When Understanding Comes

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

A long time ago, I went to visit a man—tall, with white hair, a white beard and the heart of an angel, a noble soul—my maternal grandfather, whom I called Baba Moshe. His name was Moshe Abuhatziera. He was born in Tafilalet, Morocco, and later relocated to Casablanca, where he and my grandmother lived in an eclectic neighborhood of Jews and non-Jews. People got along and respected each other’s way of life.

I was born in Casablanca. My parents and I lived with my maternal grandparents during my early formative years. When I was six years old, my parents and I moved to our own apartment. However, I frequently visited and spent weekends and summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, Baba Moshe and Mama Esther. I was the only grandchild who ever lived with my grandparents, and my mother used to tell me stories of how they doted on me.

One story I found endearing: when I misbehaved, my grandfather would fill his flower watering pot. By the time he closed the faucet, I would be running for my life as fast as I could. He would run after me on his tiptoes, saying: “I will water you so you grow up like a beautiful flower.”

In Casablanca, life had a rhythm and daily challenges. My grandfather would get up at dawn. With patience, he slowly put his tzitzit over his shoulders and then tefillin around his hand and arm and then on his forehead as he recited his prayers. He blessed the new day, and at the setting of the sun he prayed once again. While praying, he looked radiant and absorbed; his physical presence seemed to transcend reality.

When I visited my grandparents, I would sleep with them in the same big room with a window and two beds. Most of the time I woke up from the lamplight or from hearing my grandfather’s uttered words of prayer. I looked at him and felt protected because he loved God. Daily prayer was one of the many mitzvot he fulfilled.

For a Jewish child in Casablanca, the world was not a safe place. Yet, within the nest of my family and with my grandpa, I felt sheltered and safe. I was comforted to see him and would go back to sleep.

In the morning, before going to work, he would ask me to come to his side to pray with him and would bring a chair and help me stand on it so that I could reach the mezuzah. First, he prayed that good will would prevail between men and that peace would reign among all nations. Then he prayed for the health of everyone in the family. He blessed me, and, last of all, he asked for God’s blessing.

“Dear child,” he would say, extending his hand, “bless me that my mind and eyesight remain intact until the last days of my life.”

With each blessing, I tapped on his hand. He kissed the mezuzah and asked me to do the same, and then he kissed my head and went to work.

Even though I was only a child, I felt that in blessing my grandfather, I did something meaningful – a mitzvah.

During the day I played with the neighbors’ children. Some were Spanish, some were French, and others were Jews, and we were unconstrained by adults’ preoccupations with religious or ideological differences.

When my grandpa came home in the evening all the children would be in the courtyard waiting for him. When they saw him, they would welcome him in unison, calling, “Baba Moshe!” and gather around him.

My grandpa always had almonds and dates and sometimes chocolate in the hood of his jellabiya (a traditional Moroccan robe). He would sit and talk with us while handing the children treats, engaging them in conversation by asking them how their day was and whether they were good students.

I enjoyed seeing my grandfather interacting with the children, and even though I was the last one to get my share of the goodies, I did not mind. On the way to our apartment, he would say, “You treat your neighbors like your own family.” Baba Moshe loved children.

In the evenings, my grandfather had many interesting stories to tell me. Some were about real life and some were imaginary fairytales. After each one he wanted me to summarize the essence of the story. I faced the challenge with excitement. I wanted to remember, to learn and see my grandfather’s face light up with a smile as he gave me a kiss on my head, adding, “You have a good memory.”

Sometimes, at first, I did not understand certain ideas, but my grandpa was patient. He would help me think through the story until I found the answer, which made me happy.

“You have it all here,” he would say, touching my head.

“Wait,” I would say, “if I had it before, why didn’t I know it the first time?”

“Ah,” he would say, “God gave us memory so we can remember. We have all the knowledge we need throughout our lifetime. But it takes time. We have to tap into it, learn, and practice. As you grow older, you master the meaning of wisdom.”

Years later I realized that encouraging me to retain information was his way of teaching me.

On Thursday we went shopping for Shabbat. I loved going to the market to see the multiple colors and to absorb the aroma of the fruits and vegetables, which infused the air. I was excited by it all. I held my grandfather’s hand and he held my heart.

That day, my grandfather bought some vegetables and fruits; he paid the vendor and received his change. We walked just a few steps and, as he was counting the change, he said, “Dear child, we have to go back. The man gave me too much change.” So we went back and he returned the money to the vendor, who blessed my grandfather, took a tangerine and affectionately handed it to me.

Honor and integrity were values I associated with my grandfather, my first teacher, whom I have endeavored to emulate throughout my life.

When he saw poor people begging on the street, he would stop and give me money to give to them. “Dear child,” he would say, “We are born with nothing and we will depart with nothing. The only thing we take with us is our good deeds.”

He taught me what it means to be human. If he saw bread on the floor, he would bend, pick it up gently, kiss it and put it aside so that no one would step on it.

He would save all the crumbs to feed the birds, and would add milk to dry bread to feed the cats. “Don’t step on ants or any crawling thing, let them also live,” he would say. I loved the tender soul of this man called Baba Moshe.

In those days, I would only look up as I walked the streets. My grandfather would say, “Dear child, also look down where you walk. When you only look up, you do not see people’s suffering and when you only look down, you lose sight of what it is like to have a sense of hope and to strive to better life on earth.”

These words instilled in me the feeling that no matter how rich or educated, one must be humble and grateful. Help others, even in some minuscule way, and work with others toward bringing about Tikkun Olam (to repair the world).

