That was my Grandpa, may he rest in peace (alav hashalom, a”h) at the head of the Passover table.
It was an ordinary holiday which meant we were arguing like we usually did, the lot of us, maybe ten or twelve. They say “two Jews, three opinions” and we were no exception.
Grandpa, Murray Garfinkel, was my mother’s father. I loved him but what can I say, “he had a bit of a temper,” a trait I’ve inherited. His father was Reb Dovid Garfinkel (a”h), who loved most of all to study Torah.
There was a black-and-white charcoal sketch of Reb Dovid, as we used to call him, hanging in the living room of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. As a little girl I used to look at this picture, of a serious man with a serious yarmulka that covered most of his head, studying with great intensity.
I have a copy of that picture in my office at work – many of us in the family have a copy – and sometimes people look at it and think it is the Pope, or a Pope.
As for me, as a little kid, I used to look at that picture convinced that it was G-d Himself.
Grandpa did not like fanciful dreamers. He was a fact-oriented man who respected the Law and those who observed it. “Just don’t leave the world worse than how you found it” was a famous Reb Dovid quote, and my Grandpa adopted that worldview eagerly.
All of this was symbolized by Grandpa’s cap, his legendary cap. He wore it all the time. Left it hanging by the front door, put it on when he left, took it off when he came home.
Simple and straight, no funny business – that was my Grandpa.
On that day I’d been talking about G-d, almost like you’d talk about a close friend. G-d this, G-d that. And I still do that, a lot.
It made my Grandpa uncomfortable. I think he simply reflected a discomfort I see in many observant Jewish people, who tend to want to focus on the Law rather than its unknowable Creator.
That day was a very sad one for me. I left the house, the vibrant discussion and felt almost as though I’d been excommunicated. I hadn’t been, of course; and later on I was to learn that there are very specific strands of Jewish philosophy, Breslov Hasidism in particular, that urge a person to develop this kind of rapport with G-d.
I turned out onto the street. Monticello, N.Y., was unspoiled in those days. It was nestled in the Catskill Mountains, and the air was so fresh and clean. I loved how it broke over my face so softly.
Main Street had the candy store, and the bagel place, and the courthouse was just a ways past. I walked and walked until I got to the road. Hands stuffed in my pockets to keep warm against the cool April weather, I just kept walking.
All of us, all our lives are on a personal journey. I didn’t realize that day what the impact of my grandfather’s words would be. How he had set in motion a dialogue between the side of me that is fact-based, logical and cool and the side that is emotional, fantastic, yearning for Enlightenment and spiritual union with the universe.
Sometimes I think about Grandpa’s cap. I understand his message now: Action counts much more than powerful words.
It’s all well and good to talk about G-d’s greatness. But when you do that and can’t remember to actually keep His Commandments, you’ve taken off your spiritual cap and stomped on it.