Moments and Memory – Making Us Who We Are

There are very few moments in my life that I can point to as life-changing. Moments when, within a few seconds my life was changed forever.

And yet, those moments remain crystal-clear in my mind as if they only happened yesterday. I remember as a thirteen-year old, being told by my mother that my father had died. I remember where I was, the exact place I sat, who else was in the room and how I felt.

Other moments in my life are just as memorable: my high school and college graduations, Rabbi Lewis speaking to me at my Bar Mitzvah, receiving my Israeli passport, getting on the bus to basic training in the IDF, smashing the glass under my chuppah and the birth of my sons.

Our third son was just born so how could I write about anything else?

My wife, Alexis, and I are blessed in that we have already experienced joy from two wonderful sons, Shemer and Maytav. They are six and three. They are curious and inquisitive challenging us daily to the extent that we have started to keep a list of their questions and where on the Internet we find the answers (since often we do not know the answers ourselves).

They ask us questions like: How does a match work? How does soap get us clean? Why does water reflect light?

Last week Shemer asked us why the planets don’t fall out of the sky. When we spoke about it, I realized his question quickly lead me to ask, how did the universe come into being?

The innocence of a child and his questions gave me a fundamental sense of awe. Looking at Osher, our newborn son, I have that same sense of awe. Just looking at his fingers and his fingernails I have to at least consider the possibility that there is a Divine Being.

To those of you who need your batteries recharged, I invite you to go to a maternity ward and look at a newborn baby. I promise you have forgotten how small and miraculous they are.

Osher, the name we have chosen means joy, or happiness. It is in and of itself a blessing. Alexis and I chose the name Osher in memory of my mother’s father, Oskar who died 20 years ago when I was a senior in high school. He is the only grandparent I really knew, his wife having died when I was very young and both of my paternal grandparents having died before I was born. In fact, I am named after my paternal grandfather, Charlie.

During the brit milah, I spoke about my grandfather. So many people came up to me afterwards, people I had only recently met as well as longtime friends with whom I speak every day, saying how they never knew so much of what I had related.

Why is, I wonder, that we discuss the mundane, we gossip about others, we complain about things we can not change and we spout our opinions about events we can not effect, when all of us have such interesting stories to tell. When was the last time you spoke about someone’s grandfather?

My grandfather, grandpa as I called him, would introduce himself not just as Oskar, but as “Oskar with a K,” but with a thick Germanic accent – “Oskar mid a K.” Like the name Oskar, Osher can be spelled with different letters, with either an ayin or an aleph. (Our son is is Osher “mid a” Aleph.)

The pride my grandfather showed in his name was typical of the respect he commanded and the strong identity he had. He was born in the rural village Oberhaid, in German – in Czech it is Horni Dvoriste, located on the southern border of the Czech Republic, bordering Austria. He was a loyal Czech and while he was never religious, he strongly identified as a Jew.

In a town whose only Jewish inhabitants besides my mother’s family was the doctor and one other family and in an era when they travelled a day by oxcart to the town of to the closest synagogue (one day by oxcart is approximately 20 minutes by car) today, my grandpa made sure that a Hebrew teacher came to this primitive farming village, to teach his children the aleph-bet.

When he was younger, my grandpa went to a summer camp where they learned about and prepared for life in Israel. He wanted to go to Palestine, but as the story goes, my great grandparents insisted that he stay in Horni Dvoriste to take over the family’s general store. What is more, my grandmother, a cultured woman born in Vienna and raised in Linz, threatened not to marry him if he were to go to Palestine. So he took over the general store, the largest building on the town’s main square.

Ironically, when I was about the same age that my grandfather was when he wanted to move to Palestine, I moved to Israel using a modest inheritance he left me to establish myself here.

Like his cousins in towns dotting southern Bohemia, my grandfather sold the farmers their dry goods, was an apothecary, and developed a good reputation for extending generous credit his customers who depended on agriculture for their livelihood. He rented out the top floor of the store to the Czech national police and was always closely tied to the Czech national movement, even sending them money after the war to fight the communists.

Tomas Masaryk, the first Czech president (now you know where the street name comes from) was a hero in my mother’s house. He fought the Germans in World War One, and created a Czech State equal to all its citizens, including the Jews.

My grandfather believed in this. In the thirties when the Nazis gained power, my grandfather volunteered in the Czech National Army. He was also a proud Jew, keeping his connections and fighting the Nazis on that front as well. My grandfather was part of an underground railroad. His house was a safe-house for Eastern Jews on their way into Austria in their attempts to cross the Alps. Sometimes these families didn’t make it and they froze to death in the Alps.

When a local resident told my grandfather that they already had the tree picked out for him, he knew it was time to leave. In the middle of the night they left with what they could carry and headed on a trip that would take them to America. After having seen the Nazis march into Prague through the Dutch Embassy’s window, my grandfather went to the Gestapo to get permission to leave. When he didn’t return, my grandmother went to find him. The German officer offered my grandmother and her children passage, but refused to release my grandfather. When my grandmother would not go without her husband, the Gestapo officer granted the whole family permission, admiring my grandmother’s “good German value” of family unity. They left on the very last train out of Prague, traveling through Germany, stopping in Munich.

When they got to America my grandfather worked at whatever he could, including at one point living with his family on a cemetery as a caretaker. He went from being the wealthiest man in town to the poorest. Eventually he became certified as a machinist and worked in the shipyards of New York.

My grandfather had a strong sense of who he was, of his responsibility to his family, to his heritage and to his ideals. Despite the change in his class, he always kept his sense of self and his pride.

There is no doubt in my mind that my grandfather’s strong identity and idealism was passed through my mother to me. I learned from my mother to fight for what I believe in and for what I think is right and just. I can already see this characteristic in my children. It is no accident that my children, including Osher were born in Jerusalem.

It is my hope and prayer that Osher will always have a strong sense of who he is like his namesake and that he will have the ability to live in the moment, appreciative of what he has fulfilling the blessing of his name, knowing happiness – as Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avot 4:1, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion. As it is said ,’ When you enjoy the work of your hands, you will be happy (Oshrecha) and things will be good for you.'”

These little fingernails remind us of who we are and of what is important. They keep us in touch with the Oneness that connects us all. And whether we call that God or some other name, it is my blessing that Osher always be mindful that he does not walk alone.

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