Who We Are
Barbara R. Krasner, PhD
My parents and I lived in a Jewish ghetto in South Philadelphia until I was nine. All of my family, aunts and uncles and cousins, were close by my grandparents’ home.
My grandfather had a shoe repair store in the front room of the house. He gave me full rein over his shop’s treasures: hammers, awls, nails, taps and rubber heels... I played in the leather dust of his shoe repair machines. His shop smelled of rubber glue. To this day the lingering smell of glue “takes me” to his shop.
I was my grandparents’ first born granddaughter. My grandfather was my special friend. He spoke Yiddish; I spoke English, yet we never missed a beat. I found comfort in his doting gaze. Each year he enchanted me with his fervent Passover tales. t was as if he,
not Moses, was escaping from Pharoah’s Egypt.
My grandfather belonged to a tiny shul, a synagogue several blocks away from home. On holidays I walked to synagogue by his side. When we got there, he took my hand and led me to the section reserved for men. Before he sat down he wrapped his prayer shawl around him, and when we sat, he enfolded me in it too. Then the men began to pray aloud, following or leading the service at will, creating a seeming din. Their chants and prayers transported me as I sat at my grandfather’s side and fingered the fringes of his talit. Then and there, I felt rooted, special, beloved, “at home.”
Then in the blink of an eye, my grandfather was gone. There was no more ghetto, no more repair shop, no more leather dust, no more smell of glue, no more synagogue, no more prayer shawl.
My parents’ assimilationist mode took hold: Jewish holidays with family; Christmas Morning with gifts. My early roots receded. Torah and synagogue dropped off the face of the earth. I was bereft of a beloved context. I was without my gyroscope. My grandfather lived in me but his prayer shawl no longer enfolded me. What we had together seeped deep into my bones, and imprinted my heart, my life and my goals. It was a nanosecond in space but a million years in time.