It happened abruptly. I, an old lady of 79, settled comfortably in suburban New Jersey, was suddenly transported by an old book to my childhood home on Aldine Street in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood. While I may appear wrinkled and gray, my collection of books remains timeless.
It started innocently when my grandson Dov, a true bibliophile, searched our collection of old books. He was engrossed in handling them and bringing back the memories they evoked. My memories.
Here was Mom’s complete collection of Shakespeare, her adventures with “Alice in Wonderland,” and her great passion — Victorian-era poetry, Browning being her favorite. Mom was a great lover of literature and quite adept at reading French, Spanish, and Yiddish, in addition to her mother tongue, English.
Dov had never met my mother — a loss for each of them. She died two weeks before his birth, and at his brit we were still reeling from our loss while rejoicing in our gain, a bittersweet moment indeed.
In my collection Dov discovered a book from another generation: my grandfather’s Mishna. Dov excitedly pointed out that it had been printed in Warsaw in 1864. I told him a bit about Pop, his great-great-grandfather, who moved into our Newark home when he was widowed and remained there for the rest of his life, about 15 years. My sister and I were little kids when he moved in and I was 20 when he died, so for us it felt like a lifetime. He was always there, puttering around. Fixing things. Performing, at least in that era, the stereotypically female skills of sewing and ironing, though he never cooked. The kitchen was his daughter’s — my mother’s — domain.
I remembered Pop sitting at the kitchen table studying that volume of Mishna. I can picture him, a small man with thick glasses and nary a gray hair, always meticulously dressed, his cane by his side in the later years. He would be bent over the text, pondering, turning the pages very, very slowly. So much to ingest and learn.
Pop was always reading something. He never looked at novels, which my mother read, or non-fiction political books, which sustained my father throughout his long life. Instead, my grandfather got his education from the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper, or as it’s called today, The Forward. When Pop broke his hip it was my job to go to the confectionery store on Lyons Avenue, next door to the Fidelity Union Savings Bank, to pick up his reserved copy. He would read it cover to cover, including the classified ads.
He sat glued to the TV every night and listened to the world news in English, but reading the newspaper in Yiddish, his mama loshen, was the natural expression of his generation of European-born immigrants. The Forward was integral to his life.
Generations later, Dov, a college freshman, was studying the newfound Mishna when, as he turned its pages with care and respect, a clipping fell out. I recognized it immediately as an article from Pop’s beloved newspaper, the paper gray and fragile, sort of like me. It had been carefully coiffed, about four columns, each one cut separately. Even though the book had been moved to new homes at least a dozen times over the years, no one had laid eyes on it since Pop died in 1960.
I enlisted the help of Yiddish speakers to translate the article. (Kudos to Cantor Steven Stern of Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, and Dr. David Blady.) The article’s headline translates to “Questions and Answers,” and consisted of 10 trivia questions. For example, “Who were the fattest and thinnest U.S. presidents?” (Answer: William Howard Taft and James Madison.) There was nothing of any consequence in the article, and I’ll never know why Pop saved it in a book he treasured.
While the article was inconsequential, its discovery was not. I’ve shared the story with many members of our family and, for them, it was a wonderful entree into the life of a man they never knew. The Mishna opened some of the pages of Pop’s life and speaking about him made him more than a name. Pop always deserved to be more than a name. Perhaps he put the clipping into the book so that we would find it and remember him. Thanks for the memories, Pop.
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Herzliya, Israel.