Beyond the Pale
I learned my Yiddish from my grandfather, who came from Montreal to live with us in Chicago for the last four years of his life, after his health failed and he could no longer stay alone. These were the years, just after World War II, when I was between fourteen and eighteen—not at all a bad age, really, for absorbing a new language. A small and somewhat foppish man, my grandfather began each day by wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and tefillin for his morning devotions. After bathing, he would dress in one of his five suits, tailor-made and very well-cut, which he maintained with great care and wore in rotation. His shirts were white and starched, his neckties dark. A thick gold watch chain depended from his vest. When he died he left the watch to me, and also, I would later come to realize, a certain standard of seriousness.
In Montreal, where he had spent much of his adult life, my grandfather had been a leading figure in Hebrew education. Old-timers in that city still remember Raphael Berman as a man of deep learning and wide culture. Living with us in Chicago must have marked a sad coming-down for him. “Immaculate” was the word my mother always used to describe her father-in-law; he, for his part, worried about her following the laws of kashrut, previously foreign to her. After more than 80 years keeping kosher, he feared falling off the wagon at this late stage of his life.
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