Receiving Torah from my grandfather Eppie, of blessed memory. ,
I never knew my father's parents. My siblings did, but I didn't. Nana and Papa died before I was born. I inherited my name from my Nana whom I never knew. But I knew my mother's parents well. They were a major part of my childhood.
Almost everyone called them "Lali" and "Eppie." Lali, the name we used for my grandmother, was a Czech term of endearment. Eppie, on the other hand, was an abbreviation of his surname (Epstein). It had become his nickname in medical school, and it stuck.
Eppie was brilliant. I mean that both in terms of his intellect (he spoke seven languages) and in terms of his light. When he was enthusiastic about something, he shone.
He was born in 1908 in New York to Russian parents who decided that they didn't particularly like the goldene medina, so they went back home. He grew up in Stolpce, a town in Belarus near Minsk. He used to tell me that he had such a gift for Hebrew and Judaics that the teachers at his cheder wanted him to become a rabbi, but he wanted to be a doctor. So they sent him to gymnasium, and then he went on to medical school in Prague. The accident of his American birth proved miraculous: it was what enabled him and his Czech wife and their three-year-old daughter, my mother, to flee Prague in 1939.
Once he came to this country he mastered English, became licensed to practice medicine here, and went to work for the VA. My mom and her siblings grew up in a variety of towns across the American south -- places like McKinney and Temple, Texas -- where Eppie was posted at the local VA hospital. I've often wondered what it was like for my refined and cosmopolitan Czech grandmother to rear children in places that must have seemed so strange.
He was a thoracic surgeon, though by the time I remember him clearly he was already on his way to retirement. I remember him as a builder and maker and tinkerer. He made hand-stitched leather albums to hold his stamp collections. He typed letters and postcards to send to me at summer camp. He cooked breakfast when I stayed overnight at their house -- scrambled eggs and kosher salami. He was an engaged grandparent who came to all of my piano recitals and school plays and applauded everything I did.
What aptitude I have for languages I think I inherited from him. (Though I doubt I will master seven over the course of my lifetime.) When I was a kid I used to say I wanted to be a doctor, because I wanted to be just like him. Instead, I wound up taking the career path he didn't take.
He left this life on the second night of Chanukah, twenty years ago. Sometimes I marvel at how much has unfolded in my life since he died. He didn't live to see me married, nor of course to see me divorced. He didn't live to see me go to graduate school for my MFA, or to see me pursue the rabbinate. He didn't live to see me become a mother. (My son's Hebrew name, Yitzchak, is in his memory.) Sometimes it's almost unimaginable that someone who was so formative for me hasn't known me in these last two decades of my adult life.
Sometimes I wonder what he would think if he could see me now. I think he would really like my son -- I think my son inherited some of his intelligence, musicality, and determination. I think he would be proud to see me serving as a rabbi.
The picture at the top of this post makes me wince a little bit, because wow, frizzy hair and braces are not a look I would choose to reprise! But aside from my chagrin at the fact of my own adolescence, the photo is precious to me. That's a staged photo, taken a few days before my celebration of bat mitzvah -- which fell on Shabbat Chanukah, so it's another thing I always remember at this time of year. Today is my grandfather's 20th yahrzeit, and I am remembering him with love.