When I began telling my family's stories and helping others preserve their own family's tales, my children asked me to not tell theirs. Not that they were ashamed or shy. I "schlep nachas" from all the good they do. They just want to keep their lives and the lives of their young families private for now. And after the election of 2016, I empathize with their concerns in a world dominated by social media, hatred espoused as political opinion and the erosion of boundaries of privacy.
However, I can tell some tales reaching into the next generation without breaking my promise to them. And this is one.
I have not blogged for months. Mostly it was because I was involved in important family developments which many of you will recognize if you are now or have been part of the "sandwich generation," wedged between the older generation and the younger one, trying to support each in the way it needs.
Dad has been aging well into his nineties (longevity is a family blessing) but there are perceptible changes in his health and his memory. Names often elude him now and he tells familiar stories over and over again about relatives I grew up with, whom I know/knew well, and even those whose names I or my children carry. I try to be patient. I listen as if it is all new to me, realizing he believes he is passing on treasured information so it will not be lost. Those who have read any of the Tales from the Judah Halevi Journals recognize this is another familial trait: the concern that names of family members as well as their good deeds will be lost.
During the High Holy Days, it is the custom to visit family graves, to remember those people who guided us and whose names have been given down the generations. While the English/American names reflect the fashions of the era into which each person was born,, the shem kadosh (holy name) in Hebrew or Yiddish ties is a link to the previous generations. My father took me to three different cemeteries, to make sure that I would be able to visit the graves when he could no longer do it. He had no memory that we had done this two years before and that he had taken his grown grandson just last year.
As we stopped at each grave, my dignified father who has lived a very modern and cosmopolitan life, imbued with the law and with science, spoke to each departed relative as generations had in the old country when the dead were ever present in their daily lives and imaginations. He also pointed out the symmetry of the names. In the Ashkenazi tradition, a child is named after a deceased forebear and then names his or her own child after another deceased ancestor, usually one generation more recent. Thus, names leapfrogged over each other, alternating generations but not being lost...not entirely.
And then, a few months ago, I was blessed to become a grandfather. I was asked, and I declined, being called "Zayde." My grandfather Reuben who was my "zayde" was a towering figure in my life. No way was I equal to bearing the same affectionate name when the memory of my Zayde was still so potent.
But what would this little boy be called? The four newly-minted grandparents wondered but we did not ask. If our traditions held value with our children, the child would be given one or more names of our deceased parents and grandparents. And it is a process fraught with political overtones. Which side of the family would be honored? Who would be disappointed?
The name would not be revealed until the ritual circumcision, the Brit Milah, when the baby was inducted into the community. Eight long days after his birth.
When we stood around the crowded livingroom of my children's Brooklyn apartment, the mohel, a religious man with the extra training needed to make this a safe and beautiful ceremony, intoned the prayers. He asked who would be the sandek, the father's representative, who would have the honor to hold the child during the procedure. There were other great-grandparents in the room but they stood aside as my father was asked by the baby's parents to have that privilege. It was unspoken, but all knew, that at his age, this was likely to be both the first and last time he would have the honor.
After the deed was done, a blessing was pronounced, announcing the child's names among the House of Israel. And there it was, the link for this boy to many generations, names that resonated with the memories of those we loved and, respected. And we pledged, as parents and grandparents and great-grandparents to give charity in this child's honor, using our names for two generations with their own chains of continuity. In my own name, Ezekiel ben (son of) Elijah ben Reuben and that of my father, Elijah ben Reuben ben Ezekiel, there was a complete circle of generations from one Ezekiel to me. And now a new circle that honores my Zayde, Reuben.
I grabbed my father's hand and he smiled. His eyes were glittering with tears. He saw as I did, the chain across the generations, coiling through repeated names, but moving onward to the future.
May the future for this child be one of deeds of honor and justice and may his days be filled with love and peace. May his name be for a blessing to those who will remember him.