Thursday, June 3, 2010

Coming Full Circle

Once a week, on Sunday, I meet my father and uncle for lunch at a street level kosher restaurant located on the first floor of Milwaukee's Jewish Home for the elderly. My grandfather, Lev, a survivor of Nazi shrapnel, Stalin's purges and three strokes, is a resident at the home, requiring constant care. My father visits him twice a day, usually, before and after work, while my uncle drives up from Chicago to take over during the weekends. So it has been for two or three years now, for these loyal sons.

Last weekend, we were talking about my beard, again, and how no one in my family has worn one for generations. It is not a conversation I enjoy having, as my father tends to bait me into overreacting and appearing unreasonable and disrespectful. My only option is to remain silent until my uncle changes the subject. In the recent past, I've largely succeeded. This time, I engaged him, in the familiar way, but received something quite unexpected in return.

At the time, not wearing a beard was a sign of modernity, I told him, referring to my great grandfather, Avigdor. There were many social and political forces at play, which have no relevance now - Homo Sovieticus, for example, is dust on the scales. Keep in mind my father was born after the war, so his recollections of Avigdor are from the early 1950s.

My father replied that my great grandfather didn't have a beard and was a real Jew, more of a Jew than all the Rabbis here. This is all par for the well-worn course, but then, unusually, my father remembered that when he was a little boy, his grandfather (Avigdor) used to go to a nearby Jewish village to pray. They lived in a mostly Jewish village in Moldova called Dandushany. Actually, Avigdor's home was a kind of a makeshift shul, and while he wasn't a Rabbi himself, he led services and acted as the head of the Jews in the village.

So, despite hosting the village's shul, every so often, Avigdor would go to a nearby village to pray, and it was considered different somehow. My father doesn't remember exactly how it was different, but it was considered different from the usual praying that was done in Dandushany. Without my prompting, my father offered that Avigdor traveled to pray in a Chabad-Lubavitch shul. I asked him maybe it was Litvishers, and he said no, they came much later. So I told him, maybe it was another Chassidic sect, but he never heard of any other Chassidic sects in the area.

It was a political matter. My grandfather, Lev, after displaying immense heroism (and stupidity), qualified for officer training and became a commander during the war. To become an officer in the Red Army, one had to join the Communist Party. Lev has many medals from the war; He fought in Stalingrad, was injured severely, put himself through night school for years to become first a teacher, then a headmaster at a school. Owing to his wartime service record, and relatively high level of education, he became a moderately big deal in the local Communist Party structure. Thirty years later, when my parents married and needed an apartment, they didn't wait ten years on the lists years like everyone else because people knew my grandfather, and this was thirty years later that his name could still move the bureaucracy.

Anyway, at some point, Lev (my grandfather) was under political review, and it came up that his father, Avigdor, was a religious Jew. The thing is, if Avigdor were just praying by himself, no one would care. This is purely speculation on my part, but he must have been praying with others, in a congregation or movement, or else it wouldn't raise a red flag. If he just belonged to the KGB infiltrated official local synagogue, it probably wouldn't matter much, as that was technically approved religious expression. So who else was in the area and actively evading Soviet control? It must have been Chassidim. Perhaps not Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim, but perhaps so. My grandfather brushed the charges off, arguing that his father was an old man, too old to change. This review probably affected Lev's prospects for growth in the party structure.

I have no proof that Avigdor was connected to Chabad Chassidim, just speculation. Just think of it, though, if that were the case, if Avigdor had a connection with Lubavitch at the time. An old man by the 1950s, Avigdor had witnessed the entire first half of the 20th century, as the world went to hell and back, and back to hell and back, and back to hell and back. In his youth, he fought the Turks and earned a silver coin from the Tzar. He survived the first World War only to watch Russia implode in Red Terror, with the Soviets then gobbling up Moldova, followed by the forced collectivization programs, the starvations that ensued, the bloody purges against "counter-revolutionary elements", the savage Nazi invasion, followed by emptying of entire Moldovan Jewish villages, the rubble and rebuilding of the post war years. Avigdor lived just long enough for someone to try to kill him one last time, during the planned transfer of all Soviet Jews to Siberia, aborted after Stalin's shocking, unexpected death.

Through all this, my great grandfather held his faith, to his last years irritating the Soviet regime with his simple, personal act of prayer. If only he knew, the komissar who uncovered my great grandfather's anti-Soviet activity, at a time when the Soviet Union seemed poised to endure for eternity, that six decades later this old man's great grandchildren would be whispering those same prayers.


  1. Just after I got married I also discovered how my religious choices completed a circle started by my great-grandmother...

  2. i really believe that the world works in circles and cycles. this was a lovely reflection and example of history. thanks for sharing this!


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