When my father died last year he surprised me with a surfeit of cash. It was not a lot by many standards—a few hundred thousand dollars—but it was more than I ever dreamed of. In fact, it was more than he ever dreamed of because he struggled with money all his life and didn’t know till the months before he died that he had any money at all.
Now, I needed to sign papers to take possession of the funds—but I found myself, by dint of some invisible force, refusing to do so.
I had my own battles with money. There was never enough and what’s more, I always managed to be handsomely in debt as far back as I can remember.
Yet also as far back as I can remember, I longed to be a man with just a tiny bit of money, at least enough to be free of debt, with clear credit card balances. I rued my “fate.” (I wished I had married rich, or married a high-earning spouse, instead of a novelist.) I gnashed my teeth over it. I attacked myself. What kind of Jewish man was I? It’s a terrible stereotype, I know, but aren’t Jews supposed to be good with money? Alas, it wasn’t to be. Even as I grew incrementally more successful, I remained maddeningly mired in debt.
Of course, as a man matures, he realizes it’s rarely fate that rules the day, but rather a complicated mix of luck, willfulness, boneheaded decisions, and deeply strange ideas about who owes what to whom that determine our money woes and windfalls.
How I desired to have money if only to pay my debts! But, desire is a funny thing. If you want something too much, you may not want it at all.
I was like a portly man who longs, longs to be lithe and thin, only to realize after decades of diets and drastic exercise, the figure his girth cuts, he likes after all. Happily, he walks the streets in all his roundness, he waves at the men of the barbershop and the market, sips his coffee and eats his Danish at the sidewalk café. In the full bloom of amour-propre, he begins to deeply love himself and all of mankind, too.
Over time, I came to accept my bundle in life and I even enjoyed it. It was an idiosyncratic if also perverse accomplishment to be a perfectly “normal” and successful psychotherapist, in one sense, yet always on the verge of financial ruin.
Now, with this money from my father sitting on my desk, I had a chance to wipe out all my debt and even have hefty leftovers for savings. Yet improbably, I began to consider that I did not want this money at all.
I thought about my father’s life. He was a rabbi, a teacher, a servant of the Jewish people. In a sense, his money really belonged to the community, not to me. In fact, his money belonged to his ideals—the study of Torah and the well-being of the Jewish people and mankind in general, in exactly that order.
His money was not a result of the immigrant’s careful savings, nor was he the petty primitive accumulator of wealth his Depression generation was famously known for. On the contrary. My father was relatively oblivious to money most of his life. The pot of money he had was what I would call “Gimpel the Fool” money: a mixture of fate, hard work, and just the right amount of talent for obliviousness that for some strange reason makes rain for some people.
In short, maybe he had this money because he didn’t want it, either.
And then I had my maternal ancestors, the Hasidic rebbes, to consider. My great-grandfather and namesake, the rebbe of Novominsk of Warsaw, everything about his life, his sacrifices for the sick, his piety, seemed to scream: Only don’t have money. It is a foreskin between you and God.
My grandfather Reb Avraham Twersky, who was his son-in-law and nephew, used to invoke his zechus avos, the luck or grace that is believed to be bestowed on one in the merit of holy ancestors, as he tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to make a living in the New World. That is until he realized that his greatest piece of luck was that he had no money. He told me this at the end of his life after he saw his friends go to jail for fraud and financial hijinks. I was too small and never did anything wrong anyway.
Some in the family were even fond of citing the Rebbe of Sanz, who wouldn’t sleep if there was even a dollar in the house.
But there was more to it than that.
Once upon a time I was a fundraiser. My first job at the age of 21 was at the UJA-Federation of New York. My assignment was on the storied North Shore of Long Island. I met great people, the giants of the old generation: Joe Gurwin, Mel Dubin, Marshall Reich, the titans and financial heavyweights of Great Neck and the North Shore including the legendary, Fred “the Furrier” Schwartz. But aside from the greats, who had already established their reputations years before I arrived on the scene, most of the wealthy people gave rationally. That is not to say cheaply, but it was highly regulated, even ritualized. They gave at the club, at the business, at the synagogue High Holiday appeal. They were rational givers, some gave more some less, but mostly by rote.
These dedicated donors were the stalwart staples of the organized Jewish community. They paid the bills, kept it all going. But I longed to be an irrational giver! If I ever had money, I told myself, I would want to do something big and “crazy” with it, not just bank it somewhere and buy an apartment in Rehavia, or some other tony area of Jerusalem.
Then it all came together for me. The money wasn’t mine to begin with. Technically, legally, it belonged to me, but in spirit, it belonged to my parents, now dead. I assured my wife that we would hang on to some for our children’s weddings and a little bit to fix up the house since we had no savings, but the rest …
Tradition tells us that death is the end for the body, but that the soul continues to grow in the next world and reach higher levels through the good deeds of one’s children, and one’s descendants. These good deeds accrue to the credit of the deceased, like interest on savings.
I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had to do. I called my mother’s first cousin in Jerusalem, Reb Yehoshua Eichenstein. He made aliyah in 1959 and is a well-known figure and head of a yeshiva, called Yad Aharon in Katamon in Jerusalem. Cousin Yehoshua, with the hoary handsome visage of an Old Testament prophet, is much beloved for his modesty, his scrupulousness with the commandments and his ability to hear and tell the truth. In his presence one feels a sober, straightforward holiness. One really can’t help but be a better person if you spend any time with him at all.
“Reb Yehoshua,” I said, “I want the bulk of Mom and Dad’s money to go to the yeshiva.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Couldn’t be more timely. I always kept the yeshiva small, by necessity of space, but more people want to come and now we can expand the bais medrash, the study hall. When the women come to pray on Sabbath they will sit in comfort. It will be a kavod to your parents. The expansion will be in their names.”
In August, I went with my family and my sister Malka and her husband Moishe to Jerusalem to make the dedication. I expected it to be pleasant, but it turned out to be much more than pleasant. It was the most enjoyable, conflict-free 45 minutes of my life. We were greeted with music and dancing and the warm words in Yiddish and Hebrew of cousins who remained in contact since before the war in Lublin. But there was a surprise, too. My father had made a friend in Israel over the years. His name was Tzadok, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who was his beloved baal agala—his guide and driver on his frequent visits. He had heard about the dedication and came to sing the praises of my father and mother whom he had come to know and love as well. It may be corny to say this, but dancing with Tzadok, the yeshiva bochrim, and my cousins, I felt as if I had ascended to Heaven.
It was also by far and away the best financial decision I ever made. My parents have a home in the bais medrash. One thing I know for certain in this uncertain world is that the money we “gave away” is the only money we will ever get to keep.
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