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My Grandfather’s Ghost

Waiting for services to begin in a small shul in Tzfat, I was suddenly visited by my Zeide

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
April 26, 2018
The old city of TzfatShutterstock

It was the morning after the Passover seder in the holy city of Tzfat, and when my son and I woke up, the mid-eastern sun was already parked way up in the horizon. In other words, we were late for davening.

We had heard from another relative that there was a piece of patrimony in this ancient city—an ancestral house of worship named for the my grandfather’s dynasty of Trisk-Chernobyl—where we could pray, but we had heard from someone else that shacharis, the morning service, was at 9 a.m., and now it was a lot closer to 10. Still, we had to try.

We found the shtibl in one of the ancient alleyways, and timidly pushed the door open. We would surely, we thought as we hurried in, find them halfway done with the service. It would be khap busha as my grandfather was fond of saying, shame for coming late. But as we walked in, we found the sanctuary empty. Empty, that is, except for a man who greeted us and told us that his name was Bergman.

He was one of those vitamin-capsule shaped men, compact, vigorous and handsome with a generous white beard and thick white eye-brows. One could be certain from his holy visage that when the Messiah comes—and may he come speedily and in our day—Bergman would be part of the delegation standing ready to welcome him.

“Shalom Aleichem,” Bergman said.

“Did we miss davening?” I asked.

“We haven’t started yet,” he replied.

“But it’s 9:45, and we heard that you start at 9 sharp!” I told him in Yiddish.

“Well,” Bergman said, adjusting his yarmulke, “we’re not far off.”

“But there’s not even a minyan,” we protested driven by the very reasonable fear that we would be hostages, trapped in our ancestral shtibl for the whole day, waiting for other daveners to show up.

“So, nu,” he said. “you’re the first. Take a seat, loif nisht—don’t run. There’ll be a minyan.” I trusted him, but he said it in the way my grandfather would assure me that the redemption was nigh: It was comforting, but I would have preferred some proof. While we took our siddurim and our seats, he went to the door to recruit passersby in the ancient alleyway.

Why don’t you join us, Bergman called out to anyone who would listen, and as my son and I examined the small but beautiful sanctuary, with the old family names from Europe on plaques and memorial tablets, Bergman brought in stragglers, a few at a time. “We’ll be done in two hours,” I heard him assure everyone. It puzzled me. Two hours? How could that be? It was the first day of Passover and a Sabbath to boot. With hallel, mussaf, song-of-songs, seven aliyos, yotzros, and with special additions for Passover like the prayer for dew, the prayer we were about to begin was one of the longest services of the whole year. Only through a magician’s sleight-of-hand could he have it done in two hours.

Without being able to help myself, I felt irritated with this holy man Bergman. More flim-flammery, I thought. Nine a.m. really means 10, and two hours will surely stretch into four or five. I was angry, but the anger I felt wasn’t fresh; it was familiar and old. And it wasn’t even really mine: It was my father’s.

My father had a famous hatred going with my zeide, his father-in-law, a hatred so intense that I found it somewhat stimulating and, at its best, life-giving.

It was a rabbinical hatred. They were, after all, both rabbis, though one, my zeide, was Hasidic—a scion of the great Twersky dynasty, a son of the Trisker rebbe and a nephew and son-in-law of the sainted Warsaw Rebbe of Novominsk, my namesake Alter Yisrael Shimon—while the other, my father, was strictly a Lithuanian member of the rationalist school. These two groups feuded infamously, going back to the old days in the Old Continent.

Even still, it was hard to say what made that hatred turn, what made it so durable and transcendent. My brother was horrified by the intensity of it, but I thought it one of dad’s most interesting qualities—this unreasonable, uncontained animosity in an otherwise buttoned-down rabbi. He did eventually bring it under control, but this was serious red-line tachometer territory to the extent that my father, a few weeks before he passed away last September, felt compelled to tell me one last time just how much he hated that man.

Soon, I thought as I stood in the shtibl, we would be saying the Passover yizkor, the remembrance prayer for the dead. We keep our ancestors alive through the remembrance prayer, but even more so when we remember their loves and their hatreds and our love and our hatred for them.

In my reverie, a memory came to mind:

It was the first day of Passover and my grandfather and father, despite their other-worldly dislike for each other, were seated next to each other at mealtime. My sisters or I would bring the food to my father, who would serve himself from the dish and then pass it on to Zeide who would then pass it on to us children.

Zeide urged us to eat the Kugel. My father glowered and simmered. For years, dad and Zeide had a fierce cold war going on over everything from theology to grandchildren, from pedigree to money. And now it was about to erupt.

“It’s not the kugel,” he roared in Yiddish. “It’s Chana’s kugel. She made it. It’s my kugel. I paid for it! It’s not THE kugel. It’s my kugel. You are not the baalebos, the boss here. I am.”

“Let’s not fight in front of the children,” Zeide said.

“It’s not the children,” my father refused to calm down. “They’re my children. I sired them. I paid for them.”

Zeide shot back: “Bnei banim harei hen k’banin,” he said, quoting the famous Talmudic dictum that instructs us that your children’s children are like your own children.

My father scoffed at what he considered grade-school homiletics. “They are like your children, but they are not your children.”

“I paid for them like my own children too!” Zeide could hang in there for a joust with my father even at 90, and he pointed to my sister, whose wedding he said he had paid for.

The Talmudic disputation continued. The wedding had cost $10,000, and my Zeide only paid $9,000. He was, my father reminded him, $1,000 short.

“Hob ich gezogt tzehn,” Zeide said, “nisht tzu gezogt.” I intended ten, I hadn’t promised ten.

My father shot back in Yiddish “tzu gezagt ten thousandNisht gezugtpromised not intended.” Tzugezogt, nisht gezogt. Everything hinged on the word, a consonant, a syllable even – the kugel or just kugel, gezogt or tzu-gezogt.

“Liar, liar!” my father screamed as he rose up, red-faced. “You and your phony chassidus! Fumfering around the whole world with your quack cures.”

My grandfather burst into tears and screamed himself. He shook his finger at my father. = “Your parents,” he said, “I knew them in Europe. They were so illiterate that they would come to shul on rosh HaShana holding the machzor upside down!”

“Yeah?” my father shot back, “well, they had more truth in their left pinkies than there is in your whole Hasidic dynasty.”

They both threatened to leave. Neither did. There was a lot of flatware-clanging and the sounds of china being put down with rough hands followed by glowering looks and a deeply troubled silence. It was a memorable meal.

By the time I snapped out of this reverie, Bergman had recruited more than a minyan, and we were bounding through the service. I looked at the men around me, a motley crew of kibitzers, scholars, fools, and whiners, dubious miracle workers, and good people. It was an ensemble performance, and the ensemble reminded me a lot of my grandfather’s people, the Hasidim who came together to worship joyfully.

I don’t know how he did it, but Bergman had us done in two hours and twenty minutes. I thanked him, and he beamed. I looked at him and thought for a moment that I saw a familiar face, the face of my grandfather, and if not him then the men of his tribe, the lost Jews of Chernobyl. If only my father had realized my grandfather’s people weren’t so bad—in fact, that they were really first rate, just greatly moved by the spirit and a little imprecise with their words.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.

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