Thursday, December 31, 2009

More Food for Thought from Grandma Toby a"h

In a previous blog, I mentioned the biggest delight for my Grandma growing up in Russia. It was a little slice of an orange her Dad would bring home on extremely rare occasions.

The other day, I related this memory to my kids. “Yuck!” commented my five year old.

My seven year old daughter (notorious for her inexorable sweet tooth) had this to say: “Well, if it was only once a year, couldn’t he have at least brought home a clementine instead?”

That was it, I thought to myself. I’m going to teach my kids that even in today’s modern age of designer junk food, they could still enjoy the simple fruit my Grandma enjoyed when she was their age ninety years ago! So I went out to the supermarket and bought the most delicious-looking navel oranges (sorry Mom, they weren’t organic).

So we started snacking on oranges.

Now, the kids started calling them “Grandma Toby treats.” When ever anyone is hungry for an orange, they ask for a “Grandma Toby treat.” (Everyone, that is, except my five year old. He still calls it “Yuck!”)

* * *

On a serious note, I would like to mention one of my Grandma’s oft-repeated sayings.

It was quote from the Prophet Isaiah. She’d say it every so often, when ever she complained that we weren’t calling or visiting enough.

“Bonim romamti v’gidalti, v’haym poshu bee.”

The prophet echoed G-d’s complaint about His People. “Children I have raised and exalted, yet they have rebelled against Me.”

We always read that verse in the Haftorah of Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbos preceding Tisha b’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple (and look forward to its rebuilding with the coming of Moshiach).

My Grandma’s quote implied a bit of a departure from the literal meaning. “Poshu” (rebelled) in Mishnaic Hebrew can also mean “neglected.”

So basically, Grandma was complaining that her kids were neglecting her.

How ironic that my Grandma would cite that verse. In recent years, as Grandma aged, her children were so responsible in caring for her. Especially her son, my uncle Randy, who cared for her with love and devotion until her final hours, and even after her passing.

But come to think of it, she never said it with bitterness. Maybe she meant it in jest. Maybe it was just a nudge to get us to visit more often. Or maybe she really felt neglected. Who knows?

Anyway, what I found cool in all of this is the fact that she chose a verse from TaNaCh to express her dissatisfaction.

She probably learned to do that from her father. It’s a typical scholarly thing to do in the Yeshiva world, i.e. to quote an appropriate verse or word from Scriptures to express a sentiment or to relate to a situation, especially when there’s a non-literal twist to it.

Sometimes she was a bit over the top. Like the time she insisted that “Pierre” comes from the Hebrew word of “L’hit-paer,” or that “cholent” is from “Chalons,” France (hey, maybe she was right about that one).

Reflecting about it years later, it seemed pretty cool to me that my Grandma had such a good knowledge of Hebrew and TaNaCh.

And that’s one thing sorely lacking today – Jewish literacy.

OK, enough blogging. Time for some Torah study (and an orange).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Grandma, the Singer

Some more melodious memories about my Grandma, Chaya Toiba bas Reuven haLevi, a”h (peace be upon her)

Speaking of unique versions of songs I heard from my Grandma, I’d like to share one more.

Grandma loved to sing me her repertoire of Yiddish lullabies. “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”) was one of her favorites. It symbolically refers to the study of Torah as “the best merchandise” one can possibly obtain in one’s life. Indeed, Grandma, would tell me, Torah study is the most precious commodity, even more than raisins and almonds. Presumably, that was a delicious and exquisite delicacy in those times. (How ironic that for today’s kids, raisins and almonds are just considered “yucky health food” ;-) But in my Grandma’s times, it was really the greatest thing there was. No, in fact, there was one thing even better.

Grandma told me that in her early childhood in Russia, the absolutely greatest and most coveted treat was a simple piece of orange! Her papa (Zaida Marcus) would bring home an orange on extremely rare occasions, maybe even less than once a year. The slices would be carefully rationed out, piece by piece, to household members and guests. Grandma said she considered herself lucky to get one single slice! (Funny, my kids won’t even touch an orange unless it’s seedless. Go figure)

But then Grandma would conclude that Torah study is even better than that!

I recall the part of the song she emphasized the most was “Vos vet zain zain baruf?”

The song was telling of a little white goat behind the little boy’s crib, that would some day go out to make a living. “Un vos vet zain zain baruf?” “What will be its calling?”

