There were two things my father, Marvin, considered to be the foundation for everything else my brother, Hal, and I needed to learn: the fundamental principles of being a ‘mensch,’ (a Yiddish term for a person of integrity, honor and decency) and the ability to make informed, informed being the operative word, informed decisions on our own.
He wanted us to know that even after he was not there, we would never be truly lost when we could figure out how to get home. Insightful as he was, I do not think he realized what he was teaching us was a much bigger lesson than reading a map, but also how to follow your moral compass and what happens when fact and faith intersect.
Flash forward almost fifty years, and to this day, Hal and I both still have the same Pavlovian response to the phrase “Dictionary! Dictionary! Dictionary!” From the time we could read, if we did not know either how to spell, and/or the meaning of a word, rather than giving us the answer, “Dictionary! Dictionary! Dictionary!” is what Hal and I heard with machine gun accentuation in my Dad’s low voice.
You can imagine our harangued school-age protests and you would be accurate. But our parents remained steadfast and through it we learned how to successfully sound out words and educate ourselves. Well played folks, very well indeed.
While it sounds almost quaint to the modern reality of cell phones able to fetch virtually any bit of information on voice command, but so clearly I remember the day dad brought home a set of red leather bound Encyclopedia Britannica’s and feeling like the information super highway had arrived right at 4320 Clarewood. Thanks to the success of what they lovingly referred to as “the Dictionary Game,” Hal and I were able to take full advantage from day one and those crimson volumes became exactly what our parents had wanted them to be: an oracle of knowledge for their two inquisitive sons.
There was a final piece to the reference triumvirate: the National Geographic Atlas of the World, 4th Edition. It was a behemoth volume that arrived in 1975 as a bar mitzvah present and an update to the 1966 version. As with its predecessor, Dad and I located the various places he and his four older brothers were simultaneously stationed at during World War II: Africa, Asia, Europe and here at home. One of those uncles was not just stationed in Europe, he fought with the 83rd Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge and went on to liberate ‘Langenstein,’ one of the satellite installations that became collectively known as the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
The enormity of what he experienced and shared upon his return forever changed the family’s understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. They now understood the most sinister historic truth about being a Jew is that there could be a proclamation from a crazed dictator or boots at the door and you could be immediately ripped from life as you knew it. They realized before the world did that for the Jews, there are worse things than being expelled from your home: that there are, and will likely always be, those who wish us exiled from existence.
Thank G-d, all five Yaffe boys came marching home again to the family HQ on Douglas Road in Toledo, Ohio. As parents, brothers, soldiers and Jews, learning firsthand the reality of death and life in the camps was incredibly difficult to process both empirically and especially emotionally. The experience crushed my uncle’s soul so profoundly, the family who welcomed him home was powerless to help him heal from what he went through when he was away. There was a multifaceted survivor’s guilt they would never escape. From it grew a guilt for every kind of holocaust survivor whose only North Star to their future was the faith that has sustained them to the present.
Their conviction was resurrected when Israel achieved statehood in 1948. But they did not perceive it as just a return of the land G-d had given to descendants of Abraham to Jewish control after 2000 years. It meant even more to them and dad made sure it would mean more to us. It meant Israel is more than just a country: Israel is a beacon of hope.
That is why we really had the atlas. What my father wanted Hal and me to know what was no matter what happened, even another holocaust, as long as we knew how to get to Israel when we survived, we would always be able to find each other in the only place in the world we could forever call home.
Here, O Israel. Hear O Israel.
Am Yisrael Chai
Happy Birthday, Dad, and thank you
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