In memory of my grandfather, Yaakov Ben Yehuda Leib, whose 8th yahrzeit is tonight.
Zaidy Yaakov sat at the head of the long dining room table, his body propped up in a wheeled-desk chair, his limbs encased by the arm rests. His gloved hands rested inside an old copy of a Haggadah, pressed open to a worn page, and his eyes peered through his thick tri-focals at the small Hebrew text. “Vehi Sheamdah…” his voice rang out, though the muscles in his face scarcely moved. We all joined in; his wife, four children and their spouses, all 16 grandchildren, plus my husband, the sole newcomer to the family.
Zaidy had a way of singing that almost sounded like he was chanting the words, speaking them with a slight hint of a tune. We all subtly mimicked his intonation, swaying along with the familiar words. It was the first time he had had a seder with all of his children and grandchildren, cousins coming together from across the United States to congregate in my parents’ home in West Hempstead, New York. The event was orchestrated by some of his children, my father included, who thought since Zaidy was so sick, so terminally ill, and had been for quite some time, it would be meaningful for him to be able to spend the Pesach holiday surrounded by each one of his direct offspring.
“When Zevi was young,” Zaidy began, speaking about my father, “he had to sing this solo in his school play.” We all knew the famous story about the passage from Hallel found in the Haggadah, but we listened with the same intent and interest as we did every year, pretending that maybe we’d learn some new detail, or that there might be a new surprise ending. But the ending was always the same. My father, even in his forties, would have to stand up and reenact his solo from his elementary school years. His mother, my Bubbi, would close her eyes and would be transported back to the auditorium of his youth, her eyes tearing up in pride. And Zaidy would watch her, happy to give her this same gift, year after year.
The seder continued on, with Zaidy remaining glued to his chair, both due to his incapacitated legs and from his love for the elaboration of the Pesach story. As we neared the time for “Shefoch Chamatcha”, when the spirit of Eliahu Hanavi was believed to visit, my mother leaned forward to fill the enormous cup with grape juice that he was rumored to sip. Zaidy turned around in his chair, his stiff neck craning, the wheeled bottom shifting. “Who’s there?” he mumbled, but nobody responded, thinking he was talking about Eliahu.
A few minutes later, and again, Zaidy wondered out loud who was there. “Zevi, there is someone standing behind me. Who is it?” he asked my father.
“Abba, no one is there,” my father said reassuringly, wondering why his father was so convinced someone was in close proximity. Perhaps he was seeing a reflection of one of his grandchildren in the glass doors behind him. But Zaidy was sure it wasn’t that.
For the rest of us, it was an ordinary moment. One where we lazily folded our hands over our bloated stomachs, flicked matzah crumbs on the floor, or laughed carelessly at a cousin who’s head was bent, sleeping at the table. My father later told me that for Zaidy, it was a moment of recognition, a congratulatory effort, acknowledging his whole life’s triumph, his visible accomplishments seated at the table before him. It was Zaidy’s father, whom we called “Elter Zaidy”, Yehuda Leib Isseroff, deceased some 15 years earlier, who stood by his side, and leaned in towards his son. “You did good, Yankel. You should be proud of yourself. You did good,” he whispered into Zaidy’s ear unfalteringly, in Yiddish, and then disappeared. Zaidy Yaakov beamed with pride, his face glowing brighter than the whiteness of his kittel.
I wonder if I had strained my eyes, would I have seen the image of my Great Grandfather? Had I held my breath, would I have felt the shift in the air, the stillness brought on by a ghost’s hovering presence?
Would I have witnessed the impenetrable bonds of a parent and child, separated for so many years? But I didn’t. I was blind to the moment, as was everyone else at the table. We were oblivious to our seder guest, cloaked in the dark, riding on Eliahu’s chariot, returning to the Heavens after delivering an invitation to our Zaidy, opening the doors to the afterlife. It would soon be Zaidy’s time to go, too, and this was the seder message.
There is an ancient Jewish belief that when one is about to die, previously deceased relatives come beckoning. Zaidy passed on a few weeks later, and he died knowing that he had made his father proud, with the knowledge that he was going to be joining his family, albeit leaving many others behind. He had a cushion of comfort waiting for him in the Heavens, making his departure more seamless, and as we stood around clutching each other, mourning our great loss, we knew he was once again walking, grasping onto the hand of his father.
Eight years later, in the midst of a long sleep, I have a dream; overly wrought with chaos, stress, and missing a school bus. And out of nowhere, a ray of light appears and from within it emerges the face of my grandfather. At first, it is swollen with steroids, the last living image of him that I have retained, but then it flickers, and his face readjusts to his normal-shaped, smiling one. His large square glasses are perched perfectly on his nose, and he stands erect and proud. He is holding the hand of my five-year-old son, Jakey, Yaakov, named for him, and he looks down at the great-grandson he never got to meet, his face aglow and eyes shimmering with excitement. It is a look of pure, unadulterated love. It is, I think, their first moment together.
It is like the years of lying stiff and still underground on a mountain in Bet Shemesh, quiet and calm, with the occasional tearful visitor, were years he spent anticipating that instant. And Zaidy’s time came for a visit; he revealed himself, if but for a moment, and leaves me with a feeling of staggering pride.