I never got a picture of my father's Uncle Yossel who we visited in Israel. He looks just like my zeidy, but older, paler and kind of smooshed. Shorter, fatter. I remember my zeidy as very tall, though he was probably just normal adult size, and very strong, which he definitely was. With tzitzis on the outside, which my grandfather, his brother, wouldn't have been caught dead wearing at all
We visited on the Wednesday we were there, but my (father's) Auntie Chana had yahrzeit that day and was in a hurry to get to the cemetery (I was amazed that her parents were buried in eretz Yisrael; most of her generation from Europe don't have graves to visit).
I put off taking a picture and finally, as we were getting up to go, I said, "can I just take a picture?" And she said "on Monday." We were going to go back on Monday with Ted and the littles, and so we'd take the picture then.
By Monday, we were sitting shiva in Canada (Auntie and I now have yahrzeit the same day). So no picture.
Why am I thinking of this now?
Because YM's rosh yeshiva, deeply interested in the roots of the apparent out-of-the-blue no-yichus iluy that is my son (ha! if he only knew!), asked for Uncle's phone number to call him and see if he could dig up anything about the family.
For which I'm grateful. Between my no-Yiddish and barely-any-Hebrew, our conversation while we were there was kindergarten-level stuff: the weather, days of the week, basics of who is in my family (I thoroughly confused them a few times with that!).
I did casually mention that Ted converted a few days ago... drat. Shanim, must remember, years is shanim. Not yamim.
So we didn't get to chat and I would love to know anything about that side of the family, while he's still around, while someone's willing to ask.
But what really stirred me today, what made me smile, is that the rosh yeshiva called with a preliminary update (he's wonderful, he really is; I wish I wasn't always rushing to cook supper or take care of kids when he called. I wish he had email, but then, he'd never use email.)
The preliminary update: he couldn't talk to Uncle, who was resting, but Auntie was pleased to hear that YM is going to a good yeshiva next year. BUT... (big smile)... why wasn't he learning by Ger or another chassidishe yeshiva?
Why am I smiling?
Why do I care so much about these obscure relatives I've only met once?
First, because they were very important to my father. My grandfather completely severed that spiritual connection to our family's past. I think even my not-always-religious father suspected that was not the right way to pass things on to the next generation.
Second, because nobody in my family, NOBODY, through all these years... nobody ever openly cared about my spirituality at all, one way or another.
Nobody said anything, for better or worse, about what all this baalas teshuva stuff was about, spiritually.
And I was so scared that when I met uncle and auntie, that they wouldn't really care either. I have met a lot, a lot of religious people here who take spirituality for granted. Who don't really mention God, or who mention him in passing, like "baruch Hashem."
These folks in Israel, this couple in their 80s, I'm telling you, they are the real thing. They live lives of poverty in a teeny tiny apartment across from the Ponovezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak and they care deeply, deeply about what God thinks. They have a deep, meaningful connection to him and feel his presence in every aspect of their lives.
And they care so deeply that out of the spiritual train wreck that was my grandfather's cocky overconfidence that the ultimate redemption would come through communism (sheesh, it sounds so naive now) and secular humanism (and, I suppose, out of the physical catastrophe that destroyed much of the family in the shoah), some family is emerging, slowly, tenuously (I sure feel tenuous most of the time) and slowly, we're coming back.
Auntie told me (I think!) that I can rely on Hashem, that I can trust him, talk to him, daven; he's in charge of the whole world. No relative has ever told me stuff like that.
When I was growing up, those weren't things Jews said.
I think I was worried that the whole Israel thing was one of my father's deathbed crazy ideas and it wouldn't be meaningful.
Sara, who is sometimes wise, called me on it before I went, because of hauling the kids into a war zone. Fair enough.
And I think I had a damn good answer for her, and at least she stopped calling me on it and hugged me goodbye when we left (I think).
But I was worried that she was right; it was crazy, it was me following my father's crazy orders, that it wouldn't be meaningful.
That one more aging, ailing relative can't turn my life around.
And perhaps it hasn't turned my life around completely, meeting them.
But knowing I come from somewhere... that someone cares... that we're connected...that my spiritual life and those of my children matter in a way that is so far beyond just us...