My grandparents are long gone. So are my parents. I’m an old lady myself, already in my 80th year. That’s a lot of years; more than three of my four grandparents reached. So, I need to look with reality on what lies ahead. As does everyone else.
But, as important as the dash on the gravestones is what the dash stands for. Would my grandparents be proud of the mother I am, the grandmother I am, the great-grandmother I’ve recently become? Would they think that I merited the great steps that they took to bring me into the world?
All four of my grandparents were born in the Pale of Eastern Europe. We’ve actually visited all the towns where they lived, walked the streets and hunted for clues.They left us no breadcrumbs to follow. Cemeteries were impossible to traverse, turned over stones, no records of any kind. No clues there. We went to the shul in my father’s family’s town. The building still stands. It’s a movie theater. We didn’t go in. My maternal grandmother came from the prettiest place, a canal filled little city called Augustow. No signs that she was ever there though. There were no distant footsteps anywhere. No whiff of familiarity………familiarity from its roots in family! We were strangers there no matter how hard we tried to conjure up their lives. Those lives that they eventually left anyway, sparing us the horrors that were to come a mere few decades later.
All four of them made their difficult ways to the Statue in New York City. Both sets already had children, making their journeys more challenging, frightening even. My paternal grandfather,Zayda, arrived in New Jersey alone, promising to bring his wife and their five mini-kids, all aged 5 and under, as soon as he could. That meant he had to earn enough money to buy six tickets on a miserable ship where they languished in steerage. But he was good to his word and with some luck and lots of determination he became a builder and a real estate investor. He brought them over as promised. Of course he did.
My mother’s father, Pop, decided on a different route. He would not leave his wife and two sons in Europe so he could sail to America to make his fortune. They would all travel together. And so they did. My mother, his ultimate pot of gold, was born in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, in a cold water flat. Her father ironed her sheets every winter night so that she would be warm enough to exist without heat. With undying effort they struggled to buy a Catskills hotel and succeeded to provide their second son with a dental degree from NYU, and my mother with a college education. Hard work never killed anyone it is said but my mother clearly always felt that hard work killed her mother.
Did these four grandparents ever think that their wanderings might result in unexpected changes in their family dynamics? I doubt it. What they saw was the Goldene Medina, tempting and welcoming them. They would override the obstacles and give their children good lives.
And so they did.
But, yet, as I review the lives of my generation I wonder how the grandparents would ponder these lives of our family, their family. How would they feel, for example, about children no longer Jewish? On both sides. Would they care or would they be like those who say, “as long as they’re happy?” I know my own preferences, which I’ve shared often with my children and grandchildren. Does it mean I’m intolerant or does it mean that I’m trying to preserve the remnants of the Jewish people?
And just how Jewish is Jewish anyway?
It’s always on a scale. Depends on who’s weighing.
We Jews of today have so many pathways. Liberal. Left. Right. Ultraright. Yeshivish. Secular. Tref eating. Kippah wearing. Overwhelming. Those remnants are tattered. Can we ever put them all together? Weave one perfect fabric. No. Of course not. I don’t know how and neither does anyone else.
So, as I think of the dash on the stone, I am still, even at my advanced age, searching for a direction. I want so much that those souls who came before me shall rest in peace. I hope, one day, that I too shall rest in peace.