During the last year and a half, my 90-year-old mother was living in a Riverdale nursing home overlooking the Hudson. She stfffered from dementia, and her health was rapidly declining. During her stay there she was hospitalized a number of times for a variety of serious ailments. On one of her last hospitalizations, this time for congestive heart failure, I saw her sedated and extremely fragile, trying to free herself from the maze of tubes and wires she was hooked up to. Her face looked ashen and skeletal, her speech halting, her spirit doused, and I could feel there wasn't much time left.
In the year she lived at the Home I got much closer to her. It's not that we suddenly poured out our most intimate feelings and thoughts to each other -- those emotional breakthroughs occur in bad movies, not in life. But at this point in her life, my mother was sweeter, more vulnerable, less judgmental and irritating, and just much easier to be with. Her face lit up with a radiant smile every time she saw us, and in warm weather my wife and I sat together with her on the Home's vast manicured lawn that slopes towards the Hudson (she took great pleasure in the river's beauty), not talking too much, but content. I joked and said nonsensical things to her, trying to get her to laugh. Sometimes I succeeded.
As I complete this essay, my mother has died. With her passing there is no family member left who had direct experience of the Russian and immigrant past. During her last year my mother could not remember what happened to her the hour before (she did not recall any of her hospitalizations, for instance), but she could recollect in rich, graphic detail a pre- and post-revolutionary Russian past filled with birch trees, mushrooms, dachas, wood-burning stoves, and a serene, comfortable domestic life disrupted by revolutionary troops and commissars.
My mother's death fittingly, even fortuitously, coincided with a rediscovery of my family's past. I was always especially curious about my grandfather, Rabbi Israel Quart, who died of lung cancer in 1942 when I was only three years old. I faintly remember my father once taking me to watch him presiding over Sabbath services in a small, poor South Bronx synagogue, whose congregation consisted of a group of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers. Another time he brought me to visit my grandfather when he was lying in bed very ill -- a white bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing a black skullcap, smoking a cigarette, drinking tea, barely able to speak. And there were the copies of the two books he had written, which were published by a well-known Hebrew and religious book company, lying untouched behind glass in my parents' breakfront. I vaguely knew what the books dealt with, but my father said little about their contents.
These few fragmentary memories are all I have of my grandfather, though I've always desired to know more. I especially wanted to know what lay inside those mysterious books, since their existence echoed my own wavering ambitions to be a writer. I had spent a lifetime as an academic, writing critical books and essays on film. However, it was only in the last few years that I began to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing in first person a monthly column for a western Massachusetts daily. In it I've tried to establish a voice that expressed my own feelings about subjects ranging from walking in the city, my relationship to my parents and Bronx childhood, to the nature of gentrification, and the politics and personality of Mayor Giuliani.
Still, it's only recently that I have begun to learn something more about my grandfather. At the suggestion of my daughter (who is also a writer), my older male cousins, who know Hebrew and remember him more vividly than I, led a family evening of reading aloud from his works and discussing his life.
In the early 1920s, my grandfather emigrated to New York from an impoverished, disease-ridden Russian shtetl where -- my cousins told us -- he was regarded as the wisest and most learned man in the community. In the shtetl he ran a one-room school for young children, but, despite the respect he garnered, his family lived in a damp, chill house with an earthen floor, and were extremely poor. (Out of 10 children, only two survived into adulthood.) When he came to New York, he put together bits and pieces to make a living. He worked for the Bronx butcher's association sanctioning that their meat met religious dietary laws, he served as the unpaid rabbi of the Bronx synagogue mentioned earlier, he gave private Hebrew and bar mitzvah lessons, and he acted occasionally as a wedding matchmaker. My grandfather was a gregarious, witty, sardonic man, with many friends, who never made much money. In the few photos that I have of him, he looks compact, confident, and extremely alert.
The two books he published turned out to be, according to my cousins, the product of a lifetime's work. He began writing them in Russia, and completed them in New York. Consumed by the books, my grandfather expended much energy and money -- despite his normal frugality -- on them. The more traditional of the two books was constructed around a series of queries and answers about daily life, more applicable to village Russia than New York (e.g., if a cow dies, can the meat be eaten?). My grandfather based his responses on a set of learned references to the Talmud and other commentaries. This, I learned, is a genre (the Responsa) that rabbis, even Reform ones in contemporary New York, continue to write in an updated form. The book's short, moving, metaphor-filled preface praises "a mighty and enlightened God" that rescued him from the "black sky," from a murderous land where he had to stand in a pit that he dug with his own hands (Tsarist and Communist Russia). This God ultimately allowed him to escape to "the land of freedom," America.
