Does anyone remember images of those misanthropes who stood on their soapboxes and harangued the passing crowd on everything from the End of Days to the evils of fluoridated water?
My Grandpa Julius was one of those misanthropes, every Sunday in Chicago’s Wicker Park berating his ragtag audience. Some of them would stand by impassively, but the majority would jeer at him, “Zetz zich avek, mishuganer! Sit down, lunatic!”
My grandmother and Aunt Celia were not impassive. They were morbidly humiliated. Their friends would also stroll and picnic in Wicker Park. Each week they would beg, “Julius, schveig! Shut up! People think you’re a mishuganer!” But Sunday after Sunday, he was undaunted.
Finally, he would leave, his demeanor crumpled by defeat. He was not embarrassed but sorrowed by the failure of another episode of impassioned, futile pleading of his convictions.
Mishuganer? Lunatic? Whether he was a misunderstood prophet or not, he was routinely mocked and berated by my grandmother and relatives, whose social conscious went so far as penny-ante kaluki and watching wrestling on our ten-inch TV.
Grandpa Julius, I discovered only well after his death, was a misunderstood scholar, if not a prophet scorned. In a tattered box, I found a well-worn first edition of Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Talmud (which I use to this day), erudite writings on Spinoza, and his copy of the Apocrypha, which he had cross-referenced to the Mishna and both Testaments. All this from a man who was destined in the Old Country to become a pattern-cutter.
More extensive, though, were yellowed pages of correspondence, crumpled notes penned in meticulous Palmer-method script, so much like my dad’s, pocket-sized address books and diaries. There was a brief exchange between him and Ludwig Zamenhof, Grandpa Julius’s landsman from Bialystok and the inventor of the erstwhile universal language, Esperanto. Even more curiously, there was a return-address stamp inscribed “Bnai Brith Adam – The Children of the Covenant of Adam.”
Ever the stoic, my dad was blasé as he filled me in bit-by-bit on the intertwining threads of Grandpa Julius’s philosophical life. He remembered most, he said, the enormous cost of the correspondence, which was a source of constant family strife and separation from my grandmother.
Finally, all the letters, address books, philosophical writings, his contacts with scholars, philosophers, and fellow misanthropes, and all the rest, came to meld. His soapbox exhortations were not about flat-earth theories or the toxicity of smallpox vaccines. Grandpa Julius, one Sunday after the next, preached about universal peace, mutual understanding, an end to war, international currency and Zamenhof’s language, even the establishment of a permanent forum for the world’s leaders to work out their differences peacefully, better than the League of Nations had accomplished.
The address books and correspondence were attempts, unanswered but not frustrated, to enlist like-minded people to share in his vision. He asked, even begged, them to support his recently-founded organization, “Bnai Brith Adam,” a covenant in which the entire world’s people would be enfranchised. Hence, the stamp bearing the return address.
So, Grandpa was a prophet, a utopian, whose vision has yet to be embraced. If nothing else, he preached idealism to a world, cynical then as it is now. Or perhaps he was just some meshuganer who hallucinated a bizarre dream of universal peace and at-one-ness.
Imagine . . . the vision of the Prophet Isaiah, another meshuganer, a millennium-plus before John Lennon sang of it. But this was my Grandpa, the idealist, the visionary. My own Grandpa Julius. How cool.
And if, 90 years later, you or I would mount the same soapbox, how would our message be greeted? Perhaps with welcomed enlightenment? Uh-huh. Sadly, I am obliged to say we would again be mocked and shouted down, “Sit down and shut up, meshuganer!”
RABBI MARC WILUDJANSKI-WILSON, retired, writes from Greenville, SC