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Chassidic Dad Blog

A Blog Post with a Good Ending

July 17, 2013

I am sure that you want to hear about The Wedding. Yes, we had been waiting for weeks, eagerly counting days until T’s brother’s marriage. For our kids, it was the first wedding in living memory.

But first there was the shopping.

I was the simplest. I just needed my standard dark pants, white shirt, maroon tie (yes, I am a deep winter), and kapote. (A kapote is a Prince Albert frock coat with some modifications. One is that the buttons are positioned so that the right side can be placed over the left, as we Jews prefer the right side, which is associated with kindness, over the left, associated with severity. Another unique feature is that the bottom corner on one side of the back vent is rounded, so that the coat does not have four corners—which would necessitate tzitzit fringes to be attached, as the Torah commands us to attach such fringes to all four-cornered garments.) All I needed to do was shine my shoes and sew on my missing buttons, and I was good to go.

T took a little bit more time. She needed to pick a dress online and have it tailored. Throw in a pair of shoes, and she was ready for the races.

Things were tougher when we got to the kids. Not because it is hard to outfit a kid. It really isn’t. But because we wanted the kids to match their cousins.

For the little boys, T and her sisters-in-law decided to buy matching vests. She found a nice vest online that is available only here in Canada, so everyone ordered their vests, and they showed up at our doorstep in their respective gray packages.

The girls’ dresses came by way of a gemach.

What is a gemach, you wonder? The word is actually a contraction of the Hebrew term gemilat chesed, which roughly translates as “act of kindness.” In Yiddish, a gemach is an interest-free loan. With time, it also came to refer to a free-loan society, or an organization that lends things out. (For example, for many years my great-grandfather ran a gemach that would lend money to Jews who were out of jobs due to their refusal to work on Shabbat, making it very hard for them to get a job in the six-day-week sweatshop industry where most of New York’s Jews were employed.) Born out of the desire to help others in any way, people have started gemachs for nearly everything that a person can ever think of borrowing. In my day I have come across tie gemachs for guys who need to look good for dates, folding-chair gemachs for people hosting events in their homes, and even a coin gemach for people who travel to foreign countries to dispose of/pick up loose change.

And then there are dress gemachs, where people can pick out bridal gowns, sister/mother-of-the-bride gowns, and frilly dresses for little girls. My sister-in-law picked up a bunch of dresses at the gemach in her town, and before you know it, all the little girls had matching cream gowns. Staffed by volunteers and funded by donations, their only stipulation was that the dresses be returned clean and with a minimal donation toward the upkeep of the gemach.

And with that, we were all ready for the wedding.

I am not sure what would be an interesting way to end this post, but it is almost Shabbat, and we have lots to do, so I will let you imagine a snarky thing for the kids to say or me to say about them. If you think of a good one, let me know, and I will use it to start a “smart ending” gemach full of good sign-offs for bloggers borrow when they really need to end a post and have nothing left to say.

R Discovers a Cosmic Truth

July 10, 2013

When trying to help the kids fall asleep, I often sing to them. We have a few favorites. One of them is a Hungarian chassidic tune I picked up in Budapest, and the other is a beautiful tune that has lyrics in Hebrew, Ukrainian and Yiddish. It is attributed to the Shpolier Zayde, one of the early chassidic masters. When I sing them to the kids, I make sure to translate the songs into English as well.

Now, Y loves to listen, and will very rarely interrupt when I sing or tell stories; he wants to make sure not to miss a detail. R, on the other hand, learns through talking. (I wonder how her teachers will handle her.) This means that as soon as I start a story or song, she begins her commentary. It can be pretty frustrating, but who is to say that what I have to say is really any more important than what she has to tell?

Anyway, the other night, R asked that I sing “Kol Bayaar,” the Shpolier Zayde’s song. Here is a loose English translation:

I hear in the forest a cry and a shout,
A father seeks his children who’ve wandered about.
Children, children, where can you be,
That you no longer remember me?
Children, children, please come home,
Because I am sad sitting all alone.
Father, father, how can we return once more,
When the guard stands at the king’s door?

Just as I was getting into things, R piped up, “It’s not fair. How come the guard does not let them into the house? The children can’t stay outside by themselves in the forest…” Upon further reflection she comforted herself, “But there are no guards in Montreal, right?”

“Of course,” I murmured.

“And there aren’t any guards in Detroit near Bubby’s house, right?” she said hopefully, “Anyway, Bubby doesn’t have any children.”

“That’s right, baby girl. You don’t have to worry about any guards.”

But the issue was still not settled. The next night, she was still troubled. “How come the children didn’t just go into the house with the father? He could bring them in when he goes back home from looking!”

And then the next night she had another point, equally right. “How come the guard doesn’t bring the children in? He should alow them in . . .”

She is right. The cards do seem to be stacked against the kids.

