Every day for the past seventy-eight years I look at my grandfather’s photo hanging in a frame on my bedroom wall. He died in December 1941 when I was eight years old. He was my Yiddish-speaking zaideh who has lived with me in my memory all these many long years, never forgotten. I look at his photo, throw him a kiss and I talk to him. “Mein tayereh zaideh, ich hob dir nit fargessen. Ich hob gehat far dir a brenedigge lieb”…. Beloved zaideh, I have not forgotten you. I had for you a burning love.
Truly, zaideh was the greatest love of my life when I was a very young child. His hugs and wet kisses on my cheeks are still sorely missed.
One cold December day in 1941 when I came home from school, I found my father and his brother sitting and crying in the living room with a strange man with them. Suddenly it struck me. I had not seen zaideh for a few weeks. I did not know that he was ill. And now, seeing three men in my home at such an early time of day, I understood without words.
I ran into the kitchen and asked my mother “is my zaideh dead?” And when she replied affirmatively I ran into my bedroom, threw myself on my bed and buried my head in the pillow crying furiously. “Zaideh, zaideh, why did you have to die? Who will hug me and kiss me like you did?”
The decades passed. And my second grandchild was born. A boy named Ariel Matityahu. My joy knew no bounds. When he began to speak he called his Hebrew-speaking grandfather “Saba” and when he was old enough to walk he would run into my arms, climb up on my knees, his little hands around my neck, hugging and kissing, just as I had done with my beloved zaideh.
As Ariel grew, he became very interested in Jewish history. I would tell him bible stories and he listened, fascinated to know that he was one of the tribe of the ancient Hebrews in the land of Israel. He would ask questions and I would reply. Often he questioned my replies seeking deeper and more traditional responses.
As he became an adolescent he would dispute many of the religious beliefs and observances that I upheld. They were simply too liberal for him. He wanted to live a traditionally modern Orthodox life. Every Shabbat morning in the synagogue he would listen to the Torah reader and would follow in the chumash, reading commentaries and opinions of great scholars through the ages. He thirsted for a more intense Jewish knowledge
“Saba”, he would ask me, “why do you have to be so contradictory? Why can’t you accept the opinions of Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Luzatto and other renowned scholars? I know that you are a scholar and were a professor of Hebrew and Biblical literature, but why are you so critical of the medieval commentators?” I try to explain to him that my doctoral studies were largely based upon the thoughts of what was called “biblical criticism,” an examination of words and the timing of the periods in which they were written. He held fast to his position.
If I explained the fables of the first eleven chapters of Bereshit (Genesis) he would listen and politely shake his head. I told him about the Egyptian Enuma Elish, a story of creation, and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a background for the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
I pointed out that archaeologists can prove without a doubt that these stories were written and told a thousand years before Abraham appeared on the scene. They were borrowed and enhanced upon by the writers of Hebrew scripture centuries later. That did not make them untrue stories, it merely provided a different era and a different culture. Ariel prefers that different culture. It is what makes him a proud Jew and a devoted lover of Israel.
He sits next to me on Shabbat mornings in the synagogue, one hand on my neck gently massaging it, his head resting on my shoulder, anxiously awaiting for the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, when I would place my hands upon his head and recite the Aaronic three-fold blessing. It is always followed by his hugs and many kisses. He is as devoted to me as I was to my zaideh. In Ariel, God has truly blessed me.
At my wife’s funeral, Ariel delivered a hesped, a eulogy, to his adored savta, his voice choking from tears.
Frequently he telephones me and asks “Saba, would it be OK if I could come to visit you in a few minutes”? My reply is always the same. “Ari, you are welcome to come whenever you want. My home is your home. And I’m anxiously awaiting a visit with more hugs and kisses.”
I don’t know if Ariel will hang my photo on his wall and throw kisses to it as I have done with my zaideh, but I do know that the passion of our love for one another will live on beyond the grave.
Ariel is at university now, studying environmental engineering. I don’t know what it is exactly but he tells me it’s about water purification and development. In that field, he can make a great contribution to Israeli science, water and land development. Even more so, he can make a major contribution to the Judaism of his generation and beyond.
Once I had a beloved zaideh. Now Ariel Matityahu has a beloved Saba.