Volume 17 • Issue 29 | Dec. 10 -16, 2004

Discovering a bond with a grandfather long gone

By Leonard Quart

When my mother died in 2001, I began to search for pieces of the family past that I had long left untouched. Her death propelled me to rediscover my grandfather, Rabbi Israel Quart, who died when I was only three-years-old. I faintly remember my father once taking me to watch him presiding over Sabbath service in an impoverished, claustrophobic South Bronx synagogue, whose congregation consisted of a group of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers.

Another time he brought me to visit my grandfather when he was lying in bed very ill with lung cancer — a white bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing a black skullcap, chain- smoking cigarettes, drinking tea with jam, barely able to speak.

And then there were the copies of the two books he had written, and published by a well known Hebrew and religious book company, lying untouched behind glass in my parents’ ancient maple breakfront. I vaguely knew what the books dealt with and my father said little about their contents.

These few fragmentary memories are all I have of my grandfather, though I’ve always desired to know more. I especially wanted to learn what lay inside those mysterious books, since his writing them echoed my own literary ambitions. My yearning was further whetted by my mother often alluding to how similar I was to my “impractical” writer grandfather.

The two books that he published turned out to be the product of a lifetime’s work. He began writing them in Russia, and completed them in New York. The more traditional of the two books was constructed around a series of queries and answers about daily life, more applicable to Russian village life than New York City (e.g., if a cow dies, can the meat be eaten?)

The other and more original of the two books consisted of three hundred and forty-five of pages of aphorisms, thirty-two on a page, written in rhyme, and often playing with Cabalistic (medieval and mystical) notions of numerology.   The aphorisms contained truisms like “there is no medicine for pride, for the cause rests deep inside.” But there were also sayings written with a skeptic’s tough-mindedness (despite his being a religious man), that question the capacity to make righteous judgments if a man “follows the letter of the law.” My grandfather was not a professional writer, but his hunger to write was evident on every page of his book. He had talent, and though it wasn’t fully honed, he had the seriousness of purpose of a genuine writer.

My parents may have read Chekhov as adolescents in Russia, but they had little inclination or time to talk about books. So to discover that I had somebody so close whose yearnings to write were similar to mine, deeply affected me. Despite our vast cultural and intellectual differences, my grandfather and I both harbored the same love of words and images, and the desire to make sense of the way we live. I may not have shared his religious belief and moral certitude, but I continue struggling on to define my own more ambiguous personal and social vision.

In the period that followed my mother’s death I continually conjured up her lined, aged face, smiling through her broken front teeth (the result of being three times on a ventilator). One night I dreamt about her, but I woke up with a start and couldn’t recoup the dream’s shape or imagery. After that, I knew I had to let go. The rediscovery of my grandfather’s writing provided some consolation—the feeling that with my mother’s death the link to the past has not been totally lost. The writings were hardly a substitute for a mother I had profound, if complicated, feelings for, but for some ineffable reason, they released me to take greater emotional risks in my own prose, and to follow my own feelings wherever they may lead.

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