Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message: January 25, 2023.

Strong Roots

Illustration: Robert and Gittel Allentuck, Esther Panitz, Jonathan, Raphael and Michael Panitz, outside the Panitz home in Washington DC, 1956
                Today is the 31st yahrzeit of my maternal grandfather, Robert Allentuck. Reuven Isser ben Yaakov Halevi v’Henya Rachel. When I arrived at Temple Israel and took up my service to our congregation, I was in the midst of saying kaddish in his memory.
                He was a grandfather, not a father.  Why did I say kaddish for him for the full eleven months, rather than the 30 days as mandated in our Jewish law?
                Two reasons: first, he asked me to. And second, even if he had not, I just knew that it was what I needed to do.
                He asked me to “be his kaddish” at some point, when he was about 75, nearly two decades before he died.  I well remember the occasion, a long walk with him on a section of Route 6, heading east towards Putnam County, that had just been built but not yet opened to vehicular traffic.  Naturally, it was a part of “our territory” just begging for us to explore it on foot while that could still be done.
               Some context:  long walks in the countryside were an important part of the rural half of our relationship. We had a rural regimen together, and also an urban one. They were each cherished, but quite different from each other.
               The rural part of our time together was in the hamlet of Shrub Oak, an hour north of New York City, where my grandparents built a tiny bungalow, the last house, halfway up the mountainside of “Piano Mountain.” They went there every summer and enjoyed a season of simple, rustic living. I spent summers there until I was old enough to go to sleepaway camp (Camp Ramah in upstate New York).

               When I was old enough for camp, I still spent the shoulders of the summer at Shrub Oak.  I continued going there when courting Sheila and as a young married. My grandmother would be slightly scandalized if ever I proposed to take Sheila out for pizza or for coffee….. after all, wasn’t I there for a rest, and wasn’t my grandmother in charge of all of our meals and our comfort?

Illustration: Sunset over the mountains

               Life was elemental there.  Whatever we were doing, we consecrated the half hour of sunset and twilight to setting up lawn chairs and watching the sun go down over the hills bracketing the Hudson valley.  When my father would spend shabbat there, he would recite his morning prayers wrapped in his tallit, sitting in a lawn chair among the oaks. Thoreau had his Walden, where he wrote that the sound of his neighbor’s cowbell was more spiritual than all the church bells of Boston.  Yes, Thoreau had his Walden….. and we had our Shrub Oak.

Illustration: Post Card of Shrub Oak, NY in 1936, as it appeared when my grandparents bought ¼ acre there and built a bungalow.

               In that setting, Papa Robert and I walked everywhere. A day was not complete without one of our walks. We walked around the lake. We walked down to the other end of the hamlet to see the pasture where the horses of the local magnate lived. We walked for pleasure, my grandfather telling me the names of the different trees in Russian. (I still remember, “biroza” is birch.) On Sunday mornings, we walked into “town” to buy a newspaper (if Shrub Oak, with its one street, general store, post office, and library could be dignified by being called “town”). We frequently walked up the steep path leading to the top of the local mountain…. Ours was the last house where the road gave way to the mountain trail.  He would carry his easel, and I would carry his paintbox. He would set up on the boulders at the summit and paint his vistas of the mountains in the mid-Hudson region. In season, I would collect blueberries in glass jars for my grandmother to use in her baking—muffins and cakes—and her cooking. At other times I would try to identify the rocks, trees, ferns, flowers, and even the lichen, using the nature guide books my grandfather would buy me during our frequent visits to the Museum of Natural History.
               And so, on one of our walks, Papa said to me that he had a daughter and a son, but he felt that his son’s life would not permit the daily recitation of kaddish after Papa’s demise. He said that his daughter would say kaddish, and that he appreciated that. He supported her professional advancement and was happy to see women achieve a higher status in the synagogue….. but he felt that having a male descendant recite kaddish would be a boon to his spirit.  I myself was a staunch egalitarian in those years, in matters of gender equality in Jewish ritual settings, but I chose not to challenge Papa’s request.  It was his extinction he was reckoning with, and I was not going to intrude into that sanctuary with my own ideological agenda.
               Part of the reason for my wish to do whatever I could to give ease to my grandfather’s spirit was the connection cultivated throughout the year-- the urban connection, lasting from Autumn through Spring. My mother’s parents were a steady presence in my life as I was growing up. My older brother Raphael and I spent every other weekend with our grandparents in their brownstone apartment in the Bronx—Jonathan, the oldest brother, had the alternate weekends there by himself.