The Torah was the lifeline to our culture. It encompassed every aspect of life. We practiced its teaching with love which gave meaning and purpose to our daily existence. My grandfather, with a nostalgic sigh, would tell me, “Your forefathers wrote Zohar (Kabbalah) in the desert.” I did not understand what he meant, but I listened. Human ethics, honoring one’s roots, and respecting religious differences were part of my Jewish heritage that I valued and that played an essential part in my upbringing.

My grandma Esther always had her head covered with a hand-embroidered scarf. She was kindhearted, and I loved her. She always had a box filled with dried fruits and nuts and allowed me to treat myself whenever I wanted a snack. Everyone referred to her as the archivist of the family. She remembered everything in detail about our family history. She did not read or write, yet she had a keen intelligence and her own personal gems of wisdoms.

Friday morning my grandma began cooking for the Shabbat. Helping her made me feel grown-up. The aroma of Shabbat cooking made me wish for dinnertime to come sooner.

After we bathed for Shabbat, my grandma put a scarf of hand-made embroidery on my head and took me to the mirror: “Look how beautiful you are.”

She lit and recited the prayer over the Shabbat candles, blessed and kissed me, and wished Shabbat Shalom to each of one us.

The table was set with two breads covered with a hand-embroidered cloth, salt, wine, and the cup for Kiddush.

After his return from the synagogue, my grandfather would bless me with his hand on my head, kissing my head, and when he finished, I would kiss his hand.

Finally, grandpa recited the Kiddush blessing, followed by the long-awaited Shabbat meal. The longing for the return to Zion was a dream and part of my grandfather’s daily prayers. The aura surrounding Friday night was always a spiritual experience.

After dinner grandpa said Birkat Hamazon, a blessing to thank God for the food. My grandfather would tell me stories and my grandma always sang me a song or two before going to bed. I loved her soothing voice.

That Saturday, my grandpa went to the synagogue as usual. At about noontime he came home accompanied by two of his friends. His white Shabbat clothes and his beard were spotted all over with blood. His friends told my grandmother that on his way to the synagogue, two Muslims pulled his beard and beat him until he fell down. Since he was too injured to return home and was close to the synagogue, he went there instead. This story left me even more scared of the outside world.

After lunch, his friends went home and everyone took a nap. When I woke up, it was getting dark. My grandpa said, “Let’s go outside to see the stars.”

Outside the apartment he had a small garden of roses and geraniums. We leaned on the fence as we counted the stars. There were only two. We could not make Havdalah until we saw three stars in the night sky.

I looked at the flowers, which were in full bloom. I asked who makes the flowers grow. He answered “God.” After asking other such questions, I asked him who made God. He would pat my head and say, “Dear child, do not ask such questions. Our mind is finite, and too limited to understand the infinity of God.”

I did not understand what he was saying. I was curious, but I asked no more such questions.

I was agitated and upset. How could anyone inflict such violent acts on my beloved grandfather, who loved and was loved by children and adults alike and who had never done any harm to any living thing?

I was experiencing a feeling that I had never felt before. I must have said that if I were to see those bad people, I would beat them up, or that I hated them, something to that effect. My grandpa touched my head gently and said, “Dear child, do not hate. The Muslims are our brothers and the gentiles are our cousins. We are all God’s children, thus we have to treat all God’s children with dignity and respect. These people did not know what they were doing.”

His words were like an eternal torch, kindling the light to give meaning and purpose in life, reminding me of the importance of human values, which, throughout my life, I aspired to emulate.

My grandpa made Havdalah, blessing the wine, smelling the fragrance of spices, and lighting the candle to differentiate between Sabbath and the weekdays.

My mom came on Monday to take me home and learned what had happened to her father on the Sabbath. She was upset and cried. I felt her anguish. What had happened to my beloved grandfather, coupled with my own experiences of persecution, left me saddened, fearful and more traumatized.

A year later, all I knew of unconditional love was swept away.

In the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, we were driven to the port of Casablanca. There, in the darkness, stood my grandfather. He gave me a big hug, kissed my head and, while he was still reciting his blessing, we were whisked away to a waiting boat.

Ahead of us lay an uncertain life, but a promising future. For days I did not speak or want to eat as it dawned on me that we were going far away from my grandparents, especially Baba Moshe, and that I might never see him again.

I was nine years old when we left Morocco, heading to France and eventually to Israel.

When the boat reached the port of Haifa, I was excited to see the Carmel Mountains. I said to myself, “Here I will be able to skip in the streets and not be afraid that I am a Jewish child.”

The power of memory can be wonderful and painful at the same time. A few years later we received a telegram. My grandfather had passed away. The hopes that I lived with—that one day I might see him again—died as well.

I screamed so loud and, in a child’s omnipotent wish, hoped to bring my beloved grandfather back to life. It didn’t work. But his noble spirit, his kindness, and his respect for the cultural and religious differences of others have stayed with me.

These values have influenced and guided my personal life and professional work.

Dear Baba Moshe, thank you for your love and spiritual gift. Your legacy has become my lifeline.  

Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner was born in Morocco, lived briefly in France and then in Israel with her family for several years. She has been living in Manhattan for the past 51 years. Ms. Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development and family therapy. She has lectured on her clinical work to various professional organizations, including in Israel. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.  

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2 Comments

Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, Moroccan Jewry

2 responses to “When Understanding Comes

  1. Marilyn Sprecher

    A wonderful heart wrenching story. You may not realize it, but you are just like your grandfather. You are the kindest woman I have ever known. I am so grateful to be your friend. Marilyn Sprecher

  2. Oh Lisa, what a vivid and beautiful tribute to your grandfather! How proud he must be of the woman you are. I imagine him ‘touching your forehead’ from the heavenly realm to ever remind you that “You have it all here.”

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