The books that came into my hands during my two-year stay at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim are regularly pulled off the shelves of my cerebral library. One, entitled The Grave Concern, was lent to me by Rabbi Meir Schuster zt”l, the soft-spoken, relentless man who pointed countless lost Jewish wayfarers back to the true path of their Jewish self-discovery. The word grave is used as an adjective, describing the dire situation of America’s Jewish landscape, which was being torn asunder by assimilation, and was illustrated by the cover, which featured an hourglass showing letters of the aleph-beis disintegrating into the sands of time. The book is a litany of personal chronicles of a journalist who tracked the stories of people he knew who had gotten lost in the shuffle of exile and had traded in their Yiddishkeit for the baubles of beckoning riches, leaving them unmindful of their precious legacy while they reveled in vacuous and valueless achievements that faded to black with the last closing of their disillusioned eyes.
Another book, called Jerusalem Echoes, contained powerful vignettes of college students and young professionals who had found their way home to authentic Torah observance in varied and wondrous ways. It contained an eloquent and sweeping monologue that the rosh yeshivah of Ohr Somayach, Rabbi Nota Schiller, wrote for me to present onstage before a large audience at Ohr Somayach’s first major dinner in New York, circa 1981. The monologue was a soliloquy delivered by a 20-something-year-old student to his deceased grandfather at the latter’s grave on Har Hamenuchos.
Both of these valued volumes came to mind during a recent visit to a cemetery in which multiple members of my family are buried, may they rest in peace. My parents and other relatives had rediscovered their Jewish legacies, thrown off the shackles of assimilation, and celebrated the gift of Torah observance with vigor and reverence while they were still in this world. Others had not been able to seize the opportunity before they departed.
That’s what brought The Grave Concern to mind. As I stood among the graves, I thought about the urgency of getting to the task of living with meaning, value, and purpose before one is placed in the ground and bound for the eternal World of Truth.
“Hello, Grandpa…or I guess I’d better say ‘shalom.’
“Har Menuchot, Mt. of Resting, when I look down from up here, down to the bend of the highway below, it reminds me of that Thurber cartoon of people rushing to and fro in front of a cemetery; he titled it, ‘Destinations.’
“Truth is, though at the time I couldn’t figure out why you had asked to be sent here to be buried…maybe now that I’m here, it’s beginning to mean something—maybe.
“It’s been kind of difficult finding this place…like as if you have to go through Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Spain, Warsaw, Brooklyn, and Long Island to get here…
“But see, back in Gibonsville, Long Island, you were kind of an anachronism when you turned up those Sundays to visit, and the setting around you, outside on the lawn furniture, or even inside…it was all right out of the right magazine or TV commercial—and then from nowhere, like out of this time machine, there’s this old man with a beard.
“The best I could muster was a forced reverence, an obligatory patriotism for this patriarchal half-Yiddish- half-English-speaking old man and his funny habits, his special foods and dishes and frequent prayers.
“See, Grandpa, you didn’t have those marks that are awarded to those that excel at the game, the ones that make it—the slick cars and furnishings that symbolize success…not the prestige of academe—a title, a profession, a shingle—a platform from which to look down to the throngs.
“So all in all, I guess I was pretty much programmed to size you up as a loser… I’m not excusing myself, but you know how it was…like if those are the yardsticks so that’s how I measured… So of course, I should’ve known better… It, it took time… But a funny thing happened to me on the way down to the cemetery one day.
“See, I was thinking of marrying out, of opting out, and your son and his wife could not find the words to tell me why I should not. They kept ripping off scripts from other plays, but it wasn’t their act… And it was strange—even as they unabashedly plagiarized the psychological and sociological sources, invariably their pitches became theological.
“You know, before I came here, I went back to the old neighborhood where you lived, where Dad grew up in East New York, and I even found the old shul where we drove a few times to see you on Rosh Hashanah… Man! Talk about spooky—it was like you could hear a minyan of ghosts in that old, abandoned shul, a phantasmagoric quorum reciting a Kaddish.
“But as long as we’re talking, Grandpa, let me tell you it isn’t easy going cold turkey on all the instant, ready-to-serve goodies available at your local market… Maybe the toughest thing is feeling like a schnook…you know, like why shouldn’t I take my piece of the action… I think when you’re a tzaddik that probably doesn’t happen, at least not in the same way.
“See, I win some battles and lose some battles, but lately, I think I see which direction this war within me is going.
“See, at the time I thought that minyan of ghosts, their reciting of Kaddish, was for that…self-same heritage, once glorious, that was now ebbing away…
“And then, as that dialectic of logic crackled and throbbed in my brain, and the voices at the yeshivah…thundered Shema Yisrael, and the kids at the Shabbos tables I visited…shone with an impossibly joyous purity—see, all that sweep and scope of a system of history, it all attained a sudden ‘newness.’
“So maybe that Kaddish was instead being said for Mr. Nietzche. He was dead. And G-d, He was vital and present everywhere, even in the head and heart and act of our each and every being. Maybe if I had stopped hiding, He had too.
“See, on that highway, that turnpike from Babylon to Brooklyn, there were Howard Johnsons along the way, and on the menus the fare carried Mishnah and Gemara, and that’s where they stopped to refill.
“I guess the quiet of this stone in the Holy Land kind of echoed—a Jerusalem Echo... See, a year ago I couldn’t have read your name on this tombstone, Grandpa. Now I can.
“Where I come from, it’s not manly for a guy to cry, and I’m beginning to feel my eyes burn…maybe that’s more Greek than Jew, but like I said, I haven’t won it all yet.
“So I’m going to have to beat it out of here, Grandpa… But I want to promise you something before I go… If things go the way I hope—and pray—then one day that great-grandson that Mom and Dad were so worried about, I’d like to call him Yaakov.
“And maybe he’ll also be a talmid chacham, Grandpa.”
And now, as I don the mantle of grandfatherhood, I wonder what my descendants will have gained from my life when the final curtain falls. “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morashah kehilas Yaakov”—Torah is an inheritance, but it must be claimed to be of any value.
I left the cemetery renewed and revitalized. G-d willing, I would not let those who came before me be disappointed. I pray that those who will descend from me will respond to the clarion call of our Avos and Imahos, whose hallowed past informs our present and inspires our future.
By Peretz Eichler