Friday, December 4, 2009

My Grandma, Toby Green 1916-2009

I have shared my thoughts at many shivas, but this is the first one for me that is so close to home and so dear to my heart.

Especially for me personally, as I have regrettably not seen my Grandma for a number of years. My memories of her are of the vibrant & energetic grandma playing tennis with Grandpa Mo in the park, or of her as a feisty seventy-five-year-old going to work as a public school teacher, or of her leading the seder and telling us how bad of a man the evil Pharaoh was.

But I also have other memories of Grandma that I doubt many others have had.

I feel that I have always had a special relationship with my Grandma Toby, ע"ה.

You see, I am named after her father Rabbi Binyomin Mendel Marcus, which Grandma reminded me of almost every time she said my name. I am also the first rabbi in the family after him.

In my early days at Yeshiva, most of my family members could sadly not relate to my Yeshiva experience or what I was learning. In fact, some of my family members were even a little adverse to the idea.

But not Grandma.

I vividly remember spending Shabbos with my Grandma after I had begun attending Yeshiva. She asked me what I was studying. “Talmud,” I replied, not thinking that my seventy-year old grandma would even have a clue what that was.

“Oh, you’re learning Gemara?” she asked. “Which tractate?” She proceeded to review a difficult passage of Talmud, from the tractate “Bava Metzia,” word for word, by heart.

I was floored.

Of course, Grandma had studied Talmud with her father.

But it was not till years later that I discovered that her father, Zaida Marcus, had actually been raised as a Chabad Chassid in the Kherson region of the Ukraine.

This made a lot of sense to me, since in those days, most Orthodox Jews sadly did not think it was important for girls to study the deep wisdom of Jewish thought entombed in the Talmud. It was only Chassidim who believed girls should study just like boys, and that women should be learned just like men..

It was this rigorous Torah study from her youth that my grandma kept with her throughout her entire life.

I would like to share with you one other memory.

My grandma used to sing me Yiddish and Hebrew songs. “Hashomer Shabbat” was her favorite. But one time she taught me a melody with Ukranian words:

Ech di duren marku. Tshto ti yedish no yarmarku. Nye kuplayish, nye pradayish, tolko rubish s’varku.

Rough translation:

“You foolish Mark. Why do you come to the marketplace? You do not buy. You do not sell. All you do is cause trouble.”


Life is a yerid, a marketplace. The merchandise we need to obtain is Torah and Mitzvot. We have a relatively short time to be here at the fare, and we need to maximize our time here to accomplish what we need to accomplish. The foolish Mark is the evil inclination which besets each individual from the day he’s born to the day he dies. In the song we tell the foolish Mark: “Stop bothering me. You are here to neither buy nor sell. So get lost and let me serve Hashem without your interference.”

(By the way, nothing wrong with the name “Mark.” In Ukraine, that was a common name among Ukrainian peasants, kind of like “John Doe” for Americans.)

At the time, I did not understand the significance of this song, or even give it much thought.

Some time later, in my Yeshiva, I learned of an almost identical song, but with a Hebrew introduction I did not hear from my Grandma. It goes: “Tzama l’cha nafshi, kama l’cha bsori…” “My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in a parched and arid land. So my soul envisions You in the Holy Temple, to gaze at Your might and glory.” Then it is followed by the Ukrainan words I learned from my Grandma.

However, this was no ordinary Chassidic melody. It was taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to his Chassidim at some point in the fifties, as the Chassidim in America at the time did not know it. The Rebbe was from the Nikolaiev region in Ukraine. The local Chassidim were known for their musical talent, and their unique Chassidic melodies. On a Simchat Torah night, the Rebbe taught the song to his crowd of followers, explained the deep significance of it, and translated the Ukrainian part. Ever since then, it has become a trademark melody sung by Chabad Chassidim at Chassidic gatherings all over the world.

How amazing it was to me that the Chabad Chassidim in Crown Heights did not know the melody, but my Grandma knew it, and knew what it meant too.

Obviously, it was because Zaida Marcus, who had had a Chabad upbringing in southern Ukraine (not far from Nikolaiev, where the Rebbe was born), learned this melody in his childhood and passed it on to my Grandma. Thanks to him, she possessed a vast knowledge relating to everything Jewish. But even greater than her knowledge was her passionate sense of identity and Jewish pride.
Every letter, every card she ever wrote me, always ended off, “May you merit to carry the banner of our people Israel.”
Indeed, Grandma didn’t just carry the banner. She lived it, and breathed it, in every waking moment. I can’t remember ever visiting her and not hearing her say (or observing) how much she loved the land of Israel, the Jewish people, the Torah, Shabbos, the Hebrew Language, etc.
And she passed this on to her kids, my aunts, uncle,and my mom. And that’s how I got it. And that’s why I am who I am today. And that’s why my kids, nieces, nephews and cousins, Grandma’s great-grandchildren, are growing up the way they are, all twenty (soon to be twenty-two) of them, בלע"ה., as proud Jews, proudly “carrying the banner” of our people and our Torah.

More thoughts about my Grandma to follow...

1 comment:

Jim Wells said...

Rabbi Green,

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful tribute to your grandmother. It has touched my family and me in a very special way as we read it aloud after dinner tonight. So poignant for me are the images of the searching Yonah and the olive branch transformed into light-giving olive oil only by having been crushed.

May we all ultimately be surviors like your grandmother and the dove; and like the olive branch, may we have our crushing life experiences transformed in such a way through our openess to the transforming power of G-d that the light we have been given can shine brightly enough through the cracks in our brokeness that in time all the world will be illumined and at peace.

b' Shalom,

Yaakov Maoz Eliad ben Abraham and Sarah