I recently asked a friend to help me translate the Yiddish letters discovered amongst my father’s personal belongings three and a half years ago, following his death.
There were documents of all sorts. There were pictures we had never seen — some of him looking sharp and “mobster-like” in terms of being a sharp dresser in the 1950s. My father was a student in Klezk before the war, the ultimate Litvak Yeshiva, and finished his rabbinic education after the war in the successor location to Klezk, Lakewood. In those days, many of the young rabbis did not wear beards or exclusively dark clothing. They were stylish. They enjoyed a modicum of individual expression. And for many, this continued after their lost years and unbearable suffering.
There was also a picture that no one had ever seen; not even my mother. It was a picture of my teenage father, surrounded by the women in his life: His mother and his sister and his grandmother. His father had died young, and his grandfather was no longer alive. But despite his being the “man of the house”, he, like Shmuel HaNavi, had been committed by his mother to serve God, and was attending the most prestigious yeshivas of Belarus and Lithuania. This may have even been the last family photo ever taken… perhaps too painful for him to share years later with his wife and children.
But the real treasure trove was the cache of letters that were discovered unexpectedly – handwritten letters and postcards from my father’s home in Lechevitch – a shtetl located in what is Belarus today – from as long as 100 years ago. All addressed to family members in Detroit. Some, written in the hand of my grandmother, my own grandmother whom I never met because she was murdered by the Nazi nation’s army, along with her daughter and her own mother.
So as I hold one of her letters in my hands, I am transported to another world, the world of my father’s Shtetyl. I am holding the same piece of paper my grandmother once held, whatever moisture she had on her fingertips 75 or more years ago mingling with my own. The ink that she wrote with, with a fountain pen, speaking to me – just in a language I do not understand.
Also in the cache of letters are letters from my own teenage father to his aunt in Detroit, asking her help in securing a visa. There are also letters from my grandfather, whose early death saved him from the hell that began with the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland in 1939, and culminated in the brutal German attack in June 1941 that spelled the beginning of the end of Jewish life in the region, with mass shootings, communal burnings, disease filled ghettos, and death camps.
I imagine being back in the Lechevitch, before 1939, with my grandmother and my grandfather, still alive. It is a Shtetyl with a peaceful river and a variety of Jewish practices, from Misnagid to various types of Chassidim, and perhaps some secular Jews as well.
I picture getting together with others in the community to bake our own matzoh, draw water for the holiday, and generally prepare for the holiday. We have to secure kosher meat – even if it is a rare, expensive luxury. And we have to make sure that the beggars and the orphans and all less fortunate have a Seder to attend.
כל דכפין ייתי ויאכל, כל דיצריך ייתי ויפסח.
It was a simple life, and all of the Jews of the town prepared. A town of farmers and tradesmen, and salesmen, and scholars, preparing to greet the holiday of freedom. It was a happy time.
By dint of historical accident and/ or the Divine Plan, my father was one of a handful of survivors of Lechevitch, and I am here to commune with my grandmother in my imagination, because or the historical accidents, the miracles, the survival skills, the coincidences that resulted in my being born, in any of us being born, in a time and place of relative freedom.
Passover may commemorate the Exodus from Egypt some 3400 years ago, give or take. But for me, זמן חרותינו is not about freedom from an ancient slavery in Egypt. It is about our right to practice as Jews — in whatever way we practice. It is about our right to live as Jews — whatever that means to each of us.
Our ancestors embraced their זמן חרותינו. When we celebrate Pesach, we do so not only for ourselves, but for them as well. On some dimension, my grandmother still lives, not only in her letters, but in my DNA and that of my children. I may not be able to celebrate and prepare for Pesach with her in Lechevitch, but she is definitely preparing for Pesach with me in Teaneck.