Sunday, July 13, 2008

Birth and Remembrance

For me, births and marriages knock down the walls of time. Whether welcoming a new child or walking them to the chuppa (wedding canopy), to me the house seems so crowded with ancestors and the recently deceased that the guests become a blur in the background. When we arrive at a name for a new baby, the feeling is almost euphoric. Deeper meanings associations with a name newly given refract from it like coloured beams of spectral light dancing around cut crystal glass.
When my first child was born, he was named after no one in particular. My wife and I arrived at a name that seemed to reflect his personality. Soon after he was born, I went to 770, the main synagogue in Crown Heights to spread the glad tidings. I immediately sought out Rabbi P. and asked him to be sandek at the circumcision. The sandek is the person in whose lap the baby sits while being circumcised. It is a great honour to be chosen as sandek. For my first born, I wanted to make a statement of my hopes for any children I might have.
Rabbi P. was a Sergeant in the Soviet Army during World War Two. He came from the city of Lvov. He had liberated one of the concentration camps and was profoundly shaken by it. He entered the German capitol, Berlin full of deep sadness and anger. Unlike many of his comrades in arms, he would not cheapen his anger by taking part in the wave of rapes by Red Army soldiers. He was offered an opportunity to escape by American military officers, but he refused. He told them he had to go back to Lvov. Sadly, when he returned to his home, he found out that his wife and children had been murdered, that his loyalty was to a memory. Like so many Jews at the end of the war, he married again and started a second family. With this family, he came to New York in the mid 1970's. I noted when I met him that he moved with the agility of a younger man, although his appearance befitted a man of his advanced years. His voice bore an amazing resemblance to that of the Rebbe. He had an air of serenity and a sharp wit. I always look for people who are not broken by their suffering. Rabbi P. was such a man.
I asked him to be sandek, and he reacted with humility. "Why me?" he asked. "Don't you have anyone else?" I was as socially tone deaf then as I am today. Common courtesy might have dictated other choices, but when a child is born, I tend to be in another world, even more socially oblivious than usual. Despite this, those close to me are forgiving of my lack of social graces.
It took some persuading to get Rabbi P to accept the honour. My reasoning was so airtight that it seemed that there was no other way.
"A child is brought into the Jewish people through the blood of circumcision". I explained "You were a Sergeant in the Red Army. The hand that has shed the blood of Nazis, of Amalek merits the blood of bris milah. You were faithful to your family, not knowing that they were dead,you kept the faith under communism and in America. You were not broken by your suffering. I want a child with such steadfastness. I am choosing you in honour of your service in the Red Army and your faithfulness to G-d, your family and the Jewish people. My adding a soul to the Jewish people is an act of love and an act of revenge.'
My Yiddish failed me during much of our conversation. My friend Chaim A. translated when I lapsed into English. Words spoken from the heart enter the heart and Rabbi P. accepted the honour. My choice of sandek was a heartfelt prayer for the future of my son. Somehow, I feel that my words opened doors.In a poetic twist, we held the bris in a shul that was opened for recent Soviet immigrants. When I made a L'chaim to my son, I said, Rabbi P. is from Lvov. In the Shma prayer, we say that you should serve G-d B'kol Lvov-kha, with all your heart. Let the name of Rabbi P's home town be a reminder of that."
When my son in turn had a son, he was guided more than I was by social convention. For his son he chose his wife's grandfather to be sandek. Like my father, he was born in Berlin. Through a series of mishaps, he remained in Berlin until 1942. He left with the equivalent of four dollars in his pocket and crossed the entire Soviet Union on the Moscow -Vladivostok railroad. Somehow cheating starvation, he made it to China and from there to Seattle. Eventually, he was able to join the U.S. Army, where he became a translator. His fluent German made him useful in interrogating German P.O.W.s . He had the satisfaction of aiding the American war effort by assisting in the location of munition dumps. He is animated and happy when discussing the military chapter of his life. Of the years alone in Berlin he speaks little. Yet again at the bris were tears of joy as we celebrated the star of another generation.
When my grandparents were in Nazi Germany, an English tutor would bring them books to read. When they would read the assignment, they would find that a page had been cut out and replaced with a banned news article. Through these smuggled articles, they were able to keep informed about developments in the Third Reich. Through the names we choose for our children, and through honouring the quietly great individuals among us, we have attempted to paste pages from the books of others into that of our family. Rabbi P and Mr.P. are both names by which we silently bless our children, at the start of their lives and afterward. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Findalis said...

Not having been blessed with sons, I cannot join in the joys that you had when you sealed them in to the faith. But when my husband and I named our daughters we chose women from our families who carried on the traditions and love of the faith. In a way these women aren't gone from us, they live on in the stories we tell to our children and their children (G-d willing soon) about their namesakes' lives.

Thank you for sharing.