Wissot: Thank your grandfathers for what they taught you; you only get to be with them for a short time (column)
You know you’re getting really old when you are approaching the ages your grandfathers were when they both died. My grandfathers were fortunate to live long lives, as have I.
Both immigrated to this country in the early 1900s when they were still boys. Both were Eastern European Jews. My paternal grandfather was from Warsaw, Poland. My maternal grandfather was from Minsk, in what is now Belarus.
Neither one was educated when he arrived here; neither stayed in school long enough to acquire an education. They learned about life and figured this country out through the proverbial school of hard knocks. I have enormous respect for that school.
My paternal grandfather worked as a tailor in the New York City garment industry. While he lacked a formal education, he was fluent in Hebrew and knew the content of the holy books of the Jewish religion, the Torah, like he knew his own name.
I tell you this because he came to my rescue when I was approaching my 13th birthday and about to make my bar mitzvah. For those unfamiliar with the ritual, when boys and girls reach their 13th birthdays, they are asked to read a portion of the Torah (called the haftorah) in a synagogue before family, friends and congregants.
I refused to go to Hebrew School, a prerequisite for most 9-year-old Jewish boys, to the utter dismay of my parents, but instead agreed to make up for the lost four years by taking intensive private lessons from a rabbi six months before my bar mitzvah date.
It all went splendidly well. I studied hard. I memorized my portion of the haftorah. I could recite it by heart. There was only one problem: I had no idea what I was saying. It was meaningless to me. I might as well have memorized it in Greek and have been just as well or worse off.
I called my grandpa Louie in a panic. “Grandpa, grandpa,” I bemoaned, “I’m afraid of making a fool of myself in front of everybody. I don’t know the meaning of what I’m reading. I won’t know how to correct any mistakes I make.” He replied with a confident laugh. “Don’t worry, boychik, 90 percent of the people attending won’t know if you make a mistake, and the other 10 percent are not invited to the reception afterwards.”
Way to go, grandpa. Thank you for your wisdom. Years later, a logic teacher in college explained to me in academic terms what my grandfather had told me: “In the land of the blind, one eye is king.” In other words, you don’t have to be very smart, you just have to be smart enough. Smart enough for the audience you are addressing. Smart enough for the task at hand. It’s a great gauge for assessing whether you are over your head or not. More often you are not.
My other grandfather, grandpa Dave, was a bit of a character. Once when I was driving him around towns in Northern New Jersey, so he could sell electric tape to his customers in trailer parks and trailer supply stores, he said to me, “How about we go to a deli and have pastrami sandwiches?” “Great,” I replied. “Where?” He proceeded to direct me on to the New Jersey Turnpike and told me to drive 90 miles to Philadelphia where a deli had a pastrami sandwich he just loved.
One of the trailer parks he visited in making his rounds to his customers was owned by a surly, nasty, mean-spirited man.
He growled when my grandfather dropped by to take his order and looked at him with utter disdain and contempt.
I asked my grandfather what was wrong with him. He casually replied, “He’s anti-Semitic. He hates Jews.” I asked him in astonishment why he bothered to sell to him then. He said matter of factly told me that he had a lot of inferior electric tape that was safe but didn’t want to unload on any of the customers who he liked. This anti-Semite would be a perfect candidate for the inferior tape.
Wow. He was making a cool, calm, rational, pragmatic decision. Here was a man contemptuous of him but who still could serve his interests. Rather than be offended by his prejudices, he decided to use a little psychological jujitsu and turn those prejudices to his advantage.
I don’t think it was so much the idea of “Don’t get mad. Get even.” More like if you take the emotion out of an unpleasant encounter you might just find something there that will make you happy.
There are other stories I could tell you about what I gained by being in their company, but space won’t permit. Please remember to thank your grandfathers for what they taught you. You only get to be with them for a relatively short period of time. But what you learn from them can last a lifetime.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail.