Tales of My Great-Grandfathers
One morning in the clamorous early 70′s—that hectic, electric time of Flower Power, angry demonstrations, saffron-clad gurus and their chanting, shaven-headed acolytes—one morning, waiting for a New York City bus in that gaudy, psychedelic time, I ran into a woman with whom I had gone to high school and college. The daughter of artists, she had grown up in sophisticated Greenwich Village, while I, a teacher’s daughter, had emerged from the subway provinces.
We had not ever really been friends, Mara and I; still, we knew each other and had many acquaintances in common. So, standing there together, waiting for the bus, we fell into an uneasy early-morning exchange. All too quickly, though, we exhausted the juiciest gossipy good stuff and an edgy silence overtook us, until suddenly my old schoolmate—who was at that juncture, she had just informed me, a member of a women’s guerrilla street-theater troupe—said: “You know, I was just thinking about you recently. In my consciousness-raising group. . . .” And then, very guardedly, “You were like really always into being Jewish, weren’t you?”
“I guess so.” I said this with reluctance, immediately feeling defensive.
Because in a time of so much ferment and ecstatic disruption, who could believe it? Hear about Johanna? Pathetic, really—still into her same old boring Jewish trip. But this, it turned out, was not at all what she had in mind. What I did not know, and would never have guessed, was that Mara herself was even then inching her way toward reclaiming a Jewish inheritance she had been raised to disdain. On that long-ago morning, as she stood peering down the yet-to-be gentrified Upper West Side street for a glimpse of the bus, she carefully avoided my eyes as she finally blurted out, “What did you—I mean, how did you get into it?”
But the bus was at long last arriving, and I took incoherent refuge in rummaging for my fare. “Oh well, you know . . . my parents,” was all I managed to summon up before we climbed on and became separated by the determined stream of onrushing passengers.
As it happens, Mara would eventually find her way to an unfamiliar and decidedly not home-inspired sense of Jewish belonging by way of klezmer music. You just never know: Jewish destiny is a great mystery, said the illustrious Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi. So for Mara, the world at large, or the Zeitgeist, filled in the blanks, and she did not need what should have been my answer. But it is also true that, decades ago, though I surely could have offered her at least a few surface details—for instance, that my grandfather had been a cantor, that I was raised in a moderately observant but specifically Zionist family, and that my intense adolescent years of membership in the Zionist youth movement Habonim were precious and formative—I would have been incapable of formulating the deeper, more elusive answer that Mara’s poignant baffled plea, “How did you get into it?,” deserved.
I think now that every family has its significant myths, its agglomerations of told and re-told stories, memories, and experiences, and that these myths, even as they may diverge from literal truth or documentable historical facts, lay out a felt but invisible path, a subterranean template that defines and sometimes even determines—if you will, a kind of barely traceable spiritual DNA. Because these myths are the very air we breathe in childhood, we tend to take them for granted, to be a little bored with them—they can seem foolish, even embarrassing—so that it becomes impossible for us to recognize what makes them, after all, our own, unique or remarkable. Perhaps it is only later, with life’s perplexing turns and middle age’s apprehension of the shocking flight of time, that they come back to us in new and sharpened focus.
In my own family, I might have told Mara, the formative myths arose from the very different life stories of two of my great-grandfathers. I call them the Tale of the Great Rabbi and the Tale of the Simple Jew.
The Tale of the Great Rabbi
Usually, stories about great rabbis—and nearly every Jewish family has one, somewhere—center on their singular wisdom and prodigious learning. Not so for my mother’s grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Meir of Minsk: in his case, the family stories were about his austere, remote, otherworldly aspect and character, and his countless (if sometimes highly peculiar) good deeds. This improbable combination—Twilight Zone manner and one-man social-service-agency activity—is said to have inspired awe in the surrounding gubernya, or district, and to have led some, Jews and Gentiles alike, to attribute to him nearly magical powers, though he was most definitely not a “wonder” rabbi, not a Hasid. “Reb Jacob Meir of Minsk, a saintly Mitnaged” (or anti-Hasid), is how he is characterized by Zalman Shazar, Israel’s third president, in his autobiography, Morning Stars. How Shazar in particular came to regard him as saintly is something I’ll return to, but first let me provide a taste of the stories I grew up on.
