This morning, we read the story of one of several journeys in the life of Avraham avinu, our ancestor Abraham. He was told in younger days to “Lekh Lekha,” to “Go forth from the land of his ancestors, to go forth from what he knew, from the old places and the old ways to the new, from constricting despair to freeing hope: all to find a better life.
But think about this for a moment. Our forefather Abraham had a wonderful family and tremendous wealth including a large number of animals and no few servants to help him care for his family’s needs. Abraham was blessed mightily by God long before the incident in today’s Torah portion, the result of which was that he would be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars.
Every year, we talk of the journey of Abraham, his trials, his successes and his failures. Yet, we do not often hear of the stories of our more immediate ancestors, their journeys and their trials. We all too easily hear and then disconnect ourselves from distant paradigmatic stories of the journeys of the patriarchs of our people, while forgetting the sometimes even more amazing and perhaps more trying narratives of the people whose journeys in more recent generations have enabled us to be here today.
In my mind, my Great Grandfather Abraham’s story is one of the narratives that need to be remembered by modern Jews, narratives of the shtetl life lived by many of our Jewish ancestors, a life which still resonates in Jewish soul today.
Abraham was my father’s grandfather, born in 1881 in the shtetl of Dombrovich, Bessarabia, the sixth child born to Baruch Benedict Shapiro and his wife Chaya Batya.
Like the patriarch Abraham, who was called “Abram” in his youth, so too my great-grandfather was called “Avrum” in his youth and later came to be called “Abraham.”
The patriarch Abraham’s life was a journey from the land of his father to the promised land, from a place of ignorance to a place of enlightenment, from a place where his descendants would perhaps struggle to find success to a place where they were to be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My ancestor, Abraham, no doubt like many of your ancestors, too came from a land where his family had lived for generations, a place of ignorance, a place where getting through the day, much less the week or the year, could be a challenge. We are indebted to these men and women whose courage enabled us to be here today, celebrating the sweetness of the Jewish New Year.
What was life like in the Shtetl?
Too often, when we think of ancestors’ lives, we simply say that they had it tough. Sometimes we joke about our parents or grandparents, “Yes, we know, you had to walk for miles to school through the snow, uphill, both ways!” All the while thinking to ourselves, “It couldn’t really have been that bad.”
After getting a chance to read my Great Grandfather Abraham’s living will, which was recently translated from the Yiddish by my mother and a cousin, I came to believe that to have had to walk to school through the snow uphill both ways would have been seen as a blessing, not as a hardship.
For our ancestors, serious illness could strike at a moment’s notice. They saw loved ones suffer and die with ailments that would be easily cured today. They lived on the brink of starvation at times, shivered from the cold, and sweltered in the heat. Those hardships, and others, reinforced what was most important in their lives, the values and hopes that led them through times of challenge. I see some of those important values very clearly evidenced in my great grandfather’s life and which I maintain in my own life today. I would like to talk about three of these values as evidenced in Abraham’s life in the shtetl: the importance of Shabbat, education both Jewish and secular, and Zionism.
My Abraham may not be everyman, but I think that his story is somewhat representative of Jews in generations past, certainly of Jews in the shtetls. The shtetl story, turned into a comedy by Sholem Aleichem and then into a Broadway hit, Fiddler on the Roof, is a story that reverberates in our Jewish souls. Though certainly reminding us how far we’ve come in the century since, also reminds us what is most important.
In Tevye’s words [IRA READS]:
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! [Sing – Tradition! Tradition!]
My great grandfather Abraham was born, 130 years ago, a fiddler on the roof in his own version of Anatevka. His family was very poor. They rarely had enough to eat. His father, Baruch, arranged business deals between people who had very little to begin with and his share of the transactions, when he received a share, was generally small. He barely made a living. Abraham’s mother, Chaia, plucked chickens to earn a few kopeks a week. His five older sisters took whatever work they could find, like helping with sewing to prepare girls for their weddings. The younger two sisters served as maids in Abraham’s significantly wealthier uncle’s home. Chaia’s brother evidently had some sort of factory and actually made a decent living.
When Abraham was three or four years old, the family home was destroyed when a fire raged out of control and their home along with several others burned down.
The family eventually built a new house with a store, hoping to make a living from it. The new house, like the old, had an earthen floor and the small wood burning oven was in the middle of the main room so that the heat could radiate out. Abraham’s family ended up having to rent out one of the few rooms in the home for use as a school room during the week. This brings me to Shabbat.
In his memoir, Abraham noted that:
All week long, we lived with the hope to have enough for Shabbat, that mother would be able to bless the Shabbat candles, and we would be able to wear appropriate Sabbath clothes. Ours had already seen better days.
Achad Ha’am said that “More than the Jewish people has preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jewish people.” For my great-grandfather, it was the hope of the Sabbath, a longed for goal, that sustained him and his family through trying times.
On Shabbat, his father would go to the synagogue. Abraham said that he would go in order to “forget the bad weekdays.” During the week, he would save enough money so that the family could have challah, a piece of meat, a little soup, tsimmes, a vegetable dish, and Kiddush. He made Kiddush over the wine and if there wasn’t wine, he made Kiddush over the challah. The family always sang songs for Shabbat. They lived with the belief that things would get better and that the Jewish Sabbath and the belief in God would help.
The family literally lived for Shabbat. Shabbat was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Shabbat brought renewed hope each week. Abraham said that his father was a first class optimist: every week speaking of how things would be better the next week.
This brings me to a joke that described much of life in Czarist controlled Bessarabia and eventually described Abraham’s own life. The joke goes:
You know the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist? The Jewish pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse!” The Jewish optimist says, “Sure they can!”
Shabbat not only made life tolerable for the Jews in the shtetl, it gave them a vision of a better life, a vision that eventually led many to leave the shtetl for distant lands such as America or Zion. But we are not yet to that point in the narrative, first there was much to learn.
