The Last of Deuteronomy
By loving the Lord your God, heeding His commandments, and holding fast to Him; for thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them. Deuteronomy 30:20
I met many of my great-grandparents, and I was fortunate enough to have a relationship with two of them – my mother’s mother’s parents. Bobbie and Zaydie (that’s Chicago-ese for Bubbe and Zeide, the Yiddish words for Grandma and Grandpa) fought like cats and dogs and were totally in love. Bobbie took care of Zaydie, which included making sure he was fed three times a day and had a shot of whisky with most dinners. Zaydie smoked cigars and a pipe and, when I knew him, spent most of every day in a stuffed armchair with the “Forverts,” the then-daily Yiddish newspaper, close at hand.
The rumor was that the two of them had fallen in love back in the old country when marriages were mostly arranged. There was an abandoned engagement that may or may not have involved a dowry. They made their way to America (or, as they knew it, Amerike) and embraced the life wholeheartedly. I always thought it was a wonderful coincidence that Zaydie’s name was Benjamin Franklin Schwartz and that he was born on the Fourth of July. Yeah, maybe.
Zaydie was a tiny man – not a little person, but short enough that I stood eye to eye with him by the time I was ten. I knew very little about his life as an immigrant making his way in this country, but he did well enough to buy a two-flat where he raised his family and where many of his children and grandchildren lived over the course of their lives. He also opened his home to non-relatives who needed a place to stay, sometimes for years.
Zaydie loved this country and loved to vote. When he barely could walk in his later years, he nonetheless would put on a suit and shuffle off to the polling place on election day. Since this was in Chicago, for all I know he may still be voting.
He loved Bobbie, and though they spent a lot of time yelling at each other, when she died, he would frequently sit looking at her picture, sighing and crying.
But the one story Zaydie was most proud of was how he helped to found an orphanage in Chicago when he was a young man. The story shape-shifted over the years, but it involved him (and others) descending on City Hall and demanding permitting and financial backing to take in the population of Jewish orphans that had swelled due to poverty, disease, and abandonment.
The official history of the Marks-Nathan Home does not mention Zaydie, but it doesn’t matter. If he was the mover and shaker or just a small voice in a large crowd, it was the illustration of his life he chose to share with his family. It was his legacy to us. Along with cigars and Yiddish and sitting in the sukkah and schnapps and ten shiny pennies he always had for us, this was the story he wanted us all to know.
The first book of the Bible is filled with stories of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, Eve and Methuselah, Noah, Rebecca, Dina and especially Joseph get plenty of verses, but the fullness of life and experience for these three patriarchs – father, son, and grandson – is there for every reader to encounter.
However, toward the end of the Five Books, their lives are distilled into their legacy: the land. Each of them had a variegated reputation, their versions of the details of my Zaydie’s life. But what became identified with them more than anything was the land to which one traveled, one settled and one returned. Arguably, it was the most important project of their lives, as evidenced by the words Moses chose to inspire the people and honor his ancestors.
What is it that will be my legacy? Will I choose the story to tell as the defining lesson of my life, or will it be chosen for me by those who decide to remember me?
I write this at a time of transition in our country when the question of legacy weighs heavily on leaders and followers alike. Some legacies are chosen by us, and some for us. But I think it pays, even from an early age, to consider what it is we do that endures.
(Just for the record, though Bobbie was a looker in her day, the photo shows my much younger sister sitting on Zaydie’s lap.)