The other and more original of the two books consisted of 345 pages of aphorisms, 32 on a page, written in rhyme, and often based on Kabbalistic notions of numerology where each letter in the Hebrew alphabet stands for a number. My grandfather was a rationalist, who believed that in the "eternal battle" between the heart and the mind, at the end "the heart is the fool." However, though not a mystic, he loved punning, playing intellectual games, and displaying his vast reading and learning. The Kabbalah was an integral part of his fund of knowledge.
His aphorisms, derived from a number of sources (e.g., the Bible, the writings of the sages) he says he collected and translated, and "struggled to extract the seed that was worthy to be sown," though the vast majority of the sayings he himself shaped from the "daily tribulations of life." My grandfather wanted the book to give his readers pleasure and, what is more important, to teach moral lessons. He wished to "uproot the bad ways" and show people how to behave, feeling that if his book achieved those goals "I would consider myself fortunate and that will be my reward." (Reading those words invoked memories of my father's stories about how turbulent life in Russia was; I thought of what a task my grandfather had set for himself in trying to write these books while surviving one political and personal upheaval after another.)
The aphorisms ranged from the platitudinous to the charming, with a number that were truly incisive and trenchant. His book contained truisms like "there is no medicine for pride, for the cause rests deep inside"; there were also sayings written with a skeptic's tough-mindedness (despite his being a religious man) that question the capacity to make righteous judgments if a man "follows the letter of the law." He could be folksy, writing that "a man who spits in the wind, will find spittle on his face," but also critical of man's lust, greed, and murderousness: "the wild beast does not kill when he's not hungry, but man -- even when he is full." My grandfather was especially repelled by a man who avidly pursued honor -- behavior he found more frightening than the howl of "a wild dog in the distance." The book concludes with an affirmation of his Jewish identity -- the commitment that underlies all his writing: "to know the ways of life of a people and its greatness, learn its history and tradition."
As my cousins translated and I listened, it became clear to me that my grandfather was a thoughtful, undogmatic man. And to my surprise his aphorisms conveyed a sophistication that transcended the parochial and often economically impoverished South Bronx and shtetl worlds he had lived in. He was not a man who moved in Jewish immigrant intellectual circles or was a professional writer, but his hunger to write was evident on every page of the book of aphorisms. He had talent, and though it wasn't fully honed, his writing conveyed the seriousness of purpose of a genuine writer.
My parents may have taken pleasure in Chekhov as adolescents in Russia, but they had little time or inclination in their New York lives to read or talk about books. So to discover that I had somebody so close whose yearnings to write were similar to mine, has deeply affected me (though it angers me that I waited until I was over 60 to explore the nature of his writing). Despite our vast cultural and religious differences, he and I both harbored the same love of words and images and the desire to make sense of the way we live. I may not have his sense of moral certitude that allowed him to provide life lessons for others, but I continue struggling in my essays to define my own more ambiguous personal and social vision. Stirred by his books, it moves me to take greater emotional risks in my own writing -- and go more with my feelings wherever they may lead.
I am still attempting to make peace with my mother's death. I see her lined, aged face, her smiling through broken front teeth (the result of being three times on a ventilator), while I'm walking, talking, and sitting still. One night I dreamt about her, but I woke up with a start and couldn't recover the dream's shape or imagery. It disturbed me for a while, but I knew I had to let go. The rediscovery of my grandfather's writing has provided some consolation -- the feeling that with my mother's death the link to the past has not been totally lost. The writings are hardly a substitute for a mother I had profound feelings for, but they open up the possibility for greater understanding of my origins as a Jew and a writer.
LEONARD QUART is a professor of cinema studies at the College of Staten Island and at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is also a contributing editor of Cineaste. His books include the revised and expanded edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger, 1991); a third edition will be published in 2001. He has most recently co-authored The Films of Mike Leigh for Cambridge University Press.…