Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My first real experience with the challenge that suffering throws at a person, occurred when I was ten.
“I was at work – at the blacksmith’s, when I heard.  The Cossacks were coming.  I ran home to tell my father and my sister.  “Come on Pa, we’re going to the neighbor’s to hide.”  But he refused.  ‘I’m not coming.  I’ve lived as a Jew, and if G-d wills it, I’ll continue to do so.  If not, then I’ll die as a Jew.  But I’m not running to hide.’  When it was all over, I went home.  I found him lying on the floor with his head cut off.”  My grandfather paused.  “He was a very religious man: the town melamed.  I said, ‘If this is G-d’s will, if this is what happens to such a good person, then I don’t believe in G-d.’”  My grandfather had no one to help him make his way through this violent physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma – his mother had already died when he was eight, his older siblings had all married or left home.  “The truth is, I did believe.  But I was mad.”  Although he eventually reconciled, this event began my grandfather’s six decades of “silent treatment” toward G-d. 

But in spite of his fervent refusal to speak to G-d, Zaide was a kind, gentle man with a generous spirit and good-natured optimism.  He was not bitter, angry, or cold toward human beings.
My other grandfather endured similar trauma.  His earliest childhood memory was of hiding under a bed during a pogrom.  With his father toiling in the United States to save enough money to bring over his wife and children, one brother drafted into the Tsar’s Army and another into the Red Army, his family was without a father figure.  Growing up as Tsarist Russia was engulfed in the turmoil that birthed the Soviet Union, Zaide’s formative years occurred in the hotly contested ground of Ukraine, where Bolsheviks battled Imperialists; Germany and Poland tried a land grab; and Hetman Semyon Petliura unleashed a year of pogroms that killed 50,000 Jews.   And while I never heard this Zaide say a word about G-d, he radiated intensity.  Whether this stemmed from his childhood, his ten years of childless marriage, or other challenges, I don’t know, but it was clear to me, even as a child, that he was a man in deep pain.
I can never stand in either Zaide’s place to say how I would have responded, what I would have done, thought, or felt.  But we know that in life, whatever we see holds many lessons for us; here are some I extracted.

Caught in the powerful breakers of a major life storm, it can feel nearly impossible to ride those waves.  Giving in to the downward spiral can be a tempting relief. 

But the long-term consequences of despair, bitterness, and suppressed rage, send their ripples far beyond us into the future, leaving a devastating wake. 
How can we marshal the energy it takes to paddle up for air and life?  Faith can help.  Family and friends.  Humor.  Trying to enjoy small daily pleasures.  That love for another person can suspend pain – for a minute, a day, or even for years. That music and song alleviate heartache – dancing, too. 
Where have you found life-lines to safety?

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