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The Grandfather I Thought I Knew

By the time I had matured enough to pose the right questions, dementia had decayed his towering intellect and muted his deep, rich voice

 

My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Bekritsky, was an enigma. The spiritual anchor of our family, a towering scholar and articulate speaker, he was a distinguished pulpit rabbi — but also a closed book. From my perspective as an adult, could I gain a new understanding for the mix of ambition and melancholy that characterized this towering man?

Childhood memories are a curious thing. Patchy and undeveloped, they are our only reference to the people and places of our tender, formative years and we tend to regard them as acknowledged truth. But those memories can be unreliable as a trick mirror, reflecting depth and significance in shallow dimensions, as trivialities. By the time we begin to understand enough about the world to ask the right questions, the generation has shifted, and the ones with the answers are no longer there to reply. And we are left to reconstruct their legacy from the scattered bits of memory we are fortunate enough to discover.

Growing up, my grandfather Rabbi Moshe Bekritsky was an enigma.

Grandpa was the spiritual anchor of our extended family. He could finish any pasuk I started, was the unofficial family posek, and could lein the Torah in its entirety. Plagued by insomnia, he’d always be hunched over a Gemara at the kitchen table when I pattered in for a 2 a.m. drink, and felt most accessible through a shared interest in learning. Grandpa doted on us grandchildren with hot bagels and fresh Danishes on Sunday mornings, gently massaged our hopelessly flat feet, and whispered his pet name, “pussycat,” as he planted moist prickly kisses that echoed of Old Spice. He was over six feet tall, the tallest man I knew, his bearing radiating dignity and authority.

But he was also a closed book. Perhaps I was too immature or impatient to ask, but he never seemed interested in talking at great length about his life and I remained more or less ignorant. A retired pulpit rabbi, Grandpa had spent the best years of his life coaxing passionate mitzvah observance from spiritually ambivalent communities. Sometimes he seemed melancholy, and I had the vague sense that he was dissatisfied with his accomplishments, or had somehow not achieved what he had set out to do with his life’s work. By the time I had matured enough to pose the right questions, dementia had decayed his towering intellect and muted his deep, rich voice.


It Starts in Maine

For all the unknowns, there was still a basic biography we grandkids had osmosed from the occasional conversations shared with him and the information bequeathed by our parents.

Grandpa was a child of the Depression era in a family that struggled to earn a living. The second of three brothers, he was designated “the frummer,” and prevailed on his parents for a chance to learn in yeshivah. He was sent to Torah Vodaath, where he met the iconic Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, or “Mr. Mendlowitz” as he insisted on being called, one of the most impactful people in Grandpa’s life.

Subsequently, a group led by Maggid Shiur Rav Dovid Leibowitz split from the yeshivah to form Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim and they invited Grandpa to join. It was a wrenching decision: “How could I choose between my mother and my father?” he recalled years later. But Grandpa followed Rav Dovid, explaining, “I needed my rebbi… I had to learn how to learn a Rambam the way he did.”

(Originally featured in Linked, Succos 5780)

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