They called him Tatta or Der Tatta, which, loosely translated, means “Father” or “the Father.” That is how my dad and his siblings referred to their father. We referred to him as “Zaide,” though we rarely spoke directly to him, mostly because, as I recall, he did not speak much English. Actually, pondering that question now, I don’t believe I ever heard him say a word in English. But on the other hand, he spent a lot of years working and living in New York so he must have known some English, don’t you think?
This week is the 50th yahrzeit of my zaide — Reb Yochanan ben Yisroel Gordon — and it is an opportune time to reflect on his life, all that he endured and sacrificed, and how the people he left behind have fared and have hopefully been a credit to the way of life he trail-blazed and fought for against all odds, dating back to his years as a young man in Belarus.
The town he was born and raised in was called Dokschitzey. It is still there on the map and in fact just a few weeks ago one of my cousins visited the city where, for us, it all began. If I recall correctly, my parents visited my father’s hometown, or at least city of his birth, in 1977.
Communist rule back then was still solid, and though my father knew he had some distant cousins there it was not in their best interest to be seen talking to an American tourist. Somehow, though, they communicated through a third party and arranged to be walking on the same street at the same time so that they could at least see each other.
Yochanan Gordon was born in 1894 and passed away here in New York on erev Rosh Chodosh Elul in 1969. In 1932, when he was 38 years old and married with four young children, he decided he did not like what was going on in his town or in Europe in general, and he decided to make the trip to the United States. That decision was not made in a vacuum, as three of his brothers had immigrated to the U.S. during the 1920s.
What was going on in that part of what was called White Russia that motivated this family to hightail it out of there would require a great deal of conjecture. One thing is clear, and that is when the Nazis moved into town in 1939, with the help of the local townsfolk, the Jews along with their rav, Reb Arye Leib Shenin, were herded into the shul, the shul was locked, and it was set on fire. They all died.
Reb Yochanan, unsure of what life would be like in the “New World,” here in New York, arrived alone, found work as a shochet, and then two years later, in 1934, sent for his wife and four young children. My father, Nison, was the oldest. In 1934 he was 16 years old. Reb Leib must have made a rather indelible impression on my father because years later when I was born I was named after him — Arye Leib.
Now sitting here a half-century after my zaide passed away, there are a few distinct things that I can recall, not just about him but about how the two of us interfaced.
The first thing I recall happened when I was about five years old. It was time for me to begin kindergarten and I was enrolled in Yeshiva Oholei Torah, which was then on Strauss Street in the Brownsville part of Brooklyn. The start of yeshiva was rather uneventful except for one thing. It seems that there was a tradition — perhaps it still exists, but we did not do it for our kids — that when a Jewish child begins his education he is wrapped in a tallis and is carried into the classroom in what I assume is a good omen for future success in some way or another.
I was only five and was not aware of the practice. Obviously at that stage of my life they did not deem it necessary to consult with me on the matter. To this day, I cannot get over the extent of my awareness with whatever was happening around me. Needless to say I was not comfortable with the idea but it seemed that I would not be given a choice. So there I was, wrapped up in a tallis, and, adding to my angst, my zaide picked me up and held me over his shoulder to carry me into the classroom.
My head was peeking out of the tallis and I was looking around wondering to myself: What in the world is going on here and what this is all about? I mean, the last thing a five-year-old wants is to be foisted over someone’s shoulder—even a grandparent’s—and carried against his will into the unfamiliar environs of a classroom. Is it possible that I did not like school even before the very first day of class? I don’t think that is really possible, but at that age you can certainly be uncomfortable with situations as I was with this one.
Anyway, I am assuming that my zaide enjoyed carrying his einikel into yeshiva on his first day, while my father stood beside him, beaming as the scene unfolded. Like I said, I was not so happy with the situation but no one asked me about it, and as you can see I did survive it.
We jump ahead a few years: My zaide is getting older, and my brother and I switch yeshivas from Lubavitch to Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, which is actually located on Eastern Parkway, and we make our way into a new daily routine. I think I was in 6th grade and my brother in 4th grade, and since we did not live that far from the yeshiva my father drove us just about every morning. I raise that point here because I want to note that on the way to yeshiva on most mornings, my father stopped on Crown Street to pick up my zaide and drop him off at shul at 770 Eastern Parkway. After my zaide left the car we were driven to yeshiva.
My brother and I sat in the back, of course, with the front passenger seat reserved for Zaide. As far as I can recall, my zaide was not exactly thin, but not excessively heavy; I guess I’d call it robust. He also wore this stiff-brimmed bent-up hat, which in a way was his signature. How he came to wear that kind of hat I just do not know.
The point here is that between the weight, the long kapote that he always wore, and the stiff hat, getting into the car was a daily ordeal. My father would open the door for him and he would begin the process of positioning himself into that front seat. I remember thinking to myself that if he would just take off the hat it would be easier to maneuver his head into the car without hitting his head or having the hat nudged off his head by the low top of the car. And lo and behold, over the next few days Zaide began to take his hat off, hold it in his hand, and bend down to maneuver himself into my dad’s car.
Needless to say, there were a great many interactions over the years. For example, I remember watching him put on and take off his tefillin while sitting, and wondering why almost everyone around Zaide was doing the same but standing. Now when, on occasion, I sit to put on or take off my tefillin as I do sometimes, I think of him.
After my grandmother passed away, Zaide lived with my Aunt Esther and Uncle Shimon on Crown Street. That was the location at which we visited him most weeks on Shabbos. But then again there was limited interaction because we were so young and at that point could not really understand Yiddish.
And then there was the day that we mark and observe this week, the day he was niftar 50 years ago. Aside from an extensive family conference call to share memories, there is a great deal more to reflect upon all these years later. Some of the things I wonder about are how and why he made the decision to leave Belarus for a new and unfamiliar world where at the age of nearly 40 years old he would have to start life all over again for all practical purposes.
Then there is the matter of the esteem in which he was held as a shochet and as the gabbai in the main Chabad shul on Eastern Parkway for many years. He was both a chassid and a confidant of the previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson and the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. To this day, if I mention in Chabad circles that I am his grandson there is immediate recognition even from those who were born many years after Zaide passed away.
A most telling story is that prior to the previous Rebbe arriving in the U.S. in 1940, he cabled his chassidim to tell his friends to meet him at the port when his ship docked. The chassidim in Brooklyn were not sure what the Rebbe meant so they wrote back asking who the Rebbe wanted them to tell of his arrival. The Rebbe telegraphed back, “Tell Yochanan Gordon.”