Grandma would always pause at “baruf” – calling – and explain to me what a life’s calling is, and that the most important calling of all is to study Torah.

Anyway, that was just parenthetical.

The song I’d really like to mention is her version of “Oifen Pripechuk.”

The song goes like this:

Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl, un in shtub iz heys.
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh dem alef-beyz.


   Hert zhe, kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere, vos ir lernt do,
   Zogt zhe nokh a mol un takke nokh a mol: Komets-alef: o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek, azoy zog ikh aykh on,
Ver s’vet gekher fun aykh kenen ivre, er bakumt a fon. (Refrain)

Hert zhe kinder, az ir vet elter vern, vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern, vifil geveyn. (Refrain)

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn, oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn, kukt in zey arayn! (Refrain)

Here is an English translation:

On the hearth a little fire is burning, and it is warm inside,
And the rebbe is teaching the little children, the Aleph Beis.


   Listen, children, remember dear ones, what you learned here;
   repeat it again and again, “Kometz Aleph ‘oh’”

Study, children, with great desire, that is what I tell you;
The one who'll know Hebrew first will get a banner (for a prize). (Refrain)

Listen, children, when you get older, you will understand on your own
how in these letters lie so many tears, so much weeping. (Refrain)

When you grow weary, children, and burdened with exile,
you should draw strength from these very letters, so look into them! (Refrain)

Grandma loved to sing that song.

I could never understand the final line of stanza three.

Why are there “so many tears” and “so much weeping” lying in these letters? Whose tears are they, anyway? And why so much sadness? I just couldn’t relate.

In recent years, I even felt somewhat compelled to change the words to “viff’l simcha” and “viff’l frayd” (much joy, much laughter), instead of “tears and weeping.”

Something about this always bothered me. And it never made sense to me, that is, until recently, in the few days after my Grandma’s passing as I began to reflect on her life.

But first, I’d like to point out that my Grandma sang this line a bit differently than the commonly sung way. Here’s her version:
“Viff’l treren in di oisyes liggun, viffil gevain”

It doesn’t really make a difference or change the meaning, but it’s subtly different. Instead of “…how in these letters lie tears,” Grandma sang it: “…how many tears in these letters lie.” (emphasis on last word)
The first time I sang this lullaby to my own daughter a number of years ago, my wife pointed it out to me. She commented that the line ends with “treren” (tears) drawn out, as that is where the emphasis should be placed, in contrast to the way my Grandma sang it, in which “treren is sung more quickly and the word “liggen” (are lying) is drawn out.

Since that time, I researched all the variations of this song, but have never found anyone who sang this song Grandma’s way.

Time is short, so I’ll try to finish this thought later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Grandma, the Dove (part II)

In continuation from my previous blog:

But you know, it couldn’t have been easy growing up as the only daughter of a fugitive Rabbi on the run from war-torn Communist Russia, or as an immigrant daughter of the first Orthodox Rabbi of Los Angeles, or as a housewife in the Valley of the forties and fifties trying to raise her kids Jewish, losing her house to misfortune, and especially losing her husband and two young grandchildren so tragically.

No, my Grandma did not have an easy life.

Many of you may know the most tragic part of my Grandma’s childhood, the loss of her birth parents due to a murderous pogrom targeting Jews at which she, my Grandma at age three, was present; her blind Grandmother’s inability to take care of her, and her ultimate adoption by the Marcus family, and subsequent flight from the Soviet Union.

My friends, my Grandma’s tragic story is not new or unique to the Jewish people. We have been singled out for slaughter and persecution for millennia.

Just one year ago, a young colleague of mine, Rabbi Gavriel Noach and his wife Rebbetzin Rivky Holtzberg, were cruelly murdered by Muslim terrorists, along with four of their helpless guests. Why? Simply because they were Jews who publicly celebrated their Jewishness.

But the miracle, perhaps the only consolation, is that their two year old, Moishele, survived the destruction. She was miraculously and heroically saved by his nanny, Sandra.

Moishele has become somewhat of a cause celebre in Israel today. The whole country is watching him grow up in the home of his loving grandparents, Rivkie’s mom and dad.. He just celebrated his 3 yr old birthday. Every media outlet in Israel covered the event, which was attended by thousands of wellwishers.

