Thursday, December 16, 2010

Days to Remember

In a rare convergence of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, today marks the 29th birthday of our daughter Ellie and the 12th anniversary of my father’s passing. I don’t expect to be around the next time December 16 coincides with the 9th of Tevet. That will be in 2056, when I would be 107 years old.

After dropping Gilda off at the train station, I went to our temple for the morning service (how interesting that when spoken it could easily be misconstrued to be the “mourning” service). This being a Thursday, a brief segment of Saturday’s upcoming Torah portion was read. It described the pending death of the patriarch Yakov (Jacob) in the land of Egypt where he had traveled from Canaan because of famine. My father’s Hebrew name was Yakov, as well. He, too, left his native land, Poland in his case, because of adversity, Nazi oppression.

Like the biblical Yakov, my father twice moved from his original home and country to prosper in new surroundings. Yakov fled Canaan after deceiving his father Isaac into blessing him. He went to his uncle Laban’s home where he worked and reared a family before life there became unbearable. He returned to Canaan and eventually emigrated to Egypt. My father left Ottynia, a small town in Galicia, now part of Ukraine, when he was 16 to become a businessman in the Free City of Danzig (now called Gdansk) before emigrating in 1939, roughly half a year before Hitler invaded Poland.

The Torah reading begins by stating, “The days of Yakov, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.” But the Hebrew phrase “the years of his life” (“shenai chayav”) can be read to have another meaning, much the way “the morning/mourning service” could be heard in different contexts. The second interpretation of the sentence could be, “the days of Yakov, his two lives, were a hundred forty and seven years.”

It could be said Yakov lived two lives, one in Canaan, one in other lands; one before his beloved wife Rachel died and her first son Joseph is seemingly lost to him, one after he is reunited with Joseph; one before the famine, one life after, in Egypt.

My father lived two lives, one in Poland, one in the United States; one before his family was killed in the Holocaust, one after he was reunited with the only member of his immediate family to survive, his brother, Willy; one in business and another in social action for charitable and civic associations; one in full embrace of family and life’s graces and benefits, the other mired in the darkness of dementia that dimmed the last few of his near 88 years.

Like so many of his contemporaries, my father did not dwell on the past. He rarely spoke about conditions in Ottynia and Danzig. He focused on the present and future.

I had intended to write more about my father and his granddaughter, Ellie, but in the middle of this exercise stopped to read an email from a friend serendipitously about this week’s Torah reading. It contained the following message from a rabbinic commentary:

“What is the connection between grandchildren and peace? Surely this, that those who think about grandchildren care about the future, and those who think about the future make peace. It is those who constantly think of the past, of slights and humiliations and revenge, (who) make war.”

My father started off as a great grandfather. But age, infirmity and distance stripped him of his inclination and ability to interact meaningfully with his seven grandchildren. For now, Gilda and I have one grandchild. Finley will be visiting this weekend with his parents. Ellie will join us. It will be a most wonderful, cherished time.