Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the passing of my grandfather, Ezekiel Panitz. In place of a standard weekly column, I will share with you my reminiscences about him.
Ezekiel, son of Avram Yaakov and Rivkah Panitz, was born in the little village of Kolne, near the city of Lomze, Poland, in 1891. I don’t know his birth date, because the family never celebrated it. This is standard for Eastern European Jews of that era. My maternal grandparents, likewise immigrants from Eastern Europe, selected birthdates of convenience upon their registration in Ellis Island.
The name “Panitz” means “son of a nobleman”. Some of my Israeli cousins have Hebraized the name to “Bar-Adon”. There is no pretension of aristocracy here. I surmise that the local “Pan”, meaning the Polish magnate who owned the villages in the region, employed Jews as his tax farmers. That way, the peasants would hate the nobleman only in the abstract, but would focus their hatred upon the Jew, who was close at hand. This was part of the sad reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, a life that our ancestors escaped when they could, emigrating to Central and Western Europe, especially the British isles, to North and South America, and to South Africa—and a very few, to the Land of Israel. Those who could not escape were murdered by the Nazis and their willing Polish collaborators—although it is a crime in Poland, today, to utter that historical truth.
Since “Panitz” is therefore an occupational name (like Baker, Metzger, Schneider, Smith, Tailor, etc.) there is no strong presumption that people bearing that name are all family. In the memorial book of Lomze, a “Policeman Panitz” is mentioned. He died attempting a deed of rescue at the beginning of the Nazi takeover in 1939. There were Panitzes in Baltimore, where my grandfather settled, who were not related. My grandfather enjoyed patronizing the clothing store of a Harry Panitz, not a relative, but perhaps a landsman.
My grandfather completed the traditional Jewish school and also mastered the higher levels of Talmudic education in the Lomze yeshivah—a famous institution of rabbinic learning, now transplanted to Israel. When I entered Rabbinical School, I inherited a 1938 edition of the Talmud, published in Vilna, that my father had bought for him. I could see, from the stock prospectus pages that he used as bookmarks, that he often studied the super-commentaries printed in the back of the standard edition of the Talmud. Those writings are notoriously difficult. I myself struggle to understand them. If he was turning to them voluntarily, it can only mean that he had achieved a level of Talmudic erudition that I can only envy.
Part of the great wave of millions of Eastern European Jews, Ezekiel and his family emigrated to the United States in 1910, settling first in New York, and then in Baltimore. In 1912, he worked at the local level on behalf of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” campaign. I saw a campaign button in his memento box, and I imagine—and hope-- that a brother or cousin posses it now. American Jews of Eastern European descent were very grateful to TR for having stood up for Jews in the face of the anti-semitic police establishment of New York City, when he was police commissioner in the 1890’s. TR convinced his (Jewish) sparring partner to take the Lieutenant’s exam; that was the first Jewish officer on the Irish-dominated force. Later, as president, Roosevelt helped Russia and Japan negotiate a treaty concluding their 1905 war, a disastrous time for Russian Jewry, filled with pogroms.
Ezekiel met his wife, Nettie Yaniger, at a Zionist gathering in Baltimore. She was an immigrant from Kipel, a village in the Ukraine. They married in 1915 and had five children, the first of whom, Rebecca, died in infancy. My father, born in 1918, was the next; then Bernard, Seymour and finally Judith. Ezekiel and Nettie very much wanted to settle in Eretz Yisrael. During the First World War, Ezekiel obtained a contract to sell brown sugar to the U.S. army, and with the savings they put away, they made aliyah in 1921. But economic conditions were poor there, and they could not make a go of it. Reluctantly, they returned to Baltimore, although they did own an orange grove somewhere in the Land of Israel, and the rental income from there, little as it was, helped them survive the Depression—just barely.
The Panitzes operated a corner grocery store, an institution once ubiquitous and now nearly extinct. They were wiped out during the Depression. Pride prevented Ezekiel from seeking relief in bankruptcy, and he ultimately paid back every dollar owed. But at one point their poverty was so severe that they could not feed their four children, so they sent David (the oldest surviving child) to live with a distant relative elsewhere in Baltimore—a Gentile neighborhood, he told me, to underscore that only desperation would have induced his parents to that step.
What helped them survive the economic crisis was learning a new and marketable skill. My grandfather learned kosher poultry slaughtering. He became the purveyor of kosher poultry to the Lord Baltimore hotel. Even when times were hard, there was a simchah celebrated there every weekend. My father recollected that his Thursday nights were spent, sleepless, “flicking chickens” that his father had slaughtered. Perhaps that is when my father developed the habit of staying up as late as needed to finish his work, an ability that puzzled and impressed me during my childhood.
At one point, in the 1950’s, the Panitzes attempted to relocate to the South, where they heard that there were business opportunities. They settled in Roanoke, operating a corner store there. Our congregants, Maurice and Honey Spivak, were among their customers! I treasure the knowledge that there is at least one couple in this congregation who knew my grandparents personally.