Before the Sabbath—every Sabbath—Rabbi Jacob Meir would not only empty out the pockets of his coat in order to give whatever money he had to the needy, he would actually give away his coat. When the members of his congregation remonstrated with him about this highly idiosyncratic practice, he would say only, “God will provide.” But clearly it was those same congregants who would each time be obliged to provide, and though this exemplary story would always, in childhood, fill me with a terrible frisson—how reckless and unnatural to give away your brand-new coat!—it is apparent to me now that my great-grandfather’s famously remote gaze harbored a surprising shrewdness. However his congregation might guiltily begrudge its numerous coatless poor, it could hardly deny its own rabbi.
But here is a more substantial story. Scattered throughout the gubernya of Minsk were children known as Rabbi Jacob Meir’s mamzerim, bastards. Who were they? When a woman had a baby she knew she could not keep—in telling this story, my mother, mindful of my sheltered, childish ears, would always suggest extreme poverty as the reason for the woman’s dilemma (though she sometimes darkly murmured, “Or who knows?”)—the anguished new mother would bring the baby to my great-grandfather’s house. He became godfather to these infants, each of whom he would place with a family in one or another of the surrounding shtetls. The given-away children would bear the last names of the families who raised them, but to each distraught birth mother my great-grandfather pledged that he would personally watch over the education and development of her child, that he would always consider himself to be bonded with that child—to remain forever as a special presence. And these were not mere empty consolatory words: my grandmother grew up knowing some of these children and regarded them as semi-cousins.
In one instance, the dynamic of this special relationship was to take a dramatic twist. In the turbulent early days of the new Bolshevik government, a nephew of my great-grandfather’s, a pharmacist, was arrested and thrown in jail for “economic crimes”—I suppose he had his own little store, and as such was regarded as a bourgeois parasite. His prospects looked exceedingly grim until my great-grandfather thought to seek the help of one of his mamzerim, who had grown up to become first a fervent revolutionary and then, rising very quickly, a local commissar. The newly minted commissar sprung the hapless pharmacist and hurriedly arranged for him and his young family to get to Warsaw, where they could take up a new life. (But in the 20th century, too many Jewish stories did not have happy endings. So, lucky once, but only once: the Warsaw pharmacist and his family were to perish during World War II in the Warsaw Ghetto.)
Perhaps the strangest, most legend-like story I heard in childhood about this great-grandfather refers back to czarist times, when an extremely onerous tax on kosher meat was levied against the Jewish community. So burdensome was its effect that my great-grandfather went to the local czarist official to plead that it be rescinded. Denying him even the most minimal courtesy, the official peremptorily refused. The next day, that man’s young son fell ill—so ill that it appeared the boy would die. At this, the father became convinced that his harsh dealings with the Jews and specifically with Jacob Meir were the cause of his misfortune. The official rescinded the tax; his child recovered; and from then on, rumors began to spread among the local peasantry about Rabbi Jacob Meir’s powers.
But what did my great-grandfather himself regard as the most important undertaking of his life? The curious answer to this question I learned only from reading Shazar’s memoir. It was Jacob Meir’s firm belief that the geulah, the long-awaited redemption of the Jews, could never come about as long as there was a chance that the holy name of God might be “trodden underfoot . . . whenever a page of an ordinary siddur [prayer book] or humash [Pentateuch] fell on the floor.” What did he do? Writes Shazar: “Very carefully, . . . he had [typeset] pages of a siddur where the letters of the Name were scattered and printed on a slant, so that even if the page became loose and dropped out there would be no desecration.”
To raise money for the printing of these special volumes, Rabbi Jacob Meir went from shtetl to shtetl, escorted to the homes of the wealthy by local heder (religious primary school) boys who were judged capable of appreciating the significance of his mission. And that is how a very young Zalman Shazar came to encounter my great-grandfather, and ultimately, to offer the only physical description of him that I know: “a tall, thin old man wearing a black velvet hat and a long robe that reached to the top of his shoes; he walked along with me, splashing in the mud, while his lean, yellowish hand shielded his eyes to keep him from looking at that forbidden sight—a woman.”
Now, there is no way, today, that you can look over a photocopied page from that bizarrely set siddur, as I did only recently—a giddy, nearly Expressionistic swirl of Hebrew letters swooning before your eyes like the guilty, fevered visions of a dying, errant Jew—without immediately acceding to the darkest suspicions about at least one thread in the psychic component of your own genetic makeup. How, then, can a rational contemporary mind make sense of so deeply premodern a preoccupation? For myself, I have reached the conclusion that to my great-grandfather, the world-to-come was at least as real as the muddy roads he splashed through daily. He believed absolutely what he read every Sabbath in the rabbinic treatise, Ethics of the Fathers: “This world is a vestibule before the world-to-come; prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may enter the banquet hall.”