It didn’t matter that the family had very little, one had to study Torah. When Abraham was four, his father wrapped him in a tallit and took him to cheder to study. If he learned well, he was told, God would reward him. He studied ten to twelve hours a day, except for Shabbat, until he was nine years old in all kinds of weather. They walked through deep snow in sub-freezing temperatures. Friday afternoons, he learned Russian and math.
Until he was nine, on Saturday afternoons, his father would listen to Abraham recite the week’s Torah portion, half in Hebrew and half in Romanian. But by the time he was nine, there were simply too many mouths to feed in the house and he was sent to live with his older sister and her husband, Mendel, a common strategy for survival in the shtetl. Mendel was a teacher of Modern Hebrew and was much more educated than anyone whom Abraham had known before.
Mendel saw that everything that Abraham had studied before had been simply words without meaning. Abraham had learned by rote and repeated what he learned without really understanding the words. Mendel taught him the meaning.
My great-grandfather returned home once a year for Passover. Because he now wore a shorter coat and not the long traditional one, his friends would not interact with him and called him a “non-believer.” In his words, “The little town appeared darker than it was before I left it.” He no longer felt welcome.
Then at age 12, if things were not difficult enough, things did get worse. His father died of pneumonia, a month before the wedding of one of his older sisters. Now Abraham was a breadwinner for the family, the only male in a family of nine.
He ended up working in a store in a neighboring town until he was 15 years old for about 10 Rubles a year and a little food, but as he said, “not enough.” The bosses didn’t have enough for themselves to eat. He was given a kopek to buy himself a piece of herring and bread for dinner. Every night.
Abraham slept in the store under whatever covers were there. At night, it was 30-40 degrees below zero and there was no heat. By the light of a kerosene lamp, he studied when he could and whatever he could. Abraham taught himself Hebrew, then eventually Russian and German. Learning Hebrew was also another step in creating Abraham’s life-long love of Zionism. Knowing Hebrew, the language of the Zionists, he became more involved in the Socialist movement and specifically with the Zionists who were associated with it.
Abraham was ultimately able to use his knowledge of Russian to obtain a job that paid more money. Then he used that money to open his own dry goods store and then a grocery store that was finally relatively successful. In that time he became married to my great-grandmother Pearl and had three children. But while things had gotten better for Abraham personally, things had worsened for the Jews.
There were pogroms in nearby cities and the socialists were on the rise. Abraham was one of them. He was a Zionist Socialist who followed Hayim Greenberg, the famous Zionist leader who lived in a nearby village.
When Greenberg was arrested, fearing that the regime would find out that he was also a Socialist, Abraham began plans to come to America, clandestinely, against the Czar’s orders.
There were a few more trials and tribulations before they could leave and it wasn’t easy when they did. Crossing the border to freedom was a very dangerous enterprise. Abraham came to America first, traveling 3rd Class. He worked for his sister, who had a store in Philadelphia, and then paid passage for his family. They arrived in America at the end of August, 1911, one hundred years and a month ago. My grandmother, Hadassah, who came to be known as Sophie, and after whom my daughter Hanna Sophia is named, was only two years old.
Imagine. “Lekh lekha! Go! Leave your father’s house now! The only home your family has known for generations. Abandon almost all that you own. Take your wife, your four year old daughter, your two year old daughter, and your baby son to the land that I have shown you!” Abraham, no doubt like many of the ancestors of those here today, actually did that.
In July of 1934, Abraham Pearlmutter visited Zion and even purchased land in Pardes Hana, land on which one of his sisters and her family eventually came to live after World War II.
Abraham was a Zionist, not for himself, but for future generations. Seeing what life was like for Jews without freedom or security, Abraham wanted to make sure that there would be a place where Jews could live in freedom and security.
It struck me, as I wrote this, that his hope for a Jewish homeland in Zion was no different than his hope as a child to be able to celebrate the Sabbath. One had to do the work to make it happen, to save up and to plan. Abraham was never a wealthy man. He had a grocery store in St. Louis that made enough to support his family. Yet, he took a good portion of what little he had and invested it in a dream, buying a parcel of land in British Mandatory Palestine in 1934, in the hope that it would become a homeland for the Jews.
He came to see that dream come to fruition in 1948.
How much has changed for my family over the past one hundred years! From impoverished persecution in a shtetl in Bessarabia with dreams of a better life to generations later having seen those dreams come to pass.
The story in our Torah portion is about a trial that resulted in Abraham’s descendents being blessed, it included a journey, a commitment to follow the will of God, and perhaps a bit of luck. Admittedly, this is quite an abstract of the story of the Binding of Isaac, but it is also at this abstract level that our forefather Abraham’s story meets my Great-Grandfather Abraham’s story and the stories of generations of Jews whose courageous journeys and whose commitment to do the will of God helped our people to reach this day, along with a bit of help from God, rams caught in thickets.
When we look back at how previous generations lived, it is amazing that we have reached this day. Though a small minority of the world’s population, we Jews, the descendants of our father Abraham, are indeed, as in the blessing in our Torah portion, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.”
Hope in Shabbat, a commitment to learning, and the pursuit of a better life made it happen.
My Great-Grandfather Abraham did not have a chance to escape persecution and flee to the safety and security of a Jewish state, an opportunity that persecuted Jews now do have, but he did have the opportunity to escape with his family to a land of freedom and security for which he was grateful beyond explanation. In 1950, on Thanksgiving Day, he tried to put into words that which we today all too often take for granted.
Abraham wrote, “How much the inhabitants of this land should give thanks for their home! ...I have a lot to thank God for, that I was one of the fortunate people who had the luck to come here in time and to live the years in happiness and freedom… Long Live America!”