I was 10 years old. My father left us and moved to the United States from Winnipeg, leaving my mother, my 6-year-old sister and me destitute. After spending a bitter Canadian winter and spring with friends, we moved into my mother’s parents’ home in Minneapolis.
I was bitter and angry, yet unable to verbalize my feelings. I had “lost” a father without explanation; my mother went to work — I later found out for $12 a week, 12 hours a day. I lashed out at my mother, even chasing her with a butcher knife at one point.
Luckily, my grandfather was a great influence on me. Once, late at night, he took me with him to a small property he owned. His tenants were not paying their rent, but I watched as he left food at their doors so they would not know who’d brought it. I learned through his actions. I came to appreciate what he stood for and what my mother was going through. Only when I returned from the Army, years later, did she tell me that my father was an embezzler who escaped prison by leaving for the United States. She and her father became great role models. I learned that people can change and work through the worst of times and feelings. That led me to believe that everyone, under the proper circumstances, can be helped through the pain of disappointment, rejection, loss of material assets, and the like.
I Believe Group Experiences and Sensitive Adults Can Shape Our Values.
I attended the Talmud Torah and became involved in various youth groups over the years at the JCC. Many adults guided me through those years until I left for the Army.
I had begun university before Army service and returned to my studies, where I was further shaped by some remarkable mentors. They ranged from an Orthodox Hillel rabbi to faculty and field instructors in the school of social work. I learned to accept differences while still continuing the great Jewish learning adventure first lived by my grandfather. My greatest gift was meeting my future wife, Ruby, on a blind date at Hillel and being married before I began graduate school. In school, I was exposed to powerful figures who further contributed to my growth as a human being. My lifelong professional mentor was an assimilated German Jew who had fought in the underground. Our schoolmates included former Luftwaffe pilots, Dutch pacifists, U.S. veterans and others. We learned about conflict resolution, confronting the past, fighting ideological battles and being civil. When Ruby and I moved to Oakland, I first met another influential shaper of my values and world outlook, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who became our rabbi and whom I continue to learn from today. These people and teachings became the foundation for my life.
I Believe in Hope.
A dear friend, Rabbi Hugo Gryn (z”l), was in Auschwitz with his father. In December 1944, when he was 14, they somehow got hold of a pound of margarine, and Hugo’s father somehow found some wood and proceeded to make a Chanukiyah. Each night Hugo lit margarine “candles.” At the end of Chanukah, Hugo asked his dad why he had chosen to do this, given the things they could have used the margarine to barter for in Auschwitz. His father responded, “Hugo, we have learned that we can live 10 days with a little water and a bit of food. We cannot live one day without hope.”
Think of all the opportunities we have to celebrate and intensify our Jewishness. How can we ever have other than hope for the creative, energetic, purposeful future for Jewish life today and the tomorrows to come?
This essay continues our Ani Ma’amin series begun in our Rosh Hashanah issue. We want to hear your stories. For information on how to contribute, go to jewishjournal.com/ani_maamin.