Illustration: Brownstone apartments, Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY

               Their home, from 1939-1969, was in a building long since lost to fire: 1254 Grant Avenue. It was just off the Grand Concourse, in its day an elegant Bronx boulevard. That apartment building was in a typical middle-class Jewish neighborhood from the generation of our immigrant ancestors—gracious in some details, such as a nicely appointed foyer for the apartment building, but certainly not lavish. Life there was not like what I knew from where my parents lived. Taking me to the kosher butcher, the bakery, all the stops on our errands for my grandmother, my grandfather showed me off to every lilting Yiddish-accented English speaker in his circle. This was his village, right in the middle of a metropolis.
               Venturing further afield, we would take the subway into Manhattan or Coney Island. He would have me go under the turnstile to save the dime on the subway token.  At one point I felt that I was too old for that, but I respected that he was a working man, without extra dimes to throw around. After decades of scrambling to support himself as a recent immigrant, my grandfather achieved a modicum of comfort as a dental technician. He worked with a circle of Jewish dentists in the Bronx, fabricating dentures and plates for their patients.
               Working as a dental technician allowed him to channel artistic energies that had always animated him. Finally, he had the freedom to pursue his lifelong dream and study sculpture and painting. He studied art at the New School in New York and devoted himself full-time to his art in his retirement.


Illustration: Robert Allentuck, Stormy Sea, Small Boat

               But even when times were tight, there was always money for Hebrew and Jewish Studies lessons for their children. Their daughter Esther—my mother— had a weekly lesson with her tutor, Mar Perach, from grade school all the way through high school--- those lessons were substantive and deep, preparing her for admission, at age 16, to the Teachers’ Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary (where she was to meet my father).  There was always money for culture. When they had weathered the worst of the Great Depression, my grandparents bought an upright piano, so that Esther could have lessons. That piano was ultimately the first one I played. In my generation, Papa took me to the New York Philharmonic for my first concert--- I still remember, we heard Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, for me, a first time ever hearing that wonderful piece.  He took me to the Museum of Modern Art, showing me what was distinctive about the brushstrokes and physicality of Cezanne’s paintings—I could tell it was a favorite of his, because it influenced his own painting style.

Robert Allentuck, Sculpture, Head of a Young Boy

               And there was always money for charity. My visits spanned Shabbat, and my memory of shabbat at my grandparents will accompany me as long as I have memory.  My grandmother created these delicious repasts out of a tiny kitchen. We ate in the breakfast nook.  There was a hook on the wall near the table, and a blue and white JNF charity can hanging from the hook.  Just before sundown, my grandmother would recite the blessing over the shabbat candles, and my grandfather would empty the change in his pockets into the JNF tzedakah can.

Robert Allentuck, Sculpture, Head of a Scholar

                Shabbat was a time when Jewish culture and world culture merged effortlessly at my grandparents’ home. Kiddush, motzi, and meal…. And after the meal I would browse their bookshelves to find reading for the evening, perhaps a short story by O’Henry or De Maupassant, or one of their beloved Russian masters. They fled persecution and the army of the Tsar, but never gave up their love of Russian culture. They themselves read their Russian literature in the original, and sometimes in Hebrew or Yiddish translations--- but there were English translations too in the shelves, and I enjoyed reading that literature in their home.
               A final reminiscence for now….. maybe next year, next yahrzeit, I will be eager to share more:
              When my grandfather lay dying, in the Jewish nursing home in New Rochelle, NY, he asked me to do one more thing for him. He took my hand and said: Michael, I am dying. Make sure they let me go in peace. I squeezed his hand and promised to see that his wishes would be respected. I went to the nurses’ station, confirmed the DNR that they had on file, and came back to kiss my grandfather. He did indeed go in peace, after having lived a full and meaningful life of 94 years. His memory certainly endures in my life as a blessing.