Interacting with different kinds of people provides us with different learning experiences. Growing up I had two grandfathers, whom I did not know very well, because, being the child of two youngest children, my grandfathers were already quite old when I was born. Both of my grandmothers were already dead. So I knew my grandfathers somewhat remotely. Yet, I do believe that each of them was a strong influence on my life – in very different ways.
On my father’s side, my grandfather, whom we called Zaida, was the patriarch of the close family. I would see him every time the extended family got together in his little house where he lived with his two unmarried daughters. This was mostly on religious holidays and occasionally on Friday nights. I enjoyed the experience, getting together with my cousins, even though the food was pretty awful. And my grandfather was there at the head of the table, talking to the adults in Yiddish. Interactions with the kids were minimal but always pleasant and warm. For about a year before my bar mitzvah I would go on Saturday morning to shule with my Zaida. It was a little intimidating. He struggled to communicate with me. His English was good, that was not the problem. It was, rather, that he had no idea what to talk to me about, and I had no idea that he had no idea. It felt a bit awkward for both of us.
I would sit with him in the front row through the Saturday morning service (I loved the choir). The rabbi would always come over to greet him and therefore greet me as well. Supposedly this was all to help me get prepared for my big day. It made me realize how respected my grandfather was in his community, what a quiet dignified and humble man he was. I will tell you more about him, but first let me tell you about my other grandfather.
My mother’s father, whom we used to call Oupa was known to me from infrequent meetings whose purpose I can’t remember. They were not regular gatherings, but were occasions when my grandfather was visiting and the family would get together. For a short period of a matter of months he lived in our house. In all of these encounters he was to me somebody with whom the adults dealt - most of the time he was sick - and it seemed to have very little to do with me. I cannot recall having a single conversation with him, and what I do remember of what he said was mostly complaining about his health and about the noise that the children (der kinde) were making.
To be sure, my two grandfathers presented me a stark contrast.
Though he was never rich my Zaida lived a full and productive life, and he gained the respect and admiration of all who knew him. He was a very religious man, but a man who believed it was important to interact with the world and to embrace progress. After a somewhat meandering emigration from Lithuania, he eventually settled in a small town in South Africa called Outshoorn. He and my Bobba eventually had eight children, the youngest being my father. Zaida was a peddler and during the first world war, when the South African economy was in a depression, he went bankrupt and moved to the big city of Johannesburg. Decades later he returned with one of his daughters to pay outstanding debts that remained from that period. He lived with his family in Johannesburg for the rest of his long life. He died in his ninety ninth year.
In the course of his emigration, first to America and then to South Africa, he taught himself to read and write English, not just to get by on the street or in the store, but sufficiently well to be able to read and quote from Shakespeare. In fact it became a favorite family story that he would quote from Shakespeare while teaching the Talmud seeing commonalities and connecitons between the two. Indeed, in Johannesburg he became a revered scholar in one of the largest synagogues in which he was known as the Cohen hagadol. For many years he taught Talmud in the shule. I remember that his class finished a particular section which became the occasion for a big celebration of his 93rd birthday. I have a cassette recording of that event.
From my Zaida I learned the value of education, the importance of dignity and respect and honesty, the importance of compassion and generosity, and the importance of treating everyone kindly and giving them the benefit of the doubt. He taught this to my father as well and so I got a double dose. My Zaida was in many ways a role model worthy of emulation, but someone who set a high standard for anyone who would try.
My Oupa was another kettle of fish, as my mother might have said. He was also an immigrant from Lithuania, though later than my Zaida. But there the similarity ended. The sad truth is, he was apparently not a very likable man. I don’t know as many details about his life, but I think he suffered many disappointments, maybe in an unsuitable marriage (to a sophisticate lady from England), and in business, where his younger brother was very successful but also very selfish and probably stoked the resentment of my grandfather. In my eyes he was always angry, somewhat menacing. He was a chain smoker, his fingers were stained red from something in the cigarettes, and when he was not complaining he was coughing, sometimes violently. I’m sure he suffered, but his demeanor was not one that evoked any sympathy in me. I just remember disliking him very much, and when he died, smoking himself to death, I could not empathize much with my mother who was apparently quite upset.
My Oupa taught me a great deal. He taught me exactly what not to be as a grandfather, and although my grandchildren joke with me that I’m a grumpy grandpa, nobody is in any doubt about the extent of my love for them and how much I enjoy being with them, even though I may sometimes complain about the noise. I am very conscious of the picture that my Oupa presented to me, and very determined to never allow myself to sink that low no matter how bad I may feel. I’m not sure how my Oupa would feel to know that the lessons I learned from him are negative ones. Maybe he would be happy to know that some good came out of his negative example. And I certainly hope my Zaida would kvel to know how much I value his example – even if I did turn out to be a non-believer.
Two grandfathers, two very different stories, two very different significant experiences in my life.