The influence of David Cohen, my maternal grandfather — whom I never met and with whose life choices I seem to have little in common — is less tangible but no less significant. He had been a yeshiva bochur in Europe, and when he abandoned religious observance in America, it was not primarily for reasons of convenience. As my mother explained it to me, her father, on coming to America, discovered a world of knowledge that was previously unknown to him — and, he felt, the yeshiva had cheated its students by hiding it from them. The quest for knowledge of all kinds was my grandfather’s passion. According to my mother, when he had saved a little bit of money and could afford something beyond bare necessities, his first purchase was a Yiddish language encyclopedia. It was his search for knowledge and his sense of the yeshiva world as too narrow a focus for that search that led him to abandon religious Judaism.
I never attended a yeshiva and thus never felt the anger that my grandfather felt at knowledge withheld. I did inherit, however, his desire to pursue knowledge of all kinds, his curiosity about the world around him. Combined with the variegated experiences of my own background — a non-sectarian private school, and an Ivy League college and law school — that makes it impossible for me to deny his influence on the person and the Jew I became. A belief in the overarching value of all knowledge is too deeply ingrained in me to adopt the chareidi perspective, which values secular knowledge solely as a means of livelihood.
Yet I also realize that without a commitment to shemirat mitzvot, (observance of the commandments), something would be missing in my life. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written (in the introduction to his siddur):
It is possible to have a life without prayer, Just as it is possible to have a life without music, or love or laughter, but it is a diminished thing, missing whole dimensions of experience.
If my maternal grandfather provides the intellectual framework for my life, Zaydi, chazan that he was, provides the music — not just in the literal sense, but in the sense Rabbi Sacks means: that aspect of life that is beyond intellect. My grandfather, with his yeshiva background and steeped in the culture of the Yiddish-speaking world in which he lived his life, may not have realized how much would be missing from the lives of his descendants if they followed his path and abandoned religious Judaism. But with the benefit of hindsight, we who live in the twenty-first century cannot escape knowledge of how much has been lost by the many thousands of Jews who have followed that path without the benefit of his background.
The legacies of both my grandfathers has been central to how I have lived my life and what I have sought to teach my children. I have sought to combine the piety of my Zaydi with the intellectual curiosity of my maternal grandfather. In the decades since my grandfather’s departure from religious Judaism, many Jews of far greater intellect than I have struggled with the tension between Jewish tradition and the knowledge bequeathed to us by modernity. I have had the benefit of exposure to many of these thinkers, some in person and others through their written words. The intellectual achievements born of their struggles have enriched the lives of many Jews, myself included. But that’s a story for another time.