By Larry Gordon
We were sitting at my parents dining room table. My job was to read the alef-bais for my Zaide. He was listening and as I read out of the corner of my eyes I noticed him flipping a candy up in the air that was supposed to land somewhere near the sheet of paper or the book that I was reading the letters from.
The idea as I read was supposed to create the impression that G-d was so pleased with my ability to read that he was showering down candy on me. I was very happy to be receiving the candies, of course, but I wasn’t deceived. I knew that my ziade, Reb Yochanan Gordon, zt”l, was the one throwing the candies up in the air and I quietly and graciously received them as any four or 5 year old kid would do.
This week, erev Rosh Chodosh Elul is my ziade’s 53rd yahrzeit. I think that was the first levaya I ever attended. I’m not going to say that at the time I didn’t know that people pass on but I certainly didn’t contemplate the matter too much or maybe not at all.
Now all these years later I am amazed at how much I can recall about the precious time we spent together and how his memory is so much alive on our family WhatsApp group and on the occasion that we see one another. We all have varying recollections and memories; some are more pronounced and stand out depending on when and where the event we are calling took place.
Here’s another memory that I vividly recall. It was my first day of pre-school, maybe it was kindergarten. I was in the hallway of a school building somewhere in Brooklyn. The next thing I knew a talis was put over my head and draped across my shoulders and my Zaide picked me up and hoisted me over his shoulder. With my father at our side I was carried into my classroom. I was somewhat surprised and unprepared for what took place and recall thinking to myself, “What are they doing and what is this about?”
I never asked anyone about that custom and I did not do that for my kids when they started Yeshiva, but I guess that was something they did or practiced.
My grandmother, my Zaides wife, passed away 12 years before he did. After that my zaide lived with my aunt and uncle, Esther and Shimon Goldman until he passed away in the summer of 1969.
More than anything else, R’ Yochanan Gordon was a chosid. He was the gabbai in the main Chabad shul at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. He was a confidant of the Rebbe. In fact when you visit the ohel—the Rebbe’s kever in Queens, the kever you pass just prior to entering on your left side is R’ Yochanan’s burial place.
Apparentkly I will never forget the day I was told he was niftar. I was in summer camp upstate. I was playing basketball at night with my bunkmates. An older kid approached me on the court and said that I had a phone call in the camp office. I ran down the hill to the main building where the phone receiver was sitting off its base waiting for me to pick it up and say hello.
On the other end of the wire I heard my fathers voice. “Labelah,” he said “Zaide had a heart attack earlier today and passed away this afternoon.” I heard the tension and the emotion as well as the stoicism in his voice. He then said that he had arranged a ride back to Brooklyn from Ferndale for me and my younger brother, Yossy, to attend the levaya.
The memories are flooding back. It was not just the candy flying in the air or being carried over his shoulder in a talis as I entered kindergarten. My father drove us to Yeshiva most days which was just about a dozen blocks or so from our home. But on most days before he drove us to school he would make a stop at my aunt and uncles house to pick up his father and drive him to 770.
My zaide aside from wearing a kapote daily also wore a stiff turned up black hat. My father in those days drove a burgundy Buick LaSabre. My grandfather could not maneuver himself into the car with the hat on his head, though day after day he tried. Inevitably he would have to take the hat off then slide into the car and then put it back on his head once he was seated in the front passenger seat.
These memories seem to begin from the time that he had already stopped working as a shochet. We didn’t communicate easily because I think he spoke a very limited English and I didn’t speak any Yiddish. But we spent a few minutes together every morning on the drive to 770 and yeshiva, it was part of what was then a routine.
Decades ago I had a Rebbe in elementary school, Rabbi Avrohom Barnetzky. His son lives in Lakewood and I used to see him from time to time. I always used to recount foir him the time that I met his father walking on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn where he was out for a walk. He recognized one another but then there was a silence. He looked at me and then said: “Reb Yochanan’s einikel, R’ Nison’s son,” then he paused before saying, “You have so much to live up to.”
I hear those words as if they were spoken yesterday.