The Greatest Jew in the World

By Haber, Leo | Midstream, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Greatest Jew in the World


Haber, Leo, Midstream


My grandfather was a Talmudic scholar of the first rank, knowledgeable in every abstruse argument found in that sacred legal tome of the Jewish people, but in the year 1999, the simple notion of the upcoming millennial year on January 1, 2000 and its projected Y2K computer problem defeated him utterly. My friends on the job at that time at the scientific laboratories at Brookhaven, who had met my grandfather on the rare occasion that he came by to visit me during a Sunday afternoon cookout for my colleagues, were amazed and incredulous.

"Go on," one of them said to me that October. "The old man's a genius. He can rival St. Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and all that esoteric stuff. Don't tell me he can't understand a simple matter of a two thousand year date and computers that aren't programmed to surmount the new number."

I assured him and my other friends that this was so. What I could not tell them, not yet, was the real reason why. In fact, I came to that knowledge very belatedly myself, and only by a rare combination of unforeseen circumstances.

Both my mother and father had died young, victims of various forms of cancer. This was not only devastating to me but also to my grandfather who had lost an only son and a daughter-in-law. He grieved, but it did not change his attitude about Godly service and transcendental things in the least. He continued studying the Talmud on a daily basis and writing intricately reasoned monographs on Jewish religious law that so many others would consider hair-splitting legalisms of no major import. To him, they were life itself, or more accurately, the pulsing bloodstream of the good life. These articles of his were sometimes published in a Hebrew weekly, and when he felt like it, he translated his own work into English and published it in a learned journal with a circulation, at best, of 500 souls. He could not live on these occasional publications that often paid him in copies of the magazine instead of real money that could buy him a meal or another book for his bulging library in a small apartment on 14th Street in Manhattan. But he didn't really have to worry about surviving hunger and thirst and paying the rent. I took care of that, unbeknownst to my wife.

Not that he welcomed me all the time with my shopping bags filled with food. "You again? Cluttering up my apartment?" he would growl in impeccable English with hardly the trace of an accent even though he had come to America as an adult after the war and after his surviving the Holocaust. "Not on bread alone does man subsist, it says in the Torah. So why are you trying to stuff me with food? You have a wife and children who need to eat. Bring it to them. I have no room for so much food."

He really didn't. Every inch of table space and even pantry space was filled with books. And piles of them teetered right and left on the floor, leaving very little room to walk in. It was a veritable maze, and you could almost kill yourself if you tried to zip through the apartment on the way to the bathroom without negotiating the obstacle course very carefully.

He was a short, skinny old man who always wore a broad-brimmed fedora out in the street. One would think that an aged scholar of this type would not look after himself, but the truth is the opposite. He was very nicely groomed at all times, beautifully dressed in clothes he could not afford, and he could easily give the impression of being a dapper, "dirty old man" about town to those who did not know him well.

My wife did not like him. She never actually said so; she wouldn't hurt me in this way. But I could easily see that she saved her smiles and her giddy, expansive behavior for others in the family, not for him. To her, he was a religious "fanatic," a word or words flippantly used by a good many people to characterize those who live in a world of belief in divinity they cannot fathom. It was not my world either, but unlike my wife, I had come from this world, had witnessed it at first hand, and knew the consolations provided by such beliefs even though I could not share them myself. …

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