Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

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