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My Zadie

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

Can you ever be too Jewish for your grandparents? One young man tests the outer-limits.

The most religious person I knew growing up was my Zadie. He wasn't really religious in the sense that he kept the Sabbath or was particularly mindful about the Kosher dietary laws, but my whole family could feel that he, and my Bubbie, were simply closest to "the tradition."

For this reason, when I became religious about four years ago, I thought that my Bubbie and Zadie would be the most understanding of anyone. But, when I went to visit them in their senior citizen's home in Montreal for the weekend, I was in for a surprise.

No sooner did I put my bags down, did I hear my Bubbie say, "Nu, Richard..."

No sooner did I put my bags down in their room did I hear my Bubbie say, "Nu, Richard. Your mother tells us that you are religious now," in her familiar Bubbie-not-really-a-question-but-not-quite-a-statement tone.

My Zadie looked at me. I smiled expectantly, sort of hoping he would leap up from the plastic covered couch and start dancing the Horah around me. Instead he said, "Leave him alone Adelle. At least he's not in a cult. You know a lot of people have grandchildren in cults. I know someone down the hall whose granddaughter shaved her head and became a Hare Krishna. And doesn't Abe Lerner's grandson practice voodoo magic or something?"

"No Willie, that was a program you saw on TV," my Bubbie answered.

"Anyway, at least you are not in a cult," my Zadie said under his breath, while reclining back in his seat.

I was a little confused. This wasn't quite the reaction I expected, but I knew they were just expressing their concern for me. At least that is what I told myself.


After I accompanied my grandparents to the Friday evening services, we went to the dining hall for dinner. My Bubbie introduced me to all of her friends, and I was an instant celebrity. As soon as we were finished eating, we had to make room for the other residents who had not yet eaten, so we left to go back upstairs.

This presented a problem. They lived on the 10th floor, and my grandparents were going to take the elevator, something I wasn't prepared to do since it is prohibited to use electricity on Shabbat.

I asked the lady at the front desk if I could take the stairs. She wasn't sure if there even were any stairs, because she had never heard of anyone using them. I was trying to do this quietly, but my inquiries were overheard by a group of women seniors who were sitting by the elevator.

"Why don't you just take the elevator," asked one of the ladies.

I tried to be as diplomatic as possible. "Well, I observe Shabbat and would prefer not to ride on the elevator."

"Aw, come on," she said in her you-can't-fool-me tone. "It would kill you to take the elevator?"

"Aw, come on," she said in her you-can't-fool-me tone. "It would kill you to take the elevator?"

"I would actually rather walk up the stairs. Do you know where they are?" I asked trying to get out of this situation. But I saw more people gathering around me.

"Miriam, this young man wants to know where the stairs are because he thinks he's too good for the elevator," one of the women belted in a voice reminiscent of Estelle Costanza.

"So the elevator is good enough for the rabbi but it is not good enough for you?" another woman chimed in.

"He doesn't want to ride the elevator. Let him take the stairs," my Zadie said in my defense, joining in on what was about to turn into a senior citizen's brawl.

"What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?" one of the ladies asked me in all seriousness.

"I am not a fanatic..." I tried to explain, but got cut off.

"Oh he's a fanatic all right, " The man from the back agreed.

"He's not a fanatic," another man said apparently coming to my rescue, "he's a maniac!"

Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, and my face couldn't get any redder, one of the maintenance men came into the lobby and said, "O.K., where's the crazy man who won't ride the elevator?"

The entire lobby of seniors extended their arms towards me like it was aerobics hour.

"Follow me, son. The stairs are this way," he said as though he had done this before. I walked away from the battleground with my head down, slightly embarrassed at the scene that I had managed to make, but I caught my Zadie giving me a little wink. I think he was impressed with the fact that I held firm in my commitment despite the commotion, or perhaps he was just impressed that I had the energy to walk up 10 flights of stairs.


The next morning with the elevator incident behind me, I went downstairs with my Zadie to the synagogue that was in the senior's home. Praying together with him not only gave him a lot of naches (pride), but it did the same for me. He introduced me to all of his friends, announcing with a smile, "This is my grandson."

I responded with an even brighter smile and said, "This is my grandfather."

That weekend was the last time I saw my Zadie. He passed away around a year later. However, I have realized how lucky I was to spend that Shabbat with him. Sitting next to him and praying with him in the synagogue made me realize how similar we really were.

Before that weekend, there were times when I had trouble relating to my Zadie. He was born in Poland, English was not his native language, and there was simply a wide generation gap between the two of us. But as we shared our Judaism together I realized how much we actually had in common.

What was more important was that we had 3300 years of common history and tradition behind us.

The fact that we were born in different countries or that we were generations apart was practically meaningless. What was more important was that we had 3300 years of common history and tradition behind us.

When the rabbi gave the eulogy at his funeral, I realized how proud my Zadie really was of me, and how much our Shabbat experience had meant to him. Apparently, he would often times brag to people in the senior's home, "My grandson Richard became religious."

In his old age, perhaps my Zaidie realized that even though he wouldn't be around forever, Judaism would be.

From that time on, whenever I observed any of the precepts in the Torah, I was not only fulfilling a Divine command, but I was connecting myself to my Zadie, and to all of my other ancestors before him who also practiced their Judaism. It comforts me to know that every time I go to synagogue to pray on Shabbat, my Zadie is right there, davening beside me. I hope it comforts him too.

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