When Zayda came to America from the little shtetl in Poland, he left behind a wife and three very young children, all under the age of 5. His wife was in advanced pregnancy with twins, and she also ran a small grocery store. Her name was Rifka and I am named for her. My father, Yisrael, who became Sam, was one of those twins.
Zayda was not fleeing his family obligations. Not at all. He came to America so that he could fulfill those obligations, to a place where he could properly support his growing family. That new place was totally foreign to him. Like so many of his generation he followed other distant family members to a strange and new land. He was not exactly an explorer but he bravely left what was known behind him. He traversed an ocean to reach this foreign place to provide a secure home for his wife and children. That promised land was called Passaic in the great state of New Jersey in the United States of America. And promises were indeed met!
It took several years until he was able to provide for the family’s needs and bring them to America. I cannot even imagine how Rifka managed. All the children survived, my father for almost 98 years. Rifka, herself, did not fare so well. She had one additional child, Benjamin, born in America. She died at the time of his Bar Mitzvah.
New Jersey was good to the growing young family. They left behind the impoverished shtetl life and found success in every aspect of their new lives in the new country. Zayda became a builder and an owner of real estate. His acumen was never accompanied by the English language. He lived to old age without that skill. Who knows how?
Zayda was a true Jewish hero. And if he had the opportunity to go back to his roots, as I did, he would see the wisdom of his bravery. He arose from enduring, deep poverty to opportunity and success. He became an American, albeit without speaking a word! And, of course, unknowingly he and his children avoided the catastrophe known as the Shoah.
Zayda’s story is not unusual. You all know similar stories, the many many tales of how we came to be Americans, all due to brave progenitors who felt compelled to become strivers in a new place. How fortunate for us that they were our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. Heroes all.
Bravery was never a criterion that I thought about passing on. I had standards, hopes and prayers for all of our own progeny. I wanted them to be proud Jews, honorable citizens of the world, kind, considerate, moral, well educated, loyal and a whole string of additional worthy traits. In sum, I wanted each of them to be a mensch, a Jewish mensch! I just didn’t include bravery in the mix. It wasn’t a characteristic I opposed of course. It was merely not a star on my punchlist.
The fact that our ancestors were so brave didn’t particularly resonate with me. I could identify with them after seeing their primitive ancestral villages in Poland and feel grateful that they had the courage to flee but as I was living a very comfortable life of my own it hardly called for my own heroism. Sure there were many transient times when I needed courage, notably medical crises. But living life is, for all of us, filled with needs and opportunities to be courageous. I felt brave when I needed to be, but preferred there to be no need!
And then, recently, our grandson joined the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. He did not have to. He was a yeshiva student in Israel, an American citizen who could have returned to America, gone to a fine university and settled into a solid job in finance or computing or medicine. But he had other ideas. He wanted to serve and, like his brother before him, he joined the army of Israel, the most moral army in the world, the one where bravery was expected and honor demanded. He became a chayal.
I hoped he would become a spokesperson or some other position that required native English, something safe and out of harm’s way. That was not the path he chose. He wanted to be a combat soldier, kravi. He wanted to be a paratrooper. And this week he did it! He earned the Zahal insignia, a pair of wings encasing a parachute.
This required jumping out of a flying airplane, not once, not twice, but three times. This is something your fearful reporter could just never do!
Our grandson is now a trained soldier. His weapon accompanies him, as it must. His job is to protect our hard won nation, our Eretz ha kodesh. He is cautious and respectful of the awesome authority with which he has been entrusted. And, as a peace loving man, he hopes never to use that weapon. It is not power that he craves. It is shalom.
Thus, the grandson of a coward, me, has become a soldier of Israel. Be strong and brave my dear one, chazak ve’ematz.
The circle of our Jewish history, our Jewish heroism, continues in another promised land, the ultimate promised land. We rebuild our nation, our peoplehood, in that far-off place called Israel, in that city of our dreams and prayers, Yerushalayim, Jerusalem,. The cycle of our family continues in yet another place far from the shtetl and far from Passaic, New Jersey. And all of us who face the wind with power and strength, we are all Jewish heroes. Our stories and the inspiration of our forefathers move us to build our lives and move on to where we find opportunity and safety, even if we need to jump out of airplanes to facilitate our journey.
Zayda would have been proud.