April 15, 2024
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Journeys to the Old Country

Carson McCullers once said, “We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”

On Nov. 6, 1994 I set off on a journey that remains etched in my memory nearly three decades later. More meaningful than a physical destination, my travels that sunny Sunday took me to the nostalgic annals of yesteryear. Thanks to the foresight of my parents, I sat down that day with my then 94-year-old Opa for an in-depth, on-camera 90-minute interview about his life story and the lessons he wished to leave for future generations.

Opa was a Holocaust survivor whose emunah was unbreakable in the face of unimaginable tragedy. That Sunday journey served as a golden bridge linking a rich glorious past to inspired generations of the future.

Nearly 30 years later, I am filled with smiles and warm memories upon re-watching my opening question during which Opa, a”h forcefully interrupted me in his heavily Eastern European accented English to implore me to speak “slowly.” This exchange symbolized the dichotomy of two divergent worlds bridged together that memorable day by my “old world” beloved Eastern European, Holocaust surviving Opa and his “new world” grandson.

Nearly 25 years after interviewing Opa, I boarded a flight to Budapest to join my rebbe, Rav Moshe Weinberger, my son and the Aish Kodesh “chevra” for a travel back in time where we learned, sang, visited kivrei tzadikim and returned to the remnants of a vanished world in the annals of our Jewish past. An immense talmid chacham and rebbe to thousands, Rav Weinberger himself is the child of Holocaust survivors and is uniquely qualified to lead such journeys.

On route to Budapest we were given our thick “kuntreses.” booklets packed with inspirational sources and materials which served as the foundation for our learning at various points throughout the trip. Included was an immensely impactful copy of a 2014 article in Mishpacha’s Family First Magazine written and titled “The Language of Love” by Yael Zoldan. In the beautifully written article the author begins with the words:

“When Fridays are short and there’s a chill in the air, and everywhere women are hurrying, cleaning, cooking, baking, I’m reminded of how much I miss the sound of Hungarian.”

After poetically describing her cherished memories of the Hungarian language, cooking and customs of her grandmothers’ generation, which was by then mostly gone, the article nostalgically concludes:

“I miss the old Hungarians who are almost all gone, their warmth and enthusiasm and rich tradition. And in this modern world where casual is key, and technology trumps tradition, and everyone says what they think regardless of who it hurts, and there is no graciousness or etiquette or civility, I miss the high musical sound of Hungarian even though I didn’t know what any of it meant, because from the few words I could pick out, I knew they were talking about me and that I was beloved and precious and cherished.

“So on short Fridays as Shabbos draws near, I feel the chill in the air and I miss the sound of Hungarian. Because I miss my grandmothers.”

The depiction of yearning for the memories and the world we once knew is something that I relate to.

Growing up, one of my cherished past times was leafing through Roman Vishniac’s iconic work “A Vanished World,” known as “one of the most detailed pictorial documentations of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe in the 1930s.” I would pause on each page to study the people, their wrinkled faces, their impoverished dwellings, the sights and imagined sounds of that long gone world of our parents, grandparents (in my case) and the generations that preceded them. I was mesmerized as I imagined what their lives were like and the Jewish journeys they once traveled. I was similarly pained by the assumption of the tragic fate most of them would eventually meet.

What is it about nostalgia, memories and connecting to generations past that so deeply impacts many of us? Rabbi Akiva Tatz points out that herein beneath the surface lies a fundamental and deep Torah principle.

In his remarkable book “Worldmask.” Rabbi Tatz writes “one who studies this world well is studying that which is a distant representation of a source which cannot be seen from here. But one day in the future, on that inevitable day when the transition must be made from this world to another, the one who has studied well will recognize every detail of reality. Then it will become apparent that this world, for all its beauty and sense of reality, is in depth a mashal for the Divine source of that reality.”

Rabbi Tatz clarified his teaching with an example. “Why do we long for home? It is a universal human experience that when one is away from one’s home, and particularly from the home of one’s youth, one longs to be back there. What does this mean? The answer is that the neshama is derived from a higher world; it’s true place, it’s true home, in that world where it enjoyed indescribable closeness with its Creator. It is sent into this world, immeasurably distant from that place of origin, to reside in the body of a mortal being. But it never forgets its home; it forever longs with a most powerful longing to return.

“And when we are home we long to travel! For all the neshama’s love of its origin, it nevertheless longs to move through this world, distant from its home, to enjoy the beauty of this world and to acquire its wealth — the true wealth of mitzvah and perfection of character.”

Through this uniquely fundamental teaching Rabbi Tatz brings us to the depth of our core need to connect to people and times gone by. Yearning for “home” and for times gone by simultaneously mirrors the soul’s need to connect to its higher source.

Returning to my own roots on that sunny November Sunday in 1994, I thanked Opa and asked for his final message to future generations. “The only way you can thank me is to learn Torah. Torah is the only way.”

Through the Torah he taught us and the remarkable life he lived, we are forever indebted to Opa for gifting us a glorious link to our past while paving the path for generations to follow.


Daniel Gibber is a longtime resident of Teaneck and is a VP of Sales at Deb El Food Products. In addition to learning as much Torah as he can, he is also privileged to speak periodically on the topic of emunah and be involved in Jewish outreach through Olami Manhattan. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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