My mother didn’t go through the Holocaust. She wasn’t orphaned, kidnapped by Gypsies or sent to the gulag to languish. Nonetheless, her life was never easy. Growing up during the Depression, she was the “ordinary” one in the family who ended up shouldering many of the responsibilities. Then she was widowed at a young age, leaving her with a household of children and not too many marketable skills. My grandmother, her mother, had grown up in a time of great spiritual turmoil in Europe. Her father was not chasidic but her mother was, which in those days was considered a mixed marriage. They weren’t entirely matched in other ways as well. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a melamed who was a bear of a man both physically and spiritually. He came to America to escape the army, pogroms and poverty, and refused to compromise on anything. He didn’t work on Shabbos, ate only kosher food and davened three times a day. These were no small feats in turn-of-the-century America.His wife, by contrast, wasn’t entirely sure that being so strict was necessary. She told her daughters that they could comb their hair on Shabbos—but not when Tatty was around. Their Torah was thus chipped into bite-size pieces that could be swallowed or spat out depending on the appetite of the consumer.
When she died of a brain tumor, her husband was left to contend with the shards of frumkeit his children carried. His tayare kinder, untethered from the pier by their mother’s compromising attitude and the enticements of the goldene medinah, were swept out to sea, with the result that there was only one child’s home in which he felt comfortable— that of his oldest, my grandmother. My grandmother did not have the same level of frumkeit as her father; after all, her mother hadn’t understood the concept of a Torah that was immutable and not subject to change. But please understand that she was not an irreligious woman. She covered her hair, even in America. But it is my theory (and I never met her in person) that without the Bais Yaakovs and educational infrastructure that exist today, there was nothing to counter the winds of leniency. She had no answer for why her girls couldn’t comb their hair on Shabbos—except her husband’s admonishments. Ergo, you can—but not when der tatte is du. And once it became a matter of tatte or no tatte that determined their Yiddishkeit, the public school education her children received in America blew it out of the water.
Now, for those of you who are too young to remember the first seven decades of the last century, there’s something you have to understand in order to appreciate how strong these influences were. You younger people who came of age after the Vietnam War never experienced America in its heyday, so you don’t understand how powerful it was. The Vietnam War destroyed America’s feelings of superiority, invincibility and just plain rightness. Americans exuded the certainty that their country was the best and that if everyone just became an American (or some facsimile thereof), the world would be a better place and all the bad things in it would disappear—including halitosis. In those days the public schools didn’t subscribe to the current philosophy that everyone and everything is equally good and that no one can force rules on others, including not to steal or murder.
After all, that would be imposing your views on other people, the ultimate sin these days. Well, there was no such sin in the olden days. The mission of the public schools was to Americanize students and teach them how to be good citizens. It was also clearly understood that while the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom, America was an unabashedly Christian nation and made no bones about it. Most pageants and school plays revolved around Christian holidays and yes, all children were expected to participate. And most Christians attended church, where the teachings were either overtly or subtly anti-Semitic. Being Jewish was not something to be proud of. In this environment, public school children were made to feel that being an American—and a Christian one, at that— was the best thing one could possibly be. In the face of a concerted effort on the part of society to achieve that goal, is it surprising that Jews who didn’t have a very strong connection to their religion got lost? You were made to feel that you had to get rid of your greenhorn accent and anachronistic ways as soon as possible, and act and dress in a modern American manner. Is it any wonder that der tatte’s European garb, language and outdated religious observances made him someone that no one would want to emulate? Indeed, my great-grandfather’s children all left him, a lone figure protecting his heritage—except my grandmother.
Somehow, perhaps because she was the oldest, she refused to throw everything out. She kept kosher, and there was such a thing as Shabbos and “yontif,” when you ate “challie” and other Jewish foods. She had a deep love for Israel. True, her religion was more one of tradition than halachah, but she was still connected, albeit in a more threadbare fashion. And yes, she observed the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim. She took care of her father until his dying day. In fact, it was most likely this last mitzvah that saved her descendants. My mother and her siblings went to the same public schools that had destroyed the previous generation. They all imbibed the same message that “you must be American.” All of my mother’s siblings abandoned kashrus and Shabbos. They still retained certain traditions, like going to my bubbie for the Seder, but it was more for the food and family get-together than for religious reasons. (Did I mention that my bubbie was an awesome cook?) They had no problem eating chametz on the way to the Seder or driving there from work. They swallowed the vision of the American Dream and it, in turn, swallowed them. The intermarriage rate among my cousins is close to 100 percent—for those who actually got married. Their children, most of whom aren’t Jewish, have no concept of what Judaism is or any idea that the real thing is alive and vibrant.
