From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

It’s Only a Matter of Time

The greatest honor I can give my children is love for our people, loyalty to self.

Theodor Herzl

Last week I ran into Uncle Yossel. Literally. I was rounding the corner at New York’s Thirty-fourth and Seventh, he at Seventh and Thirty-fourth, when we collided. “Lisa, darrrling!” he screamed, rolling his Hungarian R’s before planting a wet kiss on my nose, a greeting that’s always been reserved for me, the youngest of his nieces. “Where are you going? You vant to come for Shabbes dinner?”

Uncle Yossel always had a way of reminding me that being Jewish was an active, not a passive thing. A verb rather than a noun, you might say. “I can’t tonight, Yossel,” I said. “I have other plans. But I’ll walk with you a bit.” He held a challah in one hand, and my hand in the other, as we strolled toward his apartment.

This time, I squeezed his palm harder than usual. I wanted to remember its texture, the roughness of a single hand that has known more of life than most. I felt his mangled thumb, severed in a pickle slicer when he was a boy in Uzhgorod; his enormous fingers, which lifted and rolled bolts of wholesale fabric along Orchard Street for half a century; his fist, which once beat a Hungarian Nazi to death and now beats his chest for forgiveness each Yom Kippur. I needed to lock his fingerprints into my memory, like jewels in a safe deposit box, so that one day I could remind myself of all that he was.

These days, I’m conscious of time. I know that the final years of all our Uncle Yossels have arrived. I know that the smell of chicken soup, wafting down the narrow hallway of an outdated, overheated, hopelessly slip-covered apartment, is in its last hour. It’s only a matter of time when it all stops: the Jewish holidays, when everyone babbles at once in an animated blend of Yiddish and Hungarian, with bits of English accidentally thrown in; the blue velvet talit bag, lying next to a jumbo cigar on the telephone table; the bill for the kosher butcher, who still delivers from the Bronx, the ever-polished Shabbat candelabra and its endless supply of candles, hiding underneath the sink; the leather-bound siddur, faded and crumbling from generations of prayer, and the endless sea of yahrzeit candles aglow on the piano—one for each family member that died in the war. It’s the end of an era. Soon we won’t even have their faces to remind us that it takes more than suffering to be a good Jew.

In no time at all, we’ll be left to carry on a tradition by ourselves. What will happen to us when we can no longer live our Judaism through our bubbes, our zaides, our Yossels, when the holiday tablecloths are pressed and folded away for the last time, and all that we’re left with are our own reflections staring at us from a bare table? What will we do when they’re not able to take our hands on a bustling New York corner, filled with the high-tech, fast-paced lure of the future, and forgive us for saying, “I have other plans,” on a night that, to them, is still Shabbat?

And straightway, the answer comes. When we step into shoes bigger than our own, somehow our feet grow. When the old ones depart, the tradition passes to us and we will find the way and the will to uphold it, for it is as close to us as our own heartbeat, as much an expression of our being as our own breath. How else but by taking on the mantle of the departed have we survived all these centuries to call ourselves Jews?

Lisa Lipkin

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