As a child, I didn’t particularly enjoy visiting my grandparents. I wanted to play Nintendo or soccer with my friends. I didn't always have a piece of velvet on my head. I was an average kid from Long Island. My grandparents had funny accents and their house smelled like a strange mix of moth balls and chicken soup, and I had other things to do.
My mother would cajole me. “It’s the right thing to do,” would be the first attempt. When that didn’t work, “We’ll go to Toys R Us afterwards” would be the second. And when all else failed she would say, “You know, you are lucky to have grandparents and they won’t live forever. You won't always have grandparents to visit.” And invariably we would make our way to their home.
I didn’t think then that the day would come, but now I don’t have any grandparents to visit.
I don’t know how anyone can come back from that and live a somewhat normal life. Yet they did.
As I grew older, it became clearer to me that my grandparents had experienced the most unimaginable, inconceivable torture. I don’t know how anyone can come back from that and live a somewhat normal life. Yet they did.
I remember thinking, when I would see my grandfather put on his tefillin, or pray to God, “What are you doing?” “How can you possibly believe in God after what you went through?” “And even if you did believe in God, why would you talk to Him three times a day, fast a few times a year, and do everything else that you are doing for a God who took away your whole family and did this to you?”
Those questions remained with me, albeit in the background, through high school and college.
The author with his grandfather
And as I grew older, I saw something in my grandfather that I didn’t see in anybody else in the world. I saw refinement, royalty, and a quiet charm.
God gave me the opportunity to graduate from an Ivy League University, law school, and to work for one of the most prestigious investment banks in the world. In my life I had been around many intelligent and successful people with multiple initials before and/or after their name. At work, I was around people who were making 7 and sometimes 8 figures a year. I was surrounded by people, role models, who had made it. Yet there was nobody in the world, my parents excluded, who I would want to emulate more than my grandfather. No matter how many degrees or dollars these people had, they couldn’t hold a candle to my grandfather.
But why? He was just a simple upholsterer?
The author’s grandparents after they were liberated.
The more I learned about my grandfather, the more impressed I became. This upholsterer was probably the most intelligent person I knew. As cousin Sol has related to me numerous times, my grandfather was the one who excelled most at learning Torah.
After spending the past five years learning Torah full-time I’ve discovered that one cannot compare the rigors of Torah study to the coursework in higher education. I continue to struggle, trying desperately to keep up with those around me in Jerusalem. Before the Nazis ripped his life apart, my grandfather was a respected Torah scholar.
This simple upholsterer had a brilliant mind. But what impressed me was his sterling character.
This simple upholsterer had a brilliant mind. But what impressed me was his sterling character. I don’t remember him ever saying a bad word about another person, even where it may have been warranted. Any time we would do something good in his eyes, he would bless us that we should live until 120. He remained quiet when those around him engaged in frivolity. He was the epitome of self-control, from his diet to the way he conducted himself. He was modest and humble and a pillar of fine character traits.
What secret did he possess that all these other people didn't? I travelled the world from South America to Europe, to Asia, and Australia exploring what was out there, but every time I returned home and visited my grandfather, I realized the secret wasn't out there.
My grandfather, 98, putting on tefillin
The secret was within him. And so I began to learn from the source of his greatness: the Torah.
As a reminder of my mission I had the $18 that my grandparents gave me 16 years ago when I learned to drive as a type of protective talisman which I still keep with me, worn and torn though they are, as well as a picture of my grandparents when they were in the DP camps after they were liberated. And at the age of 29 I left my position as a VP at Bear Stearns to begin learning Torah like a child who begins to read. I had no idea what I was getting into but I knew that if this is what built my grandfather into the giant that he was, then it was for sure the right thing to do.
And so I learned, and am continuing to learn the same beautiful Torah that he learned and that all of our ancestors before him learned.
In his beautiful European Yiddishe accent, my grandfather would always emphasize two teachings. “Life and death is in the speech,” and “Everything is in the Creator's hands.”
My grandfather was a man of few words because he knew that all chatter other than Torah is fruitless. He knew that speaking negatively or gossiping about a person can cause serious harm to the person being spoken about, and carries with it serious repercussions for the speaker. He also knew that when we say good things to other people and wish good on others, the Creator bestows those blessings upon us. My grandpa didn't live until 120 but he came close, and his abundant blessings for long life to others were bestowed upon him first.
I suspect the next lesson – everything is up to God – helped him get through it all. He recognized that everything that happens is hand-delivered from the Creator of the world and is in some way for our good. He also knew that this world is so very temporary – even 98 years is a blink of an eye.
The Satmar Rebbe taught that if you see a person with a number on their arm, go shake their hand and get a blessing because this is a person who is going right to the highest realms in the Next World. My grandpa is most probably in a great place right now, perhaps reunited with grandma, his parents Yitzchak and Frieda, and the rest of the family he lost in Europe.
My hero, my role model, my grandpa is gone. With the exception of my parents, all the good in my life is from him. My beautiful wife and children, and the rest of my wonderful new life seeped in precious Torah values and happiness. I owe it to my grandpa. I am sorry I didn't give back enough. He was a prince and he deserved to be treated like royalty.
I strive to live up to the standard that he set, and I will try to imbue my children with the same values that he possessed, as a merit for his soul as it continues to ascend even higher and closer to the Creator as he enjoys the sublime life in the Next World.
Tzvi ben Yitzchak – my hero, my role model, a prince among men – I miss you and will always love you.