One of the things I remember most about my grandfather (zaideh) was his teeth. I don’t remember seeing them in his mouth. Instead, I saw them floating in a glass of water.
One day I stuck my finger in that glass to see if his teeth would bite me. They did not. It surprised me.
How can a man have teeth that don’t bite?
I asked my father why zaideh’s teeth were in a glass of water. He explained to me (or tried) that zaideh’s teeth were false teeth. So I asked him what false teeth meant. And he told me: “they are not his own teeth”.
I was stunned. “Who’s teeth does zaideh have in his mouth? Why did someone switch teeth on zaideh”?
Whenever zaideh kissed me my cheeks were always wet. And when he kissed me with teeth in his mouth they always clicked. My zaideh had clicking teeth of somebody else in his mouth.
When mamma served him a glass of hot tea he would slowly pour some of the tea into a saucer, lift it up and sip the tea from the saucer, not the glass.
And even before attempting to drink his tea he always placed a lump of sugar cube between his lips. Then he adjusted the big black yarmulke he wore on his bald head and recited a quiet prayer before he took the first sip of his tea.
In front of his tea glass mamma put a few of his favorite biscuits. He would pick one up and crush it in his hand and pour the crumbs onto the plate. Then he would scoop up a handful of crumbs, put them in his mouth and wash them down with the tea. He repeated this practice until all the biscuit crumbs were finished.
I asked mamma why he did it and she said “it’s because your zaideh has no teeth and he cannot chew the biscuits”.
I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old and had never known anyone who did not have teeth. I wanted to know how he could eat and what he could eat.
So I got an entire culinary lesson on how to grind chicken or fish and root vegetables into a paste which zaideh could then eat with a spoon.
From that day on I did not eat gefilte fish which my mother would prepare in a grinder. I did not want to eat like my zaideh. I used to bite my fingers to make sure that my teeth could bite. I was horrified to think that my teeth could be floating in a glass of water.
But the things I remember most about my zaideh are things I cherish to this day, 80 years later.
His hugs when he squeezed me, his kisses on my cheeks and top of my head, his Yiddish songs which he sang while his fingers wandered through my blonde hair, his broad smile whenever he saw me, the lap on which he seated me, the blessings he gave me and the simple Torah stories he recited for me.
It was a magic world. A world of great love. A love of Judaism. A love of Torah. A love for family.
Anyone can lose teeth. But no one can lose values. At age 5 or 6 I never heard the words “morality” or “ethics”, and even if I had heard them they would not be understood by a young child.
But in later years while in university classes hearing a professor of philosophy talk about them, he asked “can anyone in the class describe what these words mean?”
And I raised my hand and answered “I can sir. In one small word. It’s my zaideh.”