A Voice From The Past


I am the eldest of four siblings. I was 10 when my Grampa died. Larry was 8; Eddie was 4 and Ronnie was not yet born. So I am the one who carries the memories, of which I have only two, and those are more impressionistic than they are specific.

One is the memory of sitting on Grampa’s lap on hot summer evenings in a rocking chair on the front porch of his multi-family house in Bensonhurst (all the families living there were our relatives), as he told me stories of the Baal Shem Tov. I loved those stories. I loved his calm, patient renditions, and how perfectly safe I felt, snuggled in his protective arms as I listened. He must have had an Eastern European accent, but I didn’t hear it or realize it. Most of all, I loved how he loved me. I was the center of the universe in the way only first grandchildren are for their grandparents.

The other memory I have is how he used to sneak me sugar cubes when my mother wasn’t looking. He knew I relished the little white cubes he would hold between his teeth when he drank tea. And he knew I was developing cavities in my teeth, but he also saw my face light up when he would open his fist and disclose the little white treasure. So he risked my mother’s wrath in favor of reaping my eternal affection, not unlike the way I smuggle marshmallows to the grandkids when my daughter is distracted.

There are other memories but those are hazy scenes of the entire, extended family gathered around the seder table with my grandfather leading the proceedings in his white kittel. Or Shabbes dinner with me eschewing everything but the soup, and everyone assuring me that the boiled chicken was a taste of The World to Come, and wouldn’t I please just try a bite.

So I have a general, fuzzy, warm feeling about my first 10 years in the bosom of a loving Brooklyn family, but 1960, the year he died, was the last time I heard Grampa’s voice.

Six years ago his niece, Pauline, died at age 99. I was executor of Cousin Pauline’s estate. Apart from disposing of old furniture, documents, tchockes, I was also left with a suitcase full of photos. The family was big on taking pictures, both professional and amateur. I found charming sepia Jewish New Year’s cards with Yiddish greetings and photos of this or that relative. I have wedding pictures, vacation snapshots, you-name-it. Regrettably, none of them was labeled, so I did my best to write on the backs the names of whomever I could identify. And I put them back in the suitcase, which I forgot about until Hurricane Sandy tapped me on the shoulder.

Sandy blew the roof off our garage, and in the course of salvaging our belongings, we uncovered the suitcase. I brought it into the house thinking to re-acquaint myself with the contents. Surprisingly, I came across some phonograph records that I had never before noticed — four black vinyl 78 rpm records, hand-labeled. They read, “Zelig Baras, December 12, 1948, “Heyai im Pipiyos,” “Ata Zocher,” and more. Not exactly Dick Clark’s American Bandstand but if your cantor sings the High Holy Day liturgy in Hebrew, you will recognize those as Rosh HaShanah Greatest Hits.

As soon as the first one started playing, I began to bawl. It was my grandfather’s voice thanking, in Yiddish, whoever had arranged the recording session, and expressing the hope that listeners would enjoy the music. Then he started to sing.

I had no idea he had such a beautiful, expressive voice. He sang with wonderful control and deep feeling. His mastery of chazzanut should not have been a surprise to me. His son, Jack Baras, was accompanist to the Koussevitzky brothers, and his other son, Morris, was a composer of enduring liturgical music whose work is sung to this day. On the record, I can hear Uncle Jack playing piano. On the last disc, someone thanks Grampa for singing, and credits Jack and Morris for their roles in the “concert.”

For me, it was a case of time travel. This buried treasure transported me back to 1960, back to Grampa’s lap. Recovering that piece of my childhood was ineffably moving, and I am so grateful to have had the ghosts of my past restored to me. Short of the coming of Messiah, or maybe a morsel of boiled chicken, this was truly my taste of The World to Come, and it was worth the half-century wait.

Barbara Kessel is author of “Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots” (Brandeis).