I was eight years old when my zaideh died. He was seventy. Now I am eighty-four and a day has not passed in all those years when I do not remember him. His portrait hangs on my wall and I blow kisses to it each morning and night. He was the greatest love of my life then, matched only by the great love for my darling wife nineteen year later.
Zaideh spoke and chanted in Yiddish. Bouncing me as a young child on his good knee (the other had been amputated due to diabetes), his wet lips sucking on my cheek, he would sing “Hop hop hop, a gezunten kop, a gezunten kop ein wieder a gezunt auf allen glieder, a gezunten kop…hop, hop, hop.
Seventy-eight years later I still hum myself to sleep at night to his melody.
There are some things we never forget. The Talmud speaks of “gersa d’yankuta”, referring to things we learned and remembered from our earliest youth.
I used to accompany my zaideh to his shul, Linas HaTzedek, where he was employed as the shamash for a salary of three dollars a week. My earliest prayers were those he taught me. Every night before bedtime, my father would lift me up in his arms to kiss the mezuzah on the bedroom doorpost and recite zaideh’s prayer: Shaddai yishmerainu u’matzilainu mikol ra. Amen. Seventy-eight years later I still kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost of my bedroom and recite the prayer of my youth.
Once when I returned home from cheder I told zaideh that I wanted to be a rabbi when I grew up. I can still hear his voice..”du darfst nit zein a rov, besser nur tzu zein a mentch”… you don’t have to be a rabbi; it is better just to be a decent person.
And once when zaideh saw my father light a cigarette on Shabbat, he reproached him gently:
“fun mir ihr ton nit hob’n tzu behalten, un fun Gott ihr kannen keinmol behalten”… from me you don’t have to hide and from God you can never hide.
Words to live by.
Zaideh spoke a Litvishe Yiddish “koidesh koidesh koidesh” (holy, holy, holy) while mamma’s Galitzianer family recited “koodesh koodish koodish”. I lived under the umbrella of an Oomain and an Omain, a Buruch shmai and a baruch shmo. And because it was my zaideh, my father’s father, whom I adored, I made a point of using the Litvishe dialect.
If I ran around the house instead of sitting quietly, zaideh would call out to me “a vu laifst du wie a wilde chaya? Zetz sich a weg wie a groiss kind”… where are you running to like a wild animal? Sit down like a big boy. When zaideh left our home to return to his, he hugged me and kissed me dozens of times with a “zei gezunt mein tayere zeeser einekle, mein lichtig welt”…stay well my dear sweet grandson, light of my life.
My three children find Yiddish an alien tongue. They grew up with Hebrew. One of the childhood “proverbs” we were taught was ”Ivrit sfat ha ooma. Eved l’ivrit anochi”. Hebrew is the language of the people. I am a servant to the Hebrew tongue”.
Yet nothing can ever take the place of my beloved zaideh’s Yiddish. Dos is far mir mamaloshen!