The Genuine Article

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My father’s grandfather, in photographs always an old man wearing a long black coat, his white beard gathered in two points, was the genuine article, the Jew who had never passed through Western Europe’s ordeals of civility. Because he loomed large in his grandchildren’s life, Peretz Satran of Sered, Romania and Winthrop, Mass. became the stuff of family legend, as exotic to me as his one-foot-high silver-covered spice box, which he, a dealer in scrap metal, had assembled out of the base of a lamp and other metal odds and ends and decorated with little copper bells hanging from the bottom of the two silvered tiers. At the top there was room for three small glasses–– for a l’chaim toast, I suppose, at the end of Havdalah. 

Sitting atop that huge spice box, engraved in Hebrew with the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the twelve tribes, he had placed an American Marine Corps eagle, for after all, had not God carried our ancestors on eagle’s wings out of their slavery in Egypt, and here was Peretz in yet another exile, where the trolley conductor sent him to Arlington Heights, seven, eight miles away, when he had plainly asked, so he supposed, for Orient Heights. After this misadventure, his grandchildren sought to correct his pronunciation to save him from getting lost again, but he said back to them in his best King’s English, “kiss mine hass, did I said it right?” 

In his synagogue, he may have been the only mystic. The story goes that he was so deep in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer each Shabbat, that he never noticed the little boys throwing sticky, purple cockle burrs into his beard, which they had collected from bushes growing just outside. A parallel story is that the birds wouldn’t leave him alone either, but this time he took action, tying tin cans on a rope hung in his beloved cherry tree; morning and evening, he would go out to shake the cans and scare them away from the maturing fruit. 

When this eccentric patriarch announced in 1928 that he was leaving America and going to the Holy Land to die, no one was surprised; the surprise came when he returned two years later in the midst of Arab rioting, saying, “you can get killed over there.” So he chose America after all, where I see him standing in his sunflower-covered booth on the eve of the Sukkot holiday, surrounded by two daughters and their children, holding the brimming wine cup that he is about to bless. The intensity of his gaze is not lost on me, even knowing that this image was posed by a photographer from the Boston Record American to show that some Jews in America still observed the ancient customs they had brought with them from over there. 

When his Hasidic rebbe was moving from the West End to East Boston and needed to set up a mikveh, the ritual bath collected from flowing waters that women use after their periods so they can resume having sex with their husbands, Peretz Satran traveled in his cart and horse to Walden Pond and there collected a large block of ice. I like to see him in that cart on the long road from Concord, transporting the frozen water of Walden Pond––which our transcendentalist sage, Henry Thoreau, likened to the eye of all the world, as sacred in its own right as the waters of the Ganges––and delivering that small block of eternity to a narrow house in East Boston, where it would be placed in a room dug out of the earth, melt into purifying water and set the stage for still another sacred rite, bringing husbands and wives together to produce new generations of Americans like you and me. 

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

1 Comment

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

One response to “The Genuine Article

  1. Miriyam Glazer

    What a beautiful reminiscence, so exquisitely written. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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