My grandfather recently passed away on both his actual English and Hebrew 95th birthdays. He’d been looking forward to the milestone for quite some time, especially for the party that had been planned for him. Unfortunately, when he entered the hospital with pneumonia a few weeks ago, the party was “postponed,” and ultimately never came to be.
Still, as I thought about my grandfather’s passing, I thought of how his death had an element of holiness to it. And as I thought about his passing on the intersection of the English and Hebrew calendars (an occurrence that takes place once every 19 years), I thought about how closely this overlap mirrored his life.
He was not my grandfather by blood. He had married my grandmother 45 years ago, when she was widowed with four young children, becoming a father to them and the only paternal grandfather my sisters and I ever knew — and shared with 13 other grandchildren. But he was from a different world than ours. He was a Biyaner chasid, whose father had been the previous Biyaner rebbe, a title my grandfather did not take on, but which passed to his nephew, the current rebbe, who lives in Israel. But rebbe or not, my grandfather was quite legit, sporting a caftan and black hat on Shabbos, constantly engaging in Jewish learning (books were his wallpaper), devoting himself tirelessly to fundraising and supporting the Biyaner’s yeshiva of Rizhin, and above all, always ready, wheelchair-bound or not, for endless rounds of simcha dancing.
But he had another side, one that was as well read in secular literature as he was in the Talmud. A side that followed baseball and played tennis. A side that had very liberal politics, and very liberal views about the State of Israel. A side that married a Modern Orthodox woman and encouraged her participation in JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and her learning how to read Torah. A side that watched several granddaughters (including me) in a bat mitzvah ceremony that, shall we say, was not wholly in line with Biyaner tradition. That is, in his life too, the English and Hebrew calendars blended seamlessly together.
Still, my grandfather had a complicated role in our family. He stepped into my father’s life and that of his mother and sisters in the depths of a sudden tragedy (the early death of their father). In many ways, over the 45 years he spent in my family’s life, there was always a sense he was a stranger among us, a representative of a Judaism very different from our own, and inevitably always a reminder of another father’s life taken too soon. It was not always an easy role.
But he did not see us as strangers. He adored his grandchildren — calling us his “nachas givers” — proudly displaying our names on his favorite tie, loving to talk to us about school and current events, kibitzing about stocks, and always asking me when I was going to write an article about him. As his grandchildren, when we visited Israel, a special escort of Biyaner chasidim came to our hotel and brought us to the home of the rebbe. My grandfather was part of a chasidic dynasty, and he invited us all to be a part of it with him, blood or not. To him there was simply no concept of “real” children or “real” grandchildren. He just was proud to be related to us.
And I think it is safe to say that, particularly in my grandfather’s death, we all felt proud to be related to him. His funeral was held at Kehilath Jeshurun and he was buried on Har Ha-Zeitim alongside his parents — the union of Modern Orthodoxy and chasidism one last time. But on route to Newark airport, he had asked that his body be brought to the Lower East Side, to the Biyaner’s shteibel where he grew up.
In 16-degree weather, the building and the street were overflowing with chasidim, chanting words about my grandfather in Yiddish. And though I understood nothing, as I stood watching with my family, I was struck by what a prominent person he was in that world — and what a beautiful reflection on the Biyaner community that despite my grandfather’s more secular and modern-leaning ways, they continued to treat him as chasidic royalty. We, his relatives, were women without our hair covered. We were men with knitted kippot — not black hats. That is, we were really the strangers, and yet neither my grandfather nor the chasidim made us feel that way.
The last time I spent with my grandfather was Shabbat afternoon, the last day of Chanukah. I accompanied my aunts to the hospital and since he could not speak through his oxygen mask, one of my aunts suggested we sing him zemirot. The last song we sang was the closing verse of “Kah Ribon” — about returning to Jerusalem, where “spirits and souls will rejoice.”
If I can picture anyone’s soul singing and dancing on the hilltops of Jerusalem, it is surely his. n
Erica Schacter Schwartz is a writer living in Manhattan. She is a former Back of the Book columnist.
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