So totally did he believe this that when his daughter, my great-aunt, decided she wanted to go to medical school in Moscow, it never dawned on him to forbid or discourage her, even though the only way a Jewish girl could get the requisite identity permit to live in Moscow was by allowing herself to be declared a prostitute. What difference could it make to Rabbi Jacob Meir: what was all this anyway but the vestibule? When his outraged balabatim, his money men, stormed to his door to protest such a shocking prospect—their rabbi’s daughter, bearing the papers of a prostitute?—and even threatened to fire him if he did not change his mind, he gave them this reply: “She will go to Moscow; she will become a doctor; she will serve her people.” And she did just that, my stern-faced great-aunt. She left Russia for Palestine to become the doctor for a company of pioneers who were draining the swamps of the Huleh valley.
At his death, the family story had it, Jacob Meir was given a state funeral by the local Soviet government, and was hailed as “the rabbi of the people,” ostensibly because of his lifelong devotion to the welfare of the poor. And although this was true—and although it was also true that, contrary to the usual rabbinic practice, he had never accepted money for resolving ritual disputes—the family myth held that the real reason for his state funeral lay in the profound superstition of the local peasant populace and their age-old fear of offending the spirit of the powerful dead.
The Tale of the Simple Jew
There are no literary accounts of my father’s grandfather. In fact I do not even know his first name, though my guess is that it would have been Joseph—Yosef, Yussl—since that was the name of my own father’s eldest brother, my grandfather’s first-born son. What I do know was that his last name, my original family name, was not Kaplan.
Was this change in our family name the peremptory doing of some ignorant Ellis Island immigration clerk? Far from it: my great-grandfather never came close to leaving Russia. His story is much darker. His entire life’s trajectory was defined by a particularly horrific episode of child persecution in Russian Jewish history that is not particularly well known. My great-grandfather was a cantonist.
This strange-sounding designation—it has nothing to do with any religious or political splinter group, but a devil’s detour from childhood—was the brainstorm of Czar Nicholas I, who, like a latter-day Haman, had conceived a specific plan to rid his realm of Jews. This was the so-called Plan of the Thirds, according to whose design one-third of Russian Jewry would be compelled to emigrate, one third would die of starvation, and one third would be forcibly converted to Christianity. It was in brutal pursuit of that last third that my great-grandfather’s fate was sealed.
At the age of seven, he was ripped from his family in a Lithuanian shtetl, swooped away from his birthright life among Jews, kidnapped by the dreaded khapers—snatchers—and transported, along with other seized, impoverished little heder boys like himself, to a remote, frigid outpost of the Russian empire. Officially, all these captured, terrorized, often sickened small boys, abruptly thrust from their mothers’ arms into stiff soldiers’ overcoats, were made lifetime conscripts in the czar’s army, and in that guise were housed in army barracks called cantonments (hence: cantonists). In those dismal precincts, they were subjected to the harshest military discipline and relentlessly tortured to give up every vestige of their Jewish lives—robbed of their ritual fringed garments, forbidden to pray, prohibited from speaking Yiddish, and, finally, the true goal, forced to perform the rituals of the Russian Orthodox church. These were small children after all. How hard could it have been? Any who resisted were starved till they acquiesced or died.
So, though this was not ever part of the family myth, to me it is clear, from my reading, that my great-grandfather must at some point have submitted to baptism. What was told to me was that, from the age of seven, he had spent his entire childhood on a frozen, isolated waste of a farm in Siberia, in servitude to a peasant family that required him to do their foulest, filthiest, most back-breaking work. And here the Encyclopedia Judaica confirms the family account: “The cantonists were sometimes sent to Russian farmsteads in remote villages where they performed exhausting labor and were forced to change their faith.” In other words, he was a slave—an isolated, forcibly baptized, brutalized child slave.
But maybe, just maybe, that harrowing reality was something he could in some inchoate sense recognize—even hang on to—as a measure of spiritual resistance. After all, it had happened before: avadim hayinu, “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt.” Through all those lonely years, did he retain—could he have retained—from some dim corner of another life, the memory of a seder table? Or was it perhaps the hazy echo of a buzzing heder bench where he’d studied the Book of Exodus? “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. And the Lord delivered us from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Because something, surely, did sustain him. Through years of howling Arctic blasts and blinding blizzards, he remained a stubborn, solitary child Marrano—and one who was denied even the Marrano’s small solace of occasionally-glimpsed secret brothers somewhere in his environs.
