New Year’s Day customs only part of story

Other than that midnight toast, I think most people welcome the New Year with a spoonful of black-eyed peas. But this year, I received the tale of a totally different tradition from a very distant cousin.
“In our family,” Cousin Michael said, “we eat smoked fish on Dec. 31. It’s been our custom for 50 years or more. But — why?”
For some reason, he confesses, he’s never asked. It’s just something to be done, an essential part of the New Year’s Eve routine.
Michael’s beloved zaide, long of blessed memory, was a respected jeweler and — even more important — a tzaddik in our mutual hometown. As the story goes, Zaide Abraham was in his shop one evening right before the New Year when a Gypsy woman came in with a gold ring that she offered for pawn. She was asking for only a few dollars.
“My Zaide knew right away that the ring was worth substantially more than what the woman said she wanted,” according to Michael. When Abraham found out that she needed the money to buy medicine for a sick child, he told her to keep the ring; he just gave her the money and sent her on her way. Along with her thanks, the woman advised him to eat smoked fish on New Year’s Eve: “It’s a Gypsy custom,” she said. “It will be an omen for a good year.”
Michael said he never thought too deeply about his family’s unusual smoked fish minhag before this year, but then he had a much-belated flash of insight: “Suddenly, I saw the light! By taking on this Gypsy custom, we have the opportunity every year to tell the story of how honest a businessman my Zaide was! The real family custom is to tell the story over and over every year! The smoked fish is just a part of the story!  I should have figured that out a long time ago!”
Cousin Michael is now older than his revered zaide was when he had that encounter with a Gypsy woman who may or may not have known how wise she was …
So this year, on New Year’s Eve, Michael — who is historian for his immediate family and keeper of the tree for all its many branches — emailed the story, and his sudden revelation about it, to everyone on his extensive list. One of the responses he received, from a cousin even more distant than I am, goes like this:
“Michael, I think there may be even more to the story than shedding light on the outstanding virtues of your grandfather. Perhaps it’s the kindness he extended that has brought such good fortune to so many of his children and grandchildren, in their professions, and in life itself.”
And Cousin Renee went on with this further explanation: “I also know that your Zaide Abraham was religious, and Judaism has many stories of how belief and its overflow are related to life — that the goodness that follows may continue on for at least a few generations of descendants…”
That little shop has passed away, along with Michael’s beloved zaide. But the family surname (although it‘s not Michael’s, since he’s the son of one of his grandfather’s daughters with a married name of her own) is still remembered with reverence in both the Jewish and business communities of our mutual hometown. Like the jewelry from which Zaide made his worldly living, his reputation endures. It is sterling. It is as golden as a Gypsy’s ring.
I’ve taken some liberties with Michael’s story, editing it a bit, changing a few words in his quotes and Cousin Renee’s to assure clarity. I hope no one minds, for I think the lesson is a good one, no matter how it’s told, about why a Jewish family adopted a Gypsy minhag for its own. Michael ends with: “Enjoy your smoked fish!”  Next New Year’s Eve, I will!

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