What is so captivating to the Israeli public about little Moishele?
It is because he is an אוד מוצל מאש, a firebrand plucked from the fire, the young survivor who survived the slaughter and will live to continue his parents’ legacy.
My friends, Grandma Toby is a Moishele, but ninety years later. Today we do not celebrate her third birthday, but mourn her passing. But at the same time, we celebrate her life, her accomplishments, the lessons she has taught us, all that she accomplished in the ninety years since the time she survived the pogrom at the age of three.
And just like Moishele had his nanny to save him and his grandparents to raise him as their own, so too our Taibeleh had the Marcuses, who lovingly cared for her and raised her as their own. And I’d also like to gratefully acknowledge the loving care and devotion with which her loving son, my dear uncle Randy, took care of her for the last number of years, during the difficult period in which she needed to be cared for, just like she did when she was three.
* * *

My grandma’s name is Chaya Toiba. Toiba means a “dove,” “Yonah” in Hebrew.
Why did Noah send a dove to find out if the world had survived the devastating flood?

Our sages tell us that the dove is the symbol of the Jewish people. The dove is one of the only species in the animal kingdom that stays loyal to its mate for its entire life.

So too, the Jews have stayed loyal to G-d since our humble beginnings, over 3800 years ago.

Noah sent the dove because he was symbolically showing that the world could never recover from the devastation of the flood until the Yonah found peace, a peaceful resting place to call its own.

The Yonah is the Jewish people. The Land of Israel is the spiritual baramoter of the cosmos. The world will not and cannot be at peace until Israel is at peace, until a Jewish child can walk freely and safely in our Promised Land.

Until that time, the world will be in chaos, beset by a deluge of hate and violence.

When the Yonah finds peace, the whole world will be at peace.

But sadly, at first, the dove did not find peace. Instead, she returned with an olive branch snatched in her mouth.

Most people erroneously believe that the olive branch is a symbol of peace. However, in Jewish tradition, it is just the opposite. The olive is the most bitter fruit. The only way to make use of it (short of pickling it) is by crushing it to get oil.

Said the Yonah to Noach (and by the way, my grandma has one great grandson named Yonah and one named Noach ;-)

No, the world is not ready for peace. Instead, my lot will be that of a wanderer, bitter and crushed in the long exile. I will not find solace, not even a resting place for my weary feet.

This is the story of the Jew in exile.

But the bright part of the story is, ironically, in that same olive branch.

Yes, we experienced the bitterness of exile, the crushing horrors of the Holocaust, pogroms, terrorist attacks, Inquisition, etc. etc.

But what happens as a result of all this crushing? What do you have? Pure olive oil that can be kindled to make a beautiful light, to illuminate the darkness of the world around us. This represents the sacrifice made by Jews throughout the ages to persevere, and even to flourish, even in the face of the greatest persecution and darkness.

Yes, it is the wandering Yonah, the dove who tasted the crushing bitterness of exile, who ultimately survives, flourishes, and ushers in the coming of our long awaited Moshiach.

My Grandma is the Toiba, the dove, the ultimate survivor.

Ninety years later. The White Russians are gone. The Soviet communists who tried to destroy Judaism, are no more, but rather a relic of the past.
But our Yonah has flown for ninety years, weathered the turmoil and storm of life, raised her Jewish kinderlach, produced three generations, has propelled Judaism into the 21st Century.

And now, the Yonah has flown away to her eternal home to be with her parents, Sarah and Reuven Levita, may Hashem avenge their blood, and with her beloved foster parents, Zaida Binyomin and Bubbe Ettel Marcus, and most of all, to be with Hashem.

Yes, our dove, our Taibeleh has finally found peace.

But the world still has not.

This will be accomplished by us, each of us in his or her own way, increasing in acts of goodness and kindness, Torah and Mitzvos, to bear aloft the banner of our people Israel (that was for you, Grandma) with pride and conviction. It’s time to throw the foolish Marku out of the marketplace once and for all, and rise above all our hindrances that are holding us back from doing Mitzvot and letting our true Jewish pride shine forth. And most of all, to get ready to greet Moshiach,

It’s time to find peace in our daily lives by increasing in Torat Shalom and Torat Emmet, “…and all its ways are peace.” Study Chassidic philosophy, the inner wisdom of the Torah, that makes peace between spirituality and physicality, between Heaven and Earth, between the storm struggles of our daily life with the inner light of our soul, which is a veritable part of G-d from above...
It’s time to bring Moshiach NOW. Thank you.

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...