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My father has been having trouble breathing in the last few years. “I feel OK,” he told me a few weeks ago, “but it’s hard for me to move a step or two without losing my breath.”

Dad has a full life, teaching and writing and entertaining—he even just took up the piano, in his eighties. But he knows that for many people there comes a time when systems fail, when medical technology breaks down in the face of the demands of death and decay, and the priests and priestesses of modern medicine offer no hope and no salve. “The doctors are doing their best,” he assured me, but I wondered if this faint praise was a prelude to admitting defeat.

We looked at each other while he paused to regain his wind. “There isn’t a thing to worry about,” he announced a moment later, with a mixture of wryness and resignation. “I now am finally in the hands of the Anapoler Professor.”

***

I first heard the tale of the Anapoler Professor when I was 8 or 9 years old. My maternal grandfather used to tell the story, which he heard from his grandfather, the Magid of Trisk. One day an asthmatic man in early middle age came to my great-great grandfather, the rebbe, seeking a cure for a chronic though not fatal illness. (The state of medicine in 19th-century Ukraine was not particularly advanced; they used to say in my grandfather’s town that if you saw a man eating a chicken, someone must be sick—either him or the chicken. In such circumstances with very few medical options available, a Hasid who became ill could expect to turn to his rebbe for a medical cure.)

The rebbe went through his usual drill: Was this a spiritual malady cloaked in the form of a physical illness? The man assured him this was not the case. “I have neither sinned against God nor man.” Had he exhausted all the usual medical options? “I have been to anyone who might offer a cure or a hope of one, but alas, the illness has completely mastered me. The rebbe can surely see with his own holy eyes that my life is no longer my own.” His last words trailed off into a long wheeze and a labored effort to catch his breath. The rebbe did as rebbes do. He closed his eyes and he felt. God Almighty, how a man suffers in this world! Finally, after a long while he told the sick man, “You must go to the town of Anapol and ask for the Anapoler Professor. He will help you.”

Anapol was a town east of the Polish city of Lublin, which at the middle of the 19th century, when the story takes place, boasted all of 451 inhabitants (according to Wikipedia). The man huffed, puffed, and wheezed his way there. Upon arriving, he immediately made inquiries: “Tell me where can I meet the famous Anapoler Professor?”

“Professor?!” the locals said. “This town does not have a professor! We are a tiny village.”

“Perhaps if not a professor, then, a doctor … ”

“A doctor?” they again asked. “What doctor could ever live here?”

Undaunted, and an undying believer in his rebbe, the man said, “Surely there must be a mistake. Perhaps there is here a chemist, a pharmacist?”

They laughed. “Here? You have to be kidding!”

Nearly crushed, yet powered by the embers of his last hope, he managed to quietly ask, “Maybe you have here a barber who does bankes?” In those days a town barber also served as a quasi-doctor, performing bankes—minor medical procedures like bloodletting and cupping.

They again responded with laughter, gentle ridicule, and a dose of compassion. “My dear man,” they said, “there is no barber or bankes-shteller in the town of Anapol.”

Finally, it sank in. There was no help to be had here. He lifted his weary head and asked, “Tell me one thing. What happens when someone from Anapol gets sick? Where can they go?”

They shrugged. “When we get sick, we have no one to rely on but God in heaven.”

The man made his way back to his rebbe. “Where in the world did you send me?” he asked. “The town you sent me to had no professor! They were a bunch of hayseeds who wouldn’t know to cure a hangnail.”

“True, they don’t know from medicine,” the rebbe replied. “But what do these poor souls do when they get sick?”

“Why, they have no one to rely on but God Himself.”

The rebbe smiled. “This is exactly the Anapoler ‘Professor’ whom I had in mind from the beginning!”

***

My grandfather told this story in Yiddish at the Sabbath table many different times through the years when I was growing up. He told it with great relish and a seemingly inflated sense of importance. He would close his eyes and shake his head back and forth as though he were simultaneously receiving and giving the deepest secrets of the Torah and the universe, passed down to him and him alone from Sinai with all the requisite sublime theological understandings.

Most of the adults around me would smile and nod in approval. I went along with it and even used it as part of my bar mitzvah speech. But I remember feeling like the story seemed a bit shallow—forgive me, Zayde—even a bit disingenuous. First of all, even to a religious man, it’s a little glib to say, “Just rely on God”; even deeply religious people go to doctors. Secondly, my great-great-grandfather the rebbe comes across as uncaring, maybe even slightly sadistic. Who sends a sick man to a hick town—a journey of hundreds of miles in a Ukrainian winter—simply for some kind of enlightenment?

My father was not merely discomfited by the story back then. He deeply hated it. He would roll his eyes and close them in an act of forbearance and denounce the story at the dinner table: “This plain, silly, sentimental Hasidic slop passes for theology?”

Sitting between my father and grandfather, who absolutely did not like each other, I wrote off my father’s put-downs as just another manifestation of the historic rivalry between my father, a lifelong rationalist rabbinic Litvak, and my maternal grandfather, a “warm and fuzzy” Hasid. But I now realize there was much more to it than that. It is only after four or five decades that I am first beginning to understand what their mutual disdain was all about. It has to do with their respective roots and their relationship to this country and the modern world, even as they were tribesmen and kin who worshiped the very same God.

***

For my grandfather, born in the Ukraine, the past was remembered as simple, sacred, more authentic and heroic than the present.

Dad, born to immigrant parents in the Bronx in the 1930s, grew up believing in the ever-forward trajectory of the American century of progress. True, when my father was young, a man got old, and when he got old he would get sick, and when he got sick he died quickly—but that was the old world. Today, the malach hamaves, the angel of death, can be detained, delayed, put off seemingly indefinitely. For everything there seems to be a remedy. Emphysema? Age-related COPD? For that we have inhalers, masks, nebulizers. Got trouble walking? We have transports, wheelchairs, walkers.

To Dad, born to the unlimited horizons of this country, the remembered worlds of his father and mother and father-in-law evoked in him skepticism, judgment, even hatred. Of course, the Anapoler Professor story was hokey, an embarrassed yielding to the superstitious belief in the rebbe and a surrender to the world of primitive Jewish melodrama. As a younger man, my father wanted no part of that world. Instead, even as it was barely articulated, my father—himself a rabbi— seems to have lived out a deep theological creed: that even as one passionately believes in God, one does not rely on him for a cure or anything else.

Who was right, my father or my grandfather? This was a question that has haunted me for decades.

My grandfather, at first glance, sounds more in line with classical Jewish thinking. After all, doesn’t the Talmud famously state that all is in the hands of heaven? One should rely on the Anapoler Professor, in this line of thinking. Of course that was easier once upon a time when there was no penicillin and no vaccines, no doctors and no Internet. Relying on the Anapoler Professor was not only an act of faith, it was Hasidic improvisation at its best. But today, such a rigid reading seems quaint, silly, and even suicidal.

On the other hand, the inscrutable mysteries, vagaries, and downright unreliable-ness of the human body have finally compelled even my father to find a new voice, or at least one he may have downplayed long ago. Nowadays, even as the various priests of modern medicine relieve him, he still must come into contact with his very own “Anapoler Professor” and the story he found so grating.

The moment a few weeks ago when father gestured peace to my grandfather’s folktale, it was as though two very important pieces of me came together. I was quietly excited. The God of my grandfather and the God of my father were now one. The Hatfield and McCoy-like feud had come to rest. Whatever century we are living in, we are all in one way or another in the hands of the Anapoler Professor.

***

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