Our Zaideh

Every Sabbath eve we children of the poorest congregants ate with him. He was ninety years old, and a widower, and his children and grandchildren lived far away, so while he was doing a good deed for our stomachs, we in turn were doing one for his loneliness. Of course, none of us thought of it that way. We children were there to eat, eat till we could eat no more. And our host, he had his motives, too.

We all called him ''Zaideh,'' which in Yiddish means ''Grandfather,'' not only because he looked like one with his full white beard and eyes that were both kind and watchful, but because he embraced us all with his love. Sometimes we could even stand in a circle around him, close to him, and with his arms he would scoop us all in. He loved people, especially children, and he loved God; the love sang from his heart, and from his eyes.

He would sit at the head of the long, candlelit table and talk about the goodness of God. God, he said, was good to everybody. It was true that some, like our fathers and mothers, had harder lives than others. And yes, often the wicked flourished and the righteous suffered. But that wasn't God's fault. God was here to help us find within ourselves the strength and goodness to right our wrongs, and to bring justice.

Afterward he would search our faces to see if we had understood, often letting out sighs, for children don't easily understand a deep truth.

One supper he sat looking at us with the sly twinkle of a man who has remembered that if there's one thing children do understand, it's a story. The candlelight cast his face into darkness, and only his hands, and his voice, moved in the light as he told us one from his own life.

''Children,'' he began, ''this is an old and poor neighborhood. But it's quiet. Once, years ago, I did not live so.

''My wife, may she rest in peace, and I lived next to a rough-spoken man and his wife. One day they brought home a huge watchdog to guard their many possessions.

''This dog brought down a plague of noise upon us. He barked deafeningly at every sound. When his owners were away, he howled.

''My wife, she had lived through pogroms in Russia, where they sometimes used dogs to chase the Jews. This infernal noise brought all that back to her. She begged me to make it stop.

''I asked the people please to exchange the dog for another. Surely there were watchdogs that didn't make noise all the time. I told them about my wife.

''They refused. They even said it was good the dog made noise. It would let the burglars know what was waiting for them. Besides, nobody else was complaining.

''I realized it would be useless to plead with them. Their love of possessions had hardened their hearts against others. I arranged for us to move to a new place, and I prayed that, once there, another plague would not descend on us.

''Just as we were leaving, a big van from a department store stopped in front of the house next door. We saw many new possessions being carried in. And it was just too much. Here we were, having to leave, and there they were, entrenching themselves even more.

''On our way to the new place, we were full of woe: my wife, because for Jews the exodus never seemed to end, and I, because I felt bitter toward God, whom I still loved with all my heart.

''When we arrived at the new place, all of a sudden - here came a dog! I prayed, 'Deliver us, it's the end, another dog!'

''But it wasn't the end, children. It was the beginning.

''Behind the dog came a little boy. And he said, 'We can help you.' I asked him what did he mean by 'we.' He said, 'If I tell him to carry, he carries.' I said that I had no money to pay - them. And he said they were Jews and they would work for nothing.

''And they did, children. The boy and the dog, a little terrier, helped us move our things in. The dog carried bundles of clothes, shoes, hangers. The boy, books.

''And finally I realized what God was doing. He had sent us two dogs, the one that drove us out, and the one that helped us move in. He had balanced the world on the voice of a child who said, 'We can help you.' The rest, He was saying, was up to us.''

By the time he had finished his story, we couldn't see our Zaideh's hands. The candles had burnt so low that the darkness had swallowed all of him up. It was as if he'd been taken from us.

I was at the other end of the table, the darkest place of all. Frightened, I called out, ''Zaideh, where are you? I can't see you.''

He answered, ''I am here.''

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