Gifts from my Grandfathers

March 25th is the 44th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah.

Jewish boys and girls are called up to read from the sacred Torah around the time of their 13th birthday. It is the passageway, in Jewish law, to adulthood. You are given the honor to conduct the service and read in Hebrew from the most revered and sacred text called the Torah which has the five books of Moses. 

Joseph Slater, Jeffrey Slater and George Ginsberg - March 25, 1967

I had an unusual experience 44 years ago since my two grandfathers purchased a Torah and donated it in my honor to my synagogue, Temple Sha’aray Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what it cost to purchase this handwritten scroll since it isn't something you could easily find at a store.  Via the wonders of Google, I looked online to see what it would cost today and found that a Torah sells for between $24,000 and $55,000. I didn't shop around but just found this on one web site called Tiferes Stam

The Torah
Standing between my grandfathers and holding this sacred scroll, is a memory burned in my mind since it represented my immediate past and 5,727 years of history. The Torah, written in Hebrew, consists of 304,805 letters which must be handwritten and can take close to two years to complete. If an error is made, that scroll is considered invalid. In fact, after a Torah has become so worn and tattered that it can no longer be read, it is buried in a very special ceremony. Most Temples have a few of these important special scrolls.

My Bar Mitzvah was a spectacular event and my mother thought of every last detail. However, my strongest memory of that day isn’t the lavish party my parents made for me at The Chanticler in Short Hills but comes from the photograph of me standing between my grandfathers. The contrast between these two wonderful men - Joseph Slater and George Ginsberg.

George, Fannie, Annette, Jeff, Mitch, Jack, Bea and Diane

Joe, Gert, Jack, Mitch, Bea, Judd, Lolly, Annette, George, Fannie and Grandpa Sam

No Ordinary Joe

Joe Slater was a very successful businessman who was President of Triangle Industries. Although I don’t know much about his education, he always struck me as a very smart man who was a deeply compassionate soul. Family stories were always being told of Joe offering to help or Joe giving some money to support somebody in need. “You can always count on Joe”, I would often overhear at family gatherings. To me he was Poppa Joey, a loving family man who was also a successful businessman too. I remember how much my father Jack looked up to his dad with such love and reverence knowing that he had big shoes to fill.

The Left Brain

Joe Slater represented more of the left brain side of my heritage. Logical, serious and always rational, this was the side of the family that seemed steady and secure. Poppa Joey was an analytical man who had a sharp mind. However in my memory, Joey was physically weak and often ill. He always had a cane and there was a nervous anxiety that emanated from being near him. I didn’t really know many people with physical ailments and sickness so it made me a bit anxious when I was around him as a young boy. He was always frail in body but with a sharp mind and wit. Joe Slater passed away in 1969 at age 69. And as I have said about my own father, although Joe was diagnosed as having chronic heart failure, there was never anything really wrong with this man’s heart.

Gertie, Jeffrey and Joey

The Slaters lived in South Orange, New Jersey on Tillou Road for many years then around the corner at Wyoming Avenue. Their homes were large and expansive places that served as the hub of so many family events. My strongest memories are of 80 Wyoming particularly the basement where my cousins Michael, Mark and Janie would play with me and my sister Diane. My father much younger brother Robbie was also part of this basement brigade. Robbie was almost 17 years younger than my father and was almost the same age as my cousin- his nephew Michael. We spent many Friday and Saturday nights running around what seemed like an amusement park in this basement below.

In the basement of 80 Wyoming Avenue with my cousin Janie in 1961 when I was 7
Grandma Gertie (also known as Mama Gertie), Joey’s wife, would throw elaborate family dinner parties where platters of vegetables and multi-course meals would keep coming in from the kitchen. It seemed like an endless parade of riches that fed the family with sumptuous meals. I also remember many maids, cooks and helpers.  Today those scenes remind me of the fancy and elaborate dinner parties seen in old movies from the 30’s and 40’s. It was sheer abundance and as a young child I am certain I didn't appreciate all the hours of work that went into these feasts. I did, however, always feel the love from being together as a family.  

