Who I’m Thankful for This Thanksgiving

Solomon and Mary Merves on their 66th Wedding Anniversary, November 2010
Solomon and Mary Merves on their 66th Wedding Anniversary, November 2010

Growing up, I used to look forward to Thanksgiving each year because that was when I would see all my family, my mother’s side of the family on Thanksgiving Day and my father’s side on Sunday.  The only time my mother’s side came together was on Thanksgiving and Pesach, so it was special.  Thanksgiving was a very special occasion because it was my maternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary.  They were the anchor of the family and were married for 66 years. I remember the 50th Wedding Anniversary when my aunt Esther made a game for me by writing family trivia/history questions on index cards and I would go around the room asking different family members the questions in order to get the answers and learn about my relatives. We had a large celebration that year and filmed some of the speeches and celebrations.  It’s very funny to see 7-year-old me being interviewed in my Cub Scout Uniform.  I have fond memories of the 60th Anniversary as well, during my senior year of high school.  We also celebrated and filmed parts of it, but the celebration was more muted and melancholy since the effects of age were more apparent.  The 66th anniversary was the last time that I saw my grandfather, and I do remember thinking at that time that when I said goodbye to him at his apartment door and went into the hallway, that it might be the last time I saw him. That year felt like the tail end of a fading era, I had just completed my first full year of living in New York City, and life was different than before.

They instilled in the importance of loving your family and spending time together, and putting your family first.  They were proud that they put four children through college, some with advanced degrees, and they were always at their happiest when they had their family around them.  I’m told they danced in their kitchen when they got the news that I had been born.  They were also a primary influence on my religious growth and exposure to Jewish life, this is their lasting legacy in my mind.  I ate Shabbat dinner with them during the summer months, my grandfather led our family Seders on Pesach, I spent my first several years of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur services with them- I remember going up on the bimah to sing Ein Kelohainu, Aleinu, and Adon Olam for the congregation, and I saw my grandfather make sure that he finished his daily business and went to shul for Mincha and Ma’ariv everyday, and that he had time to shave before Shabbat each week.  He was very active in his shul, serving as the usher and Men’s Club President.  He wasn’t looking to cut corners when it came to consistency and reaffirming his relationship with Hashem, demonstrating with his actions how much Judaism meant to him.  As a business owner, he had worked on Shabbat, so when he retired, he made sure that Judaism was a top priority.

Although I definitely learned a lot about Judaism from my parents as well- both of them kept Kosher and kept Shabbat and we spent many hours in shuls together, there was something extra special about learning the rituals and traditions from my grandparents, the feeling of Judaism being passed down the generations.  My grandmother was born in Hungary and came to the USA as a teenager, bringing her traditions with her.  When my grandfather went to shul to daven, my grandma davened at home, and then they would have dinner together.  My grandfather learned a lot about Judaism from his grandfather, who was born in Lithuania and then served as a Jewish mentor and resource for the neighborhood children in Ohio.  I didn’t know all this information as a child, but I knew there was something special and timeless about how my grandmother blessed the Shabbat candles, how my grandfather davened and said Kiddush on Friday night, that it came from a different time and place, a different world.  He was a Kohen, and was always very proud to receive the Kohen Aliyah in shul, especially at my Bar Mitzvah, when I got to read this aliyah.  I remember practicing this Aliyah and my Haftorah with him, both in person and over the phone, and he was so excited to celebrate with me.

My grandfather passed away soon after Pesach in 2011.  I had just started a couple part-time jobs a few months before then, and was starting to find my niche on the Upper West Side.  I can still remember my phone frantically ringing that Tuesday morning around 8:00 am and my mother frantically telling me to “Pray for Grandpa” and I got up and I put on my tallit- a tallit that my parents had bought when I was a baby, possibly before I was even born, with the intention of this being my tallit at my Bar Mitzvah- and praying for my grandfather.  When my phone rang again 45 minutes later, my grandfather had passed away. At his funeral, I related how my grandfather had been a giant among men, someone who had taught me what it meant to be Jewish, how to be a father and husband, and how to be a man.

