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Remembering relatives in the sukkah

ENCINO, Calif., Sept. 29 (JTA) — “Why is Grandpa Bill’s photo in the sukkah?” my son Danny, 12, asks. “He’s an ushpiz,” I answer. “Huh?” “A guest. In Aramaic.” Jewish mystical tradition tells us to invite seven illustrious ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David — into our sukkah. The Zohar, the basic text of the Kabbalah, says, “A man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests.” Two of the ushpizin, Moses and Aaron, lived in flimsy huts for 40 years as they led the Israelites through the wilderness. Sukkot reminds us of that journey. The other five also spent time in makeshift quarters after they were forced to flee from their homes. Abraham, for example, was commanded by God, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And David escaped from the wrath of Saul into the desert of Judea (I Samuel: 19:12). But these magnificent seven aren’t our only important peripatetic predecessors. That’s why the photo of William Snyder, my maternal grandfather, born Velvel Schneider on July 10, 1890, in Bar, Ukraine, hangs in our sukkah in a place of honor, draped by colored paper chains my sons have strung together. Grandpa Bill was uprooted from his native Ukraine in 1912, not by God but by Mary Borko, my grandmother, who, enamored of neither the revolutionaries nor the czarists, consented to marry him only in America or Palestine. But first, in a compromise move, believing the impending revolution would be beneficial to the Jews, my grandfather answered his induction call to the Russian army, eager to prove that Jews could advance in the military. However, he found himself permanently assigned to cleaning latrines and, after a year, went AWOL. He met up with representatives of the Galveston Immigration Plan, which, from 1907 to1914 brought 10,000 Russian Jews through Texas, rather than Ellis Island, and settled them in smaller Jewish communities throughout the United States. My grandfather was sent to Memphis, Tenn., where he briefly worked in a foundry before traveling up the Mississippi River to Rock Island, Ill. He boarded with another family and worked at the Moline Plow Company, earning a dollar a day. A year later, he sent for my grandmother. Yes, Abraham and the other ushpizin may have founded Judaism, but Grandpa Bill and our more recent ancestors have made continuity possible. Forsaking beloved parents and siblings, they undertook arduous trans-oceanic voyages, battled language and cultural barriers and lived in impoverished conditions so they and their descendants could live freely as Jews. “Danny, if it weren’t for Grandpa Bill and your other great-grandparents, you wouldn’t be here decorating the sukkah,” I say. “Yes, I would,” he answers. “I just wouldn’t be me.” But thankfully we are us. And while I can intellectually trace my Jewish identity to the ushpizin and other historic figures, I viscerally trace it to Grandpa Bill and Grandma Mary. Beyond the Passover seders and Chanukah celebrations, beyond the borscht and the blintzes, beyond their Zionist activities, beyond my grandfather’s love of reading Sholem Aleichem stories and my grandmother’s talents as a Hebrew teacher, they transmitted to me a profound and solid love of being Jewish. So how do we thank these grandparents and great-grandparents? Granted we light candles for them on yahrzeits, the anniversary of their deaths, and name our children after them. And we enter their statistical data in our computer genealogy programs. Sukkot provides another opportunity. And so, coincidentally, does my son Jeremy’s ninth-grade Jewish and world history class at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, where he was assigned to research his great-grandparents’ journeys and present the stories to his classmates. “The first unit of study is identity,” explains Fran Lapides, chair of the social sciences department. “The students trace their own family’s journey to Los Angeles, establishing and understanding who they are. Then, as they study history, they better understand our collective journey.” I tried to do this research firsthand. “Tell me about Russia,” I often asked my grandfather. “Feh,” he’d answer. He spit the word just like he always spit the word “Russia.” “He left Russia and never looked back,” my mother explains. His parents died soon after his departure, his mother in 1912, his father in 1920. His younger brother, Moshe Leib, was killed during his first week in combat in World War I. His sister Pearl, her husband and four of their six children were murdered by the Nazis. His brother Pinya and his family survived, many of them moving to Brooklyn in the 1990s. But with determination, humor and, yes, some stubbornness, he built a new life in the United States, running a grocery store, Snyder’s Market, along with my grandmother, for almost 30 years. But family was his focus. And when he died in 1986, at almost 96 years old, he was the devoted father of two, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of 11. My grandfather lived in Los Angeles the last eight years of his life. I used to take my oldest son, Zack, to visit him at the Shalom Retirement Hotel. Zack, as a toddler, would run down the hallway and rap loudly on the door. My grandfather would open it, see Zack and exclaim, “Now this is a visitor.” This year, with Grandpa Bill as an honored ushpiz in our sukkah, I can return the compliment. “See this photo of Grandpa Bill?” I tell my sons. “Now this is a visitor.”Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.

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