Roanoke was ultimately not an improvement over Baltimore, and they moved back to the city that had become their lifelong home. As times got better, they moved to a comfortable house on Garrison Blvd. in Baltimore, and then later, to a two family home on West Rogers Ave., near the Pimlico race track. Nettie’s sister Adele lived upstairs. Relations between Ezekiel and Adele were cordial at best. But Nettie, seemingly the shrinking violet, apparently had the ability to pick her battles.
My grandfather was a rather stern and formal man. I did not warm to him when I was a little child. My cousins, all younger than me, corroborate this. But he opened up to me when I was a teenager, and I found much to admire about his intelligence and his strength of character. I came to appreciate that he was, in fact, quite the individualist, a man who was content to be between two camps, but at home with his conscience. He said of himself, “The frum (i.e. the pious) consider me too frei (i.e. a free-thinker) and the frei consider me too frum.” He was probably the only Jew ever to paste a portrait of Maimonides inside the front cover of his personal prayer book, and a portrait of Spinoza inside the back cover! Although an Orthodox Jew throughout his life, he counseled his son David to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary, rather than Yeshiva University. He had accompanied David to New York for interviews at both schools, and after meeting the leading Talmudists at the two seminaries, he said to his son, words to this effect: “You can receive a proper education at either school. But only at the “Schechter Seminary” (as the Conservative seminary was called) can you live your life freely.”
I still recall the moment when I came to see him in a warmer light. I was a teenager. We were sitting in the living room of my parents’ house in Paterson, NJ… it was probably the Shavuot, perhaps 1971. “Father” (as we all called him) told me that once, when he was in cheder (Jewish primary school) in Poland, the teacher was going on and on about what a great miracle it was, that God took the children of Israel out of Egypt at night! My grandfather broke in with a sassy reply: “Why was that such a big miracle? There was a full moon!” The teacher responded by slapping him in the face.
Hearing the story, I realized that behind the formal and self-controlled man was a questing spirit, a person who looked at the world with a critical eye. That synthesis of freedom and self-control is what I have aspired to, throughout my own life.
Rabbi Michael Panitz
24 Sivan, 5779/ June 27, 2019
What survives of man’s striving and acquired station in this mortality?—seeing that he must inevitably don the garments of eternal sleep, from which there is no awakening! Naught persists except a good name, the residue of the righteous odyssey. This is as certain as life and death.
My precious, beloved and loving children and family:
The time is drawing near for me to be united with our forebears and to take leave of you. Hearken, then, to the distillation of the lessons I have learned and the teaching I have always sought to impart to you by example.
With passion and strength, and with integrity and consistency, hew closely to that course of action which is good and honorable in the sight of God and of man. Let your hearts and minds ever be sensitive to the guidance of your Father and to the instruction of your Mother.
You can best honor my memory and bring blessing into your lives and the lives of your children, by a boundless love for your Mother. She is worthy of all the honor that you can bestow upon her. Care for her, protect her, place her upon a pedestal, for she is one of God’s very special people and has been the crown of my life.
You will grant perpetuity to my life, and cause me to live amongst your children and children’s children, by continuing to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, by maintaining the festivals and the appointed seasons of our life-giving Jewish tradition, by permitting no day to pass without the study of Torah, and by the ceaseless search for the message of the Torah for today and tomorrow. This is how a Jew dedicates his heart to the love of God…
The love of God requires of us unstintingly to guard the welfare of the Jewish people everywhere, to love every fellow Jew without reservation, and to give ourselves totally on behalf of Eretz Yisrael. No Jew has achieved self-dignity until he fully serves God, the Jewish people and the land of Israel, for the love of God and of Israel is one and indivisible. My soul will only know true peace when some of my descendents freely choose to dwell in Medinat Yisrael…
[Here follows an embellished mosaic of texts and proof-texts, drawn from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, later ethical literature, and the poet Bialik on the themes of God, Torah and Israel, on man’s potentialities as God’s partner, on reward and punishment, and on the duty to fashion a better, or messianic, society.]
Mold your path in this life with the knowledge that the love of God is little fulfilled through words alone, even words of prayer, but is rather dependent on deeds. Let your acts testify to your acceptance of God’s reality and His will; your deeds exclusively will lead others to perceive that God is the Rock of Israel.
Never forget that all of the laws, statutes and ceremonials of Judaism are but symbolic reminders that we must love all of God’s children. Some on this earth serve God in ways that differ from our Torah, and some serve Him and His creatures although they refrain from using His. Name, yet all are God’s emissaries and all are our brothers. And be aware that your love of Jews and your love of others in the four corners of this glove must not derive from the expectation of personal gain or reward. In this way, you will demonstrate that the Lord is God.
Above all, my children and your families, love each other, serve each other, see each other, hold tight to one another. Thus, shall I be sent with a whole spirit to our God on high.
Translated from the Hebrew
By his son David Hirsh Panitz