He always said to me, “You’re gonna be somebody, fella,” but unfortunately, he didn’t live to see that fully happen.  My grandfather didn’t know that I ever went to Israel, my first trip came in June 2012, just before I started working full-time at the Jewish Theological Seminary, another experience that happened after he had passed away, but which I know he would have been very proud of.  My grandmother was still alive, and I was able to talk with her on the phone from Israel on my Birthright trip in 2012, and my MJE Israel Heritage trip in 2015.  She couldn’t believe how clear and close my voice sounded, despite the fact I was 7 time zones away and halfway across the world.

The combination of working in a Jewish educational environment, with my grandfather having passed away and my grandmother still alive, but in declining health, started to make me think more about the future of Judaism within my family.  I was the only grandchild, and I had their last name, so the mantle of having a Jewish family rested upon my shoulders.  I also realized that if I was going to pass along Judaism in a meaningful way to my children, I needed to fill in many of the gaps in my own knowledge and imbue the rituals with more meaning for myself, so that I would not be simply going through the motions blindly.  I needed to know not just what to do, but also WHY we do what we do, and this spurred my interest in learning more about Judaism.  I had already been going to Manhattan Jewish Experience on an occasional basis, but now I started going there more regularly on Shabbat morning and some weekly classes.

After I had started the Wednesday Night Learning classes, and had a wonderful time on the Israel Heritage trip in 2015, I knew that I had to commit to the MJE Fellowship program, and to Jewish learning on a regular basis as a whole. I thought that was the best way to honor my parents and my grandparents and all the traditions that they had handed down to me. I wanted to strengthen the chain rather than weaken it. My grandmother was living in an assisted living facility now, but she still davened each day, and occasionally came to shul when my uncle brought her.  I saw her for the last time a few days before the Fellowship trip to Israel in July 2016, and she passed away just minutes after the plane landed, when I was on the moving sidewalk at Ben Gurion Airport, en route to Passport Control.  I’m told that my mother showed her the picture I had taken out the plane window of having landed, and she had smiled. I had landed in Israel for an entire month of learning, and now that learning had an additional weight behind it. Visiting the Cave of Machpelah where the Matriachs and Patriachs are buried a few days into the trip was both a very rough and very cathartic experience, since I wasn’t able to attend her actual funeral, and this helped me to process some emotions.  I had written a eulogy to be read at her funeral from a table in the lobby of the Prima Kings Hotel, and when I chatted with my family over Skype in the evening after her funeral, that was the last time I saw all of my mother’s family together, signaling the end of an era.

I can’t say that all of the Jewish learning and personal growth that I’ve been doing is solely because of my grandparents, but they were certainly a primary example and guiding light, and it’s hard to not think about them in one way or another when reading certain parshas in the Torah or learning different topics of Halacha and Jewish practice.  When I talk about my family Mesorah, I’m mostly talking about them, and I regret that I can’t share all of my growth in the past few years with them.  When I was in Florida to see my grandmother for the last time, I was davening one morning with my tefillin, and my aunt Esther remarked that she could see my grandfather’s ghost davening next to me, as I was standing near my grandfather’s armchair, in the approximate area where he would have davened in his house. This comment really struck me because I had only begun davening with tefillin on a daily basis a few months before that, and I had rarely been with my grandfather on a weekday morning to see him wearing tefillin, but somehow this action bound us together.  Outside of my Bar Mitzvah, the only time my grandfather heard me lead davening was a Ma’ariv at his shul one evening, which made him really proud.

Their presence will certainly always be felt in my life and the lessons I’ve learned from them will stay with me, but on this day, which would be their 74th Wedding Anniversary, I wanted to make sure to recognize the amazing persons that they were.  How they were truly devoted to each other- adorably in love and inseparable from each other until the very end, truly devoted to their family- feeling joy at sharing meals and experiences together, and devoted to Judaism as well, making it part of their daily lives, and I’m very proud to have known them for many years and hope to continue making them proud each and every day.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Solomon and Mary Merves on their 66th Wedding Anniversary, November 2010
About the Author
Born in raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef Merves started to increase his Jewish knowledge first at Boston University and then lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and spent the last two years studying full-time in Har Nof, Jerusalem. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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