Sometimes, I feel like I should rename this column Dumbfounding Questions That My 5-Year-Old Asks Me.
“Daddy,” asked Zev, “when did our family begin?”
Well-equipped with an answer from my rabbinic utility belt, I naturally told him that our family began with Adam and Eve.
“No,” said Zev. “When did our family begin?”
There you go, totally dumbfounded. When did our family family begin?” After taking five minutes in the car to think it through, I came up with what I believe to be the right answer.
Instead of going right to school, I told Zev to follow me down the hall to my office. I took a book the shelf and encouraged him to flip through it. The book was printed in 1903. I then showed him the opening page stamped with the name Herman Gerendasi: his great-great-great grandfather.
Our family, I then explained, began with this book. Why? After his sons Morris and Frank made a life for themselves in America, Herman soon followed. When Herman came over from Bericzaz, a small city in Hungary, one of the few things that he carried with him was a set of his chumashim, among other sacred books.
We take it for granted, I explained, but when Herman emigrated to New York, he had a very important decision to make. Many people came to America and decided that the Torah was no longer important. Yet it was in Herman’s choice to carry the Torah with him to America that our family story began.
Our family story — one of connection to Torah — has been one that is ongoing. Herman would then pass these books to his grandson Herbert, who would walk him to shul on Shabbos as he lived into his late 90s. Herbert, a gabbai at his shul and now in his 90s –would then pass these same books to his grandson after I began my first pulpit. Zev, if not his children, will also get these books as a gift from me.
Recently, an older congregant cleaning out her apartment to move asked me if I would take an older collection of Talmud from her. The books were from Europe and she did not know what to do with them. Fortunately, I know her grandchildren quite well. They are committed Jews. I told her that would be my pleasure to take them, but only as a loan. When her grandchildren get married under the chuppah, I look forward to giving them as a gift.
Jewish family stories always start and continue the same way: with the gift of receiving our tradition. That is the Jewish way.