Saturday, Dec 4, 1943
It is Saturday morning and my grandparents are opening their store. “Not in synagogue,” you wonder? No. If they are going to support a family they can’t afford to close the store on Saturday, when most of their customers shop. Plus, my grandfather refuses to attend any synagogue which separates men and women during worship. “If I can’t sit with my wife,” he often said, “I won’t go.” So he replaced prayer and study in his home for a formal house of worship. That is part of the wrenching transformation my grandparents experienced when they left the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Recalling the experience in the 1930s, he wrote: “The real meaning of this Hebrew word [above] is ‘pulling up a tree by the roots.’ But morally it means a great deal more. The person who emigrates is looked upon as a traitor.” When he came at the age of 23 to escape the Russian draft, he found intellectual and religious freedom beyond anything he could have imagined. He had always chafed under the restrictions Russia imposed on Jews, the ever-present anti-Semitism, and constant fear of pogroms. But he also resented the stifling atmosphere of the embattled Jewish community. As a teenager, he tried joining the Hasidim, an 18th century breakaway sect of Jews who extolled joy. In addition to praying, they sang and danced to achieve communion with God. But in time he found them stifling as well. Now he could be a Jew in whatever way he chose. To him that was both the gift and the curse of American freedom.