On June 12th, my grandfather, Louis Landesman z”l, would have turned 100 years old. While he passed away in 2006, he is still an integral part of my every day life. This is because it was my grandfather who set me on the path to become a rabbi. Lots of you know that while I was raised by two Jewish parents, I was brought up in an extremely assimilated home. “Secular” Christmas and Easter celebrations, including a tree and participating in the White House Easter Egg Hunt (I grew up in D.C.), were part of my childhood. Sometimes, we would light Chanukah candles, but I never really understood why. We were not members of a synagogue. I did not attend Hebrew School. I did not become a bar mitzvah until I was 26 years old. While my mother certainly taught me to be spiritual, Jewish rituals and culture were not a part of my childhood.
My grandfather, who was raised by immigrant parents on the Lower East Side of New York, was raised in a traditional, Orthodox home. One of my favorite photographs of him was taken on his bar mitzvah day as he stood in his tallus on a rooftop somewhere in New York City. As was common among his generation, once my grandfather entered his late teens, he began to break away from the religious rules and practices of his parents. The freedom of America and the lure of her culture certainly had their affect on my grandfather.
In the 1930’s he married my grandmother, Florence Landesman (who is still a part of my life as she approaches her 98th birthday!). My grandmother was the eldest daughter of an established, well-off Jewish family in Brooklyn. They were reaping the benefits of American society and had, in many respects, let go of the Judaism that was a part of my grandfather’s upbringing.
As my grandparents built a life together and raised my mom, Judaism played little if any role in family life. My mom did not grow up going to synagogue or observing the Jewish holidays. While she knew she was Jewish, she really did not have a strong Jewish identity or connection to her heritage.
In the 1960’s my mother married my father, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home – but got little out of this Jewish upbringing. I remember my father telling me that for him, synagogue was about who had the fancier clothing and not about G-d or spirituality. This sentiment, coupled with the effects of the ‘60’s, led to my father disconnecting from his Judaism. Thus, as my parents raised my sister and me, we had very little connection to Judaism.
What I did have was my grandfather. I had an extremely close connection with him. While he was not “religious” in any way – he was filled with stories about growing up in his tight-knit Jewish community on and around Pitt Street in New York. I grew up with these stories and other stories about the life of his parents and grandparents in Poland. From my grandfather, I learned about my great-great grandfathers: one the mayor of Domeradtz, a Jewish shtetl in Poland, the other a rabbi.
As a teenager, these stories lit a spark inside of me. I began to realize that there was a part of my identity that was missing – a link in the chain had disconnected – and I was determined to find out more about who I was and where I came from. In high school, I “rebelled” by insisting that our family Christmas tree be put away. My parents agreed – but my poor sister still holds this against me! I attempted to begin studying my Jewish roots at a synagogue in my hometown, but was told I had to start in a class with students half my age. My studies would begin in college when I enrolled in a Jewish-American history course – just to see what I could learn. The course required that I research my family’s immigration to America. As a result, I began a genealogical project that I am still working on more than two decades later. As I began the project, I relied upon all of my grandfather’s stories. He helped me as I began to put pieces of my story together.
The lessons I learned from that history course made the spark that my grandfather’s story lit inside of me grow stronger. I was determined to learn more about my Jewish roots. And, so, I took more classes. I was hooked. The classes would lead to a Jewish Studies major, a job in the Jewish community after college graduation, my bar mitzvah, a Masters degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and eventually rabbinical school.
One of my greatest joys on my Jewish journey, was having my grandfather there along for the ride. He was there at my rabbinic ordination, when I was installed at Ramat Shalom and at many services in our sanctuary. His photograph, along with the photographs of my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents are in my office. They are reminders of where I have come from and the legacy that I am handing off to my children.
As I mark his 100th birthday and as we all prepare to celebrate Father’s Day, I wanted to take a moment to thank my grandfather, Louis Landesman z”l, for teaching me the meaning of “L’dor Va’Dor” – from generation to generation we pass it on. While in my case, I did not learn about my Judaism from the generation that came before me (I got to teach my mom about her Judaism!), I am so grateful that my grandfather gave me the chance to discover it. His stories were my gift – my introduction to who I was. I live his gift every day. His memory is my blessing.
Happy Father’s Day! Celebrate and remember those men who made you who you are today.