The Right Brain

Fannie, Jeffrey and George
The right side of my heritage was George Ginsberg. Poppa George, who I have written about before came to America as a ten year old orphan. He loved to say he didn’t have two nickels to rub together when he came to America and that is both a poetic statement and the truth. But George represented the other side of the brain. He was creative, intuitive and always took a carefree approach to matters. I rarely saw a serious or morose side to him as he was always looking at the positive side of life. Imagine what he witnessed in his almost 97 years on the planet and how he created so much out of nothing. George was always spry and the kind of person who would bounce into a room and bring his joy with him. He died in 1996 just shy of his 97th birthday.

Poppa George and Grandma Fannie lived at 186 Tuxedo Parkway in Newark. My Aunt Annette also lived with them) Their humble two bedroom apartment was tiny in comparison to the larger and elegant home of the Slaters. And although I was always aware of the obvious difference between these two worlds, neither felt foreign. I loved the cozy size of where The Ginsbergs lived and how close together we could all be as we spent hours watching The Mets lose another close baseball game. There was no basement at 186 Tuxedo Parkway unless you count the laundry room. And I don’t remember anyone serving dinner to us except Grandma Fannie and Aunt Annette. To this day I can still taste the sour cream coffee cake Grandma Fannie made in the 8X8 baking pan. 

It is important to note that the differences between my grandparents were never a source of friction or tension. Poppa Joey and Mama Gertie had a great fondness for the Ginsbergs and vice versa. They shared in the joy and love of the union of their children Jack and Bea. And although I observed the contrast between how they live, I don't believe it ever created any problem between the in-laws; or as they would be called in Yiddish machatunim

The Gift

I have always wondered about how the arrangement took place to purchase this Torah. Of course no one can really tell me what happened although my Mom may have some specific memories that she will share once she reads this post. I suspect that Joey insisted on paying for the entire Torah and telling George that it cost a fraction of the actual price. That way George could pay a token amount toward the price and feel like he shared equally in this gift. 

Maybe I am wrong and they split it equally although I don’t quite know where George would have had what must have been a fortune to pay for this extraordinary gift. I am certain that for George, being able to purchase a gift like this for our synagogue was a powerful moment in his life considering the road he had to travel to get to that day. Whatever the financial arrangement, this was a magnificent lesson in receiving a gift that was for a community and not for me. 

Looking up to Rabbi Dressner
I would be remiss in not also mentioning that the Rabbi seen in the photo with me is Rabbi Israel Dressner.  Rabbi Dressner was the first socially active Jew I had ever met who believed so strongly in human rights that he was on the front lines of the Freedom Riders in 1965 side by side with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery march. I remember countless sermons from Rabbi Dressner against the war in Vietnam. He spoke with such passion and moral outrage to this day that his cry for peace and freedom still echo in my heart. 

Rabbi Dressner Speaks about Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr. 

Rabbi Dressner, later dubbed the most arrested Rabbi in America, was a moral giant whose presence that day and throughout my early years, served as a great reminder of the true meaning of being a Jew. At Rabbi Dressner's request, Dr. King did come to speak at my synagogue but I don’t remember going to the event since I was probably 6 years old. But my parents did and I am certain they were the first to arrive and got a front row seat. 

Between the generations

I take great pleasure in telling people that I strive to be in the middle of this lineage. Joey and George, two special men who were my grandfathers, gave me many gifts including this Torah. I have tried to take something from each of them to help me achieve a certain balance in my own life. I try to straddle the line between the analytical and the creative; a balancing act between the left and right sides of the brain that keeps me in the middle between Joey and George. Someday I hope I get to pass along the gifts transmitted from these two grandfathers to a future grandchild. Looking at this photograph of myself with my grandfathers is a powerful reminder of what a blessing this moment was and will always be for me. 

A grandfather is a special gift; having two is a blessing. 

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