In short, everyone wholeheartedly pursued the American Dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) except my mother. Why was she the exception? My theory is that all of my aunts and uncles were machers. They were brilliant, artistic, musical and talented—you name it. My mother was the ordinary one. She was none of the above, and she was therefore uninterested in chasing fame and fortune. She was the one who was around to help her mother take care of her zeidie. Her grandfather was an independent person, and most of the time, when he had the means, he kept his own apartment (which in those days meant a room). Whenever he needed checking up on or a dozen eggs, my mother was dispatched. She grew to love her zeidie and came to see the deep anguish he felt over the fact that his children had houses he couldn’t set foot in. When she was ten years old, she resolved that when she grew up, she would have a home in which her zeidie would be comfortable. Her mother’s watered-down, mechanical Yiddishkeit couldn’t withstand the siren call of America; but she, bolstered by the love of her zeidie, was able to hold on by a few threads, long enough to allow the yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs that had developed in the meantime to rethread the loom.
Even though her grandfather passed away before she was married and wasn’t there to oversee her house, and even though her knowledge of hilchos Shabbos and kashrus was sketchy at best, she did the best she could to create a home her zeidie would have approved of. And her efforts paid off. Baruch Hashem, we, her children, having absorbed our mother’s mesiras nefesh and inspired by our great-grandfather’s resolve to be a frum Yid in a treif medinah, have produced a generation that would make our alterzeidie kvell. My mother, subjected all those years to the ridicule of her siblings (“You’re absurd! You’re destroying your children’s lives!), is now surrounded by grand-, great-grand- and great-great-grandchildren, ka”h, all of whom keep Torah and mitzvos. And if she is ever unsure of a halachah, she can always ask one of her einiklach! And her siblings—they of the biting comments, condescension and certitude of mission? They’re almost all gone now. Somehow, they never envisioned their children marrying out. The first time it happened, it sent shock waves through the family. You would think that it wouldn’t have bothered them; after all, they had spent their lives deriding Yiddishkeit. But the pintele Yid was still there, and they had expected their kids to understand that they were supposed to be like goyim without actually being goyim.
That fine line, however, was invisible to my cousins. Given their high rate of intermarriage, my aunts and uncles never had a close relationship with their grandchildren (the few who were produced). They died knowing that the “brave new world” they had envisioned didn’t exist, although some of them couldn’t bring themselves to admit it. As one of my uncles said, “I was sure that I would leave the world a better place than when I entered it. But anti-Semitism still exists and morality doesn’t. The world is worse off now than when I was born.” This uncle was insanely jealous of my mother and the multitude of descendants who kept in touch with her. His own family was small and intermarried, and they were not very close with him and his wife. In his old age he stopped making fun of us, but he never quite understood what had gone wrong. Years earlier, my great-grandfather had been devastated when his grandson joined the army. He loved this grandson, the only one who davened with him and put on tefillin every morning. Now he had left for the army without his tefillin, a not-uncommon occurrence among the younger set in those days. Neither were my alterzeidie’s tears an uncommon phenomenon.
One day he was crying and said to my grandmother, “What will be with my doros?” She looked at him and replied, “Don’t give up hope so fast. Maybe your future generations will come through the girls.” Or girl, actually. Through that one girl, dear Alterzeidie, you now have dorei doros, a veritable legion of observant descendants. The threads that had gotten thinner and thinner as the generations passed have turned into sturdy braided ropes. We hope you’re still looking out for us and that we will always have homes you would feel comfortable in. Thank you, thank you, for the threads. Your tefillos for your future generations bore fruit. We hope you are kvelling in Shamayim! (But please don’t stop praying; we need all the tefillos we can get these days!)