At the age of eighteen, eleven years after his kidnapping, he began his mandatory 25 years of duty in the czar’s regular army. He was forty-three, then, when he was finally released, his sole, unlikely possession in the world a plot of land in Siberia, given him in return for his service to the czar. After 36 years, at last delivered into freedom, what could he have been by that time but an odd, remote, rough, uncommunicative man? Decades of military rigors, numberless privations, involuntary servitude, and confused, hidden identity had ensured that he had missed just about every ratified stage of normal human development. Yet out of that prolonged nightmare half-life at the ends of the empire, he made his way back to the shtetl of his birth in Kovno gubernya, there to request a bride.
And who could she have been, my great-grandmother, but a penniless orphan girl, utterly without prospects, to have accepted a match with a strange, hardened old soldier who barely spoke Yiddish, who had had no bar-mitzvah, known no calendar of Sabbaths, fast days, and festivals, let alone any ordinary family tenderness or communal nurture? Who else could she have been to find herself under the huppah, tearily bedecked, circling seven times around a groom who would promptly take her off to, of all places, Siberia?
But in Kayinsk, Siberia, there was, as it turned out, a small community of other released cantonists who had retained their Jewishness—enough for a prayer quorum, enough to form a tiny congregation, the Soldatski Synagog. There, in remote Kayinsk—a place so cold that a party of determined visiting cousins were discovered frozen to death in nearby woods en route—my own grandfather was born, and did become bar-mitzvah. And when, as a young man, this grandfather of mine set off on his own long-planned journey from Kayinsk, Siberia to New York harbor, ship’s passage clasped hard in hand, he, too, traveled first to his father’s birthplace in Kovno gubernya, there, hurriedly, to gain a bride: my grandmother, the undowered orphan daughter of an itinerant coopersmith.
And the name? Well, in fact, Kaplan was the name of a rich boy—a boy whose father’s resources had ransomed him out of the dreaded schoolboy conscription. Was he perhaps the pink-cheeked pampered son of a grain merchant, the honey-licking firstborn of a timber dealer? I’ll never know. I only know that shoved in under the name Kaplan in his stead was my luckless, destitute great-grandfather.
Still, I had always assumed—it was the family myth—that Kaplan’s bribe had been paid to the czarist officials. Not so: on this point, the Encyclopedia Judaica provides a highly disturbing correction. It was the Jewish communal authority, the kehilla, that was compelled to furnish the quota of conscript heder boys; it was the kehilla that made up the list, and a member of the kehilla, a Jew, who would have accepted the bribe, and consigned a helpless, expendable child into the pit of oblivion. A little uncanny, then, that my great-grandfather should have been named Joseph. Like that Joseph in the book of Genesis—the Joseph whose story is the prelude to the Passover saga of redemption—he, too, had been bundled into slavery by his own brothers, his own people.
But they were his people still. That he never forgot this, but clung to it with all his might to survive and prevail as a Jew against the grimmest of odds—in itself an amazement—is surely the luminous lesson of his haunting, impenetrable life.
When I think now about these two disparate family myths that made up the household hum of my childhood, I am struck by their odd, asymmetric link. I am the great-granddaughter at once of an eccentric, lofty-minded rabbi who rescued abandoned children and of a desolate, kidnapped child-conscript whom no one in his community ever made the smallest attempt to save. How could I not, then, as a writer, be drawn to the paradoxes and disruptions that stumble through generations of Jewish families’ lives? How could I not be preoccupied, in my fiction, with the terrible deforming power of history’s privations when I know that its remnant anachronistic tendrils are still so alive within me?
Yet these myths have another link—and one that I gleaned very early: the primacy of peoplehood. So even though I cannot, with my rabbi great-grandfather, negotiate the day-to-day world as if it were a mere waiting room for the Redemption, I am sufficiently inhabited by both family tales to cling, with bemused intensity, and under conditions of ease my cantonist great-grandfather could never have begun to apprehend, to a complicated, vexing people. Somewhere, among their ancient, unlikely dreams and farfetched adventures toward fulfillment, lies my own ineluctable walk-on in a drama of catastrophe and renewal any imaginative writer would be hard put to equal.