It is explained that the father in the metaphor is G‑d, and we are the children. G‑d “wanders in the forest” looking for us, His lost children. He is lonely without us, and misses us terribly. Yet we reply that we cannot come home because the guard—our evil inclination—stands at the door, stopping us from doing what is right. The elder chassidim would point out that the song ends with us telling G‑d that it is the evil inclination—His agent—that is preventing our reunion. And G‑d does not reply.

Obviously, G‑d is the paradigm of fairness. But here on earth, we do not see it. We just see all our challenges, the guards at the door. And the reunion remains deferred.

The great lover of Israel, the Shpolier Zayde, laid the blame at the anthropomorphical feet of the Almighty: “You made this world so tempting, and gave Your children such strong urges to sin; how could You expect them to get past the menacing guard?”

And I think R agrees with him.

Old Things at Grandma’s House

July 3, 2013
Grandma's painting of her grandfather praying.
Grandma's painting of her grandfather praying.

This week, my kids visited Grandma. Grandma, my mother’s mother, lives in the upper half of a once stately brownstone, two houses and one vacant lot from an intersection that carries the dubious distinction of the most dangerous in Crown Heights.

Most of her many descendants call her Bubby, an anglicized form of bobbe, the Yiddish familiar term for grandmother. Somehow, I started calling her Grandma. Thank G‑d, my kids have an abundance of grandmothers and great-grandmothers, so calling her Grandma saves us from having to find yet another creative way to distinguish one matriarch from the others.

Grandma is a writer. Knowing that her house full of pictures, furniture, books and papers, we asked to stay outside with her so that the kids would be able to run around without fear of hurting anything—other than themselves, of course. So we sat on her stoop and chatted about this and that. Grandma gave the kids lollipops and rewarded each child with a smiling “Amen” in response to their blessings.

As we sat, the storm clouds came rolling in, and big fat raindrops started falling from the sky. We hauled ourselves and the kids helter-skelter up the narrow stairs into Grandma’s home, and it is a good thing we did.

Within moments, Brooklyn was blanketed in torrents of rain. After quickly pulling down the windows, I asked Grandma if I could show the kids some things.

I showed the children Grandma’s mother’s siddur. Bound in leather and embossed with the Russian initials “RL,” the prayerbook is what was known as a woman’s siddur. Since most Jewish women did not know any language other than Yiddish, women’s siddurim often had Yiddish instructions, translations and techinos (personal prayers to be recited for a host of occasions).

Grandma’s mother died in Moscow during the War. (When people say “the War,” they mean World War II. The reality of European Jewry will forever be divided into Before the War and After the War.) I do not know if anyone knows what killed her. It may have been malnutrition. It may have been illness. It made no difference. There was no food, and there was no medicine.

As an only daughter, Grandma carried the siddur with her through her wanderings to Siberia, Uzbekistan, and wherever else her family’s search of safety took them.

When her family escaped Russia, the siddur went with them. It was her treasured companion as she wandered through DP camps in Europe and eventually crossed the ocean to the United States.

I showed the children that the first fifty pages or so were torn out. Grandma explained that in the DP camp there was a woman who wanted to teach the girls how to read Hebrew. Since there were no books to spare, Grandma’s siddur was divided amongst the girls, allowing each one to learn how to sound out the sacred sounds for a different page.

I also pointed out the painting of Grandma’s grandfather. Painted by the chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman, it shows a man sitting alone on a bench in a plain synagogue. Wrapped in his tallit and tefillin, my children’s great-great-great-grandfather would spend hours every day singing, meditating on chassidic concepts and praying. Grandma remembers seeing her beloved grandfather pray that way. As a Torah teacher, he was arrested by the Soviets for the “crime” of teaching children Bible and Talmud, but he did not stop.

I showed them the upright piano. We had fun opening up the lid and banging on the keys, “making moozik.” I told Y that the keys on the very old piano were covered with ivory, taken from the tusks of elephants.

“Nowadays we do not use ivory anymore. We use plastic instead.”


“Because it is not nice to the elephants.”

“How about if the elephant is not alive?”

“I don’t know.”

That night, back home, my son pulled out a Fisher-Price keyboard (the thing no sane parent would ever buy). “Is this made out of elephant?”

“I don’t think so. Now we use plastic, remember?”

This is a blog about life with my wife and three children, who will, with G‑d’s help, grow up and probably be embarrassed by what I write.

As of spring 2013, Y is a thoughtful four-year-old who loves books and learning things. R is one year younger and full of energy. A is a sweet little girl who loves her red shoes. T is their ever-capable and loving mother, and I am their dad.
Menachem PosnerRabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor at Chabad.org, the world’s largest Jewish informational website. He has been writing, researching, and editing for Chabad.org since 2006, when he received his rabbinic degree from Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch. He resides in Chicago, Ill., with his family.
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