Wednesday, March 24, 2021

I Was Named for My Grandfather


In the Ashkenazi Jewish faith that I was raised in, it is customary to name a newborn baby for a deceased loved one — I was named for my maternal grandfather, Reuben. This tradition both honors the deceased, keeps them “alive” by connection, and it is believed helps to form a bond between the ancestor and the child.


I heard many wonderful stories about my grandfather and quite ironically, both my sister and I have very distinct memories of being read bedtime stories by him… even though he died long before either of us was born.


My grandfather was a loving man, a smart businessman, a devout Jew, and an actual HERO. Living in the Deep South, my mom grew up amidst many prejudices towards Jews, towards Blacks, and basically anyone who didn’t look the same. It was also customary for many families to have hired help in their homes, and most every housekeeper was Black. My grandma was criticized by her neighbors because she would often sit and have coffee with her housekeeper, and my mom and the housekeeper’s son would sometimes sit in the parlor and play board games together.


Mostly for safety reasons, the races did not normally mingle on the streets of the town they lived in, and no Black man was allowed to confront or get physical with a White person. Yet there was the one day my mom and a girlfriend had gone into town and were accosted by a couple of drunken White men who had stumbled out of a bar. They loudly told the men to keep their hands to themselves, but they wouldn’t listen.


As “luck” would have it, the housekeeper had sent her son into town to pick up groceries. The young man was across the street when he heard my mom and her friend yelling at the drunken men. One of the men had grabbed my mom’s friend by the arm and pulled her in tightly. At that point the housekeeper’s son ran across the street and loudly confronted the men. In both surprise and anger, the wrath of the drunks turned to this young Black man who firmly stood his ground and demanded that the two young ladies be left alone. The two girls walked up the street, followed by their rescuer who made sure that they were not harassed again.


That night when my grandfather returned home from work he found their housekeeper crying hysterically in my grandmother’s arms. They explained to him that there had been a death threat, a vow to lynch the young Black man for having the audacity to confront the White men; it didn’t matter that the White men were drunk and accosting White teenage girls. My grandmother had helped to hide the housekeeper’s son long enough to wait for my grandfather to come home and decide what to do.


That night my grandfather, a Jewish merchant in the south, contacted a friend in North Virginia and arranged for transport for this young man to somewhere in New York State. And then he rolled the young man up in a heavy carpet and tied the young man to the undercarriage of his delivery truck. He promised to bring the young man to safety, hoping that he would not get stopped along the way.


          My grandmother and the housekeeper kept a vigil at the kitchen table until the next morning when my grandfather walked in. He told the housekeeper that her son was safe and passed her money so that she could afford the transportation up north to join him.


          I watched the movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on Netflix the other night and I was reminded of this heroic story my mom always told me. I am so proud to be named for my grandfather.

Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit"




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