By Harriet P. Gross
Family and friends. Our holidays are built on both.
I was blessed this year to make two out-of-town trips, one right before Rosh Hashanah, the other sandwiched in between the major holy days that brought me home the day before Kol Nidre. The first was all family. The second was all friends.
In early September, my last living uncle turned 90, and his continuing good health in both body and mind made this the ideal time for a massive reunion. We gathered for a buffet luncheon party in Pittsburgh, the birthplace of Uncle Srol (a childhood corruption of his Hebrew name, Yisroel) … of all his 11 brothers and sisters … indeed of the family itself.
For this is where his father — my Zeyde — landed in the late 1800s, one of so many young Jews fleeing the harshness of Eastern Europe for the promise of a better life in America. And it was here that he met and married my Boubby the Philosopher.
My mother was at the top of that long sibling list, with Uncle Srol at the bottom. A century or more ago, there were lots of families like that. Because of the accompanying age spread, lots of people like me have first cousins who are younger occupies a comparable branch to mine on our family tree but is indeed of the next generation, worked with me to organize this event. Neither of us can remember whose idea it was in the first place …
We held it in the massive party room of Pittsburgh’s Home for Jewish Aged, where Dave’s mother — the only other of the dozen still alive — has lived for years with ever-deepening dementia. Dave is a good son, and she will actually say so from time to time. But at other times, she may tell him that he’s the best brother she ever had. Dave says he’s just grateful she still recognizes him as a member of her family.
We picked this venue so that Esther could be with us, sitting happily in a quiet spot where everyone came up to her, one at a time in the course of the long afternoon, to say hello, hold her hand, kiss her cheek. She recognized no one, but that didn’t matter. She was there because she’s as much a part of our clan as any of us.
There were 50 or so of us present, coming from six states as well as Pennsylvania. Lesley, one of my first cousins once removed, prepared a massive genealogy of our family of origin, gathering immigration records, birth and death dates, charts and maps into a huge binder that she titled “Roots and Branches.” This was her gift, made even more remarkable and precious because multiple sclerosis has robbed her of the use of her body’s right side. Truly a labor of love … And it was Lesley’s daughter-in-law Suzi, a graphic designer, who compiled the photos, recollections and stories provided by so many of us into a beautiful memory book.
Srol received some other significant gifts, among them a brick inscribed in honor of his Army Air Force service on the walkway of the World War II Museum in New Orleans, and a letter inscribed to honor his birthday in a Torah just being written. His huge cake bore a special, heartfelt sentiment in addition to the usual Happy Birthday: “A True Mensch.”
But his best gift of all, he said, was the presence of the newest generation of our family, including a great-great grandbaby not even a month old. (My gift: a photo of Uncle Srol with me, his niece; my son, his great-nephew; my son’s daughter, his great-great niece; and her year-old son, his great-great-great nephew. Not too many families are lucky enough to boast of five living generations!)
My other trip was to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the annual conference of the National Federation of Press Women, my favorite organization, where I celebrated 45 years of continuous membership. The genius of this smallish group is that it crosses all religious, racial, age, ethnic and geographic lines to promote friendships while enhancing professional communication skills (and, yes: a few men have taken the plunge and become members, too).
So there it was, and is: family and friends. Burnishing old memories while creating new ones. Some call friends and family important parts of life, but I say they are life itself. May we enjoy many of both in 5773.