On the flight to the U.S. for the funeral of my Zeidy, Harry Rosenthal, I saw a man wearing a cap that read ‘Proud Zeidy.’ I complimented him on the cap, and he joked, “You know, people have told me that the words ‘proud Zeidy’ are redundant.”
Those people are right; what Zeidy isn’t proud of his grandchildren? And yet, there is proud and there is proud, and I realized that the comment was the perfect background for my reflection on my own Zeidy’s life.
A person, we are told, carries several names throughout his life: the name he is given at birth, and the names he makes for himself. Zeidy made a name for himself as a caring son, a devoted husband, a loving father, a dedicated worker and a faithful Jew, but I think the name he was most proud of was ‘Zeidy,’ the proud, doting grandfather who thought I and my brother and sister were simply the greatest.
Zeidy was born in 1917 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, growing up in an America where it was not easy to be a frum Jew, and not at all a given that you or your descendents would remain Orthodox. Yet to Zeidy, it wasn’t a question; being Torah-observant was as clear and natural as breathing, and throughout his life he remained a faithful Jew, even as a soldier overseas in the U.S. Army. It was this simple, clear-headed faith, the attitude that you do what you’re supposed to do, no matter the circumstances, that he transmitted to my father and, subsequently, to me and my siblings. The fact that we all, baruch Hashem, are raising Torah families today is thanks to his dedication and sacrifice.
Serving as a soldier during World War Two was one of the most transformative experiences of his life, and he loved telling us stories from that time. In his last years, when he sometimes had difficulty remembering more recent events, he still told over his army experiences with amazing recall. The anecdotes we knew by heart; yet the pride in his voice when he told them over was a story in itself. Because what he spoke about was not battles, or feats of valor. Every single one of his stories – all his favorites – were about him being a Jew. About organizing a minyan for Kaddish at the burial of a Jewish soldier, when he realized no one else was doing so. About making the unheard of request from a commanding officer for permission not to carry out the order to sew up a hole in his blanket, as it was Yom Kippur. (When the commander refused, a fellow Irish soldier offered to sew it instead, and Zeidy loved inserting at this point in the story how, when he told over the incident to Rabbi Yisrael Reisman, Rabbi Reisman called it a neis mishamayim.) All his cherished stories were about being a faithful Jew even in the U.S. Army in the 1940’s, and it was this lesson and legacy that he passed on to us.
Zeidy was a true anav. He never boasted about his accomplishments, preferring to work hard in the background. When his brother-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Klass, z”l, founded The Jewish Press, Zeidy joined him in his fledgling endeavor, dedicating heart and soul, throughout his working years, towards building up the paper as its advertising manager. In those early years, he would often work through the night, and his success is reflected in the paper you read today, yet he eschewed kavod, always remaining behind the scenes.
The same was true for his many acts of chessed. He learned from his own parents both the love of helping others and the modesty of not talking about it. He would tell us that he never knew how many people his mother had helped out through the years until her funeral, when crowds of strangers showed up to pay their respects. Zeidy, too, performed his many chassadim without fanfare. It was only through Bubby that I learned how he took care of his older single sister for many years, dedicating hours every Thursday, week after week, to drive from one end of New York City to the other, picking up food for Shabbos from his younger sister and delivering it to his older one. Zeidy never mentioned it, just like he never spoke about the sacrifice he undoubtedly made to bring his in-laws to live in his home, with he and Bubby caring for them until Bubby’s mother, my Bubby Ethel, passed away 25 years later. It was not Zeidy’s way to complain; he always had a smile on his face, and everyone loved being around him. He had a large group of friends; his friendly, easygoing personality attracted people. Even in his last few weeks, when doctors coming to examine him asked how he was doing, his response was always, “I’m fine.”