My Grandfather Laid Tefillin
My zayde came to the United States in the early 1900s. He left the pogroms and challenges of living as a Jew in Lithuania for the promise of a new beginning in the United States.
A tailor by trade he made his way to Chicago where he was determined to make sure that he and his children were as American as those around him. Many of the old traditions were left behind but not all. Family legend relates the tale of his father coming to America to visit his son.
He had been here but a short time when he found my great-grandfather eating treif and declared that America was no place to be a Jew and with that he picked up and returned to Lithuania. It is thought that he died prior to the Holocaust but that remains somewhat unclear.
Here in the states my great-grandfather worked hard to support his family. Although he no longer lived as an observant Jew he made sure to teach his children about all of the holidays and made sure that they never went to school nor worked on yontiff.
His children all spoke reverently and with great respect of the man they called Pa and there are many stories about how he helped to establish several unions in Chicago, including tales of how he and his friends would occasionally battle the police. He was an even six feet tall and broad shouldered and according to his children quite strong.
Apparently in those days that was considered relatively tall and as a result he was commonly mistaken for a policeman.
Anyway, back to the main thrust of this post. The brothers who left Lithuania most definitely went down different pasts. Some headed to Israel, some to South Africa and one ended up in London where he was among the chief rabbis of the city.
I often wonder about those days. The stories that I grew up hearing were these colorful tapestries of a life that in some ways was no different than my own and in so many so very different.
My grandfather told tales of the neighborhood kids and their sports and the rivalries with other streets and ethnic groups. Sometimes the fun turned into something more serious and it wasn’t all that unusual for the Jews to battle the Poles or to have the occasion to do battle with the Italian kids.
The Chicago of my grandfather’s youth was Al Capone’s town and there were stories about the men and boys who were part of that life and how they touched my grandfather’s life too.
Eventually the boy who grew up to be my grandfather enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. He spent a couple of years serving Uncle Sam before being discharged. (You’ll forgive me for bouncing around a bit, I like writing in a stream-of-consciousness style).
In time WW II hit and he returned to service. It was during this time that he married my grandmother and that my father was born. The family moved around a lot. There were stays in Los Angeles, Gary Indiana, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
During one of these stops my grandfather placed my father in a yeshiva. My father loved and thrived in the yeshiva and has many happy memories tied into it. He speaks fondly of davening each day with my grandfather. As you may recall my grandfather did not grow up in an observant household.
He was proud to be Jewish and although he didn’t attend shul on a regular basis it wasn’t totally out of character to find him there. So when I write about my grandfather layin tefillin and davening with my father it is a sign of the love that he had for his children. He didn’t do it so much for himself as much as he did it because it was something that he could share with my father.
In time my father left the yeshiva and the days of davening daily with my grandfather ended.
(Author’s note. Sometimes transitions can be rough. As a matter of fact the reason for this author’s note is that I am not sure exactly how I want to move on to the next point in this story so I am going to use this interjection to make it happen.)
I only remember my grandfather laying tefillin once. Grandpa never believed in laying tefillin just because Chabad or someone asked him to do so, he said that if you were going to do it you should do it when it meant something.
It was at my bar-mitzvah, Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5742. If I close my eyes I can picture myself standing in between he and my father and I can still feel his hand on my shoulder.