Memories of my Grandfather, Louis Finkelstein


My earliest memories of Grandpa are of the songs he would sing me when I was small. These were three: ``Oy vey tata foota;'' ``I've seen almost everything when I've seen an elephant ... FLY!'' (sung to the tossing of a toy elephant); and ``Oh where and oh where is my < name of grandchild >.''

Even at that age, I think, I realized that Grandpa was not a greatly talented singer. In fact, he was probably the worst singer I have ever met. (He used to say that the Levites were divided into the gatekeepers and the singers and that the Finkelsteins were descended from the gatekeepers.) Nonetheless, singing was a large part of what we did together. Besides these childhood songs, there was the singing of benching, particular Shir HaMa'alot; the Seder songs, extraordinarily transmogrified (my wife Bianca calls them Finkelsteinized) by generations of tone-deaf celebrants; and the Shabbat z'mirot that he loved to hear, above all Y'did Nefesh.

Very occasionally, I heard Grandpa sing a song in Yiddish, such as ``Kum aher, du filosof.'' The only other English song I ever heard him sing was, ``We are the boys of BHS [Boy's High School].''


Grandpa was the most wonderful storyteller I have known.

When I was small, the stories were about Nurdunk the elephant, Purdink the lion, and me. A few years later, I remember, he told enthrallingly the tale of Elijah the Prophet. But the great days of story telling came when I was an adult. Particularly at a Shabbat lunch, with just the family, he would start, and story would follow story. Stories about his familty, especially his father; of his colleagues; of his experiences in the Bronx and at the Seminary; of his encounter with famous people; of the early beginning of the century in Brownsville; of the great rabbis of Eastern Europe and of America ... Over the years, I must have heard thousands.

His stories were never hostile or malicious. (By contrast, Prof. Lieberman, who was also a great raconteur, enjoyed telling stories with a bit of an edge to them.) Even when telling about events that must have hurt him, such as hostility he had encountered from the Orthodox or from colleagues, his tone was almost always one of amusement or bewilderment, never of anger. When a story would reflect at all badly on an living individual, he would suppress the name, whenever possible. When it was not possible, he would tell the story only to people particularly close to him, with an injunction not to spread it further.

He was also very fond of hearing stories, and listened to them very attentively so as to get them right. He often asked people to repeat stories that they had told him before, so that he could be sure to get the details right.

Talking Torah

Another large part of Grandpa's conversation was Torah. He was fond of quoting the Mishnaic injunctions that those who eat together, or talk together, or take leave of one another, should speak some words of Torah.

What Grandpa loved, above all, were simple, mundane, explanations of a text, grounded in the known history of the period or in the biography of the individual. His father had had a taste for clever pilpuls and ingenious homiletics; Grandpa enjoyed these and repeated them, but did not take them at all seriously. Mystical interpretations, aggadic interpretations, gematria, and the like left him completely cold; in that respect, he was entirely a Litvische Misnaged. (As far as I could tell Grandpa had virtually no interest in mysticism of any kind.) In pursuit of the p'shat, he was willing to be quite daring in speculation; he would push back the dates of traditions, hypothesize facts, and occasionally correct texts to find a structure that made sense.

He once talked to me about the following Talmudic passage. It is told that the students of R. Judah the Prince, studying the verse in Isaiah (14:23) וטאטאתיה במטאטא השמד , asked one of R. Judah's house servants what was the meaning of the word מטאטא Grandpa's conjecture was that in 2nd century Palestine there were a few towns where Hebrew was still the primary language, and that the woman was a native of such a town, hired by R. Judah for that reason.

Another characteristic interpretation: The Mishnah says, of the reading of the Haggadah, ``One begins with the shame of Israel, and ends with its praise.'' The Gemara records a controversy about the interpretation of this dictum: Sh'muel says that ``shame'' means the enslavement in Egypt while Rab says that it means the idolatry of our ancestors prior to Abraham. (Our practice is to follow both customs, first Sh'muel then Rab.) Grandpa said that both rabbis were reporting old traditions, and that the wording of the Mishnah was deliberately ambiguous, to cover both possibilities.

There were two corrections to the text of the Siddur that Grandpa tried, unsuccessfully, to have incorporated into the Conservative Siddur. Since they are not, so far as I know, recorded elsewhere, I put them here:

Occasionally, Grandpa would abandon an indefensible text. I once asked Grandpa about the distasteful story of the death of B'ruriah, the wife of R. Meir. (He himself would never raise such an issue.) He shrugged and said, ``One of the Rishonim was a misogynist.''

The Seder

One of the high points of Grandpa's year was the celebration of the Passover Sedarim. It was certainly one of the high points of mine, and I rarely missed it, if I could help it. Between 1964 or so, when I was old enough that my parents thought it safe to send me down on the train from Providence (parlor car, with instructions to the conductor to look out for me) till 1991, I doubt that I missed more than ten pairs of Seders at Grandpa's. Other Seders now seem to me pale reflections of that Platonic ideal, or overpious distortions of it.

My memories of Seder at Grandpa's are among my happiest, but they are curiously blurred. A few particular incidents stand out separately. There was the year (or two years?) that the Seminary somehow inveigled Grandpa into giving a mammoth Seder of fifty or sixty guests at the Seminary, and my cousin Harvey and I, who were about 12 and 11, carried the water for washing to every guest around that enormous table. There was the Seder of '77, when my whole family came. There was the Seder of '81, which was the first time I brought Bianca. It was her first meeting with anyone in the family, except my brother Joey, and there could not have been a better introduction. There was the Seder when the waiters didn't show up, and Rose Feitelson, the Jimmy's, Harvey, Bianca, and I did the waitering. There was the last, rather sad, Seder of '91 where, no matter how fast I raced through the service, Grandpa had to retire before it was over.

But the core of my Seder memories was not in these incidents but in what remained constant from year to year. I would arrive --- in later years, Bianca and I would arrive --- in mid-afternoon, and prepare ourselves for the holiday. Often my sister Ab would be there, or my cousins Harvey or Josh. (Joey came quite often to Grandpa's seder, but usually in years when I was not there.) A few things would remain to be done before sunset: giving Grandpa a hand with Eruv Tavshilin, making the haroset, running a few last minute errands. A long table was set, stretching from the far end of the dining room through the double doors into the living room. At Grandpa's directions, I would put out the placecards, and arrange the Seder plate. The guests came at 7:00. In the early years they were a mass of unfamiliar faces, over years of seeing them once a year, they became familiar. The family: Hink and Tess, the Michael's, the Jimmy's and Bunny, Hy and Rosalie, Bea Field, sometimes the Kandells. And friends: Florence Slobin, Rose Feitelson, Jessica Feingold, Belle Zeller, Ethel Berl, Carlotta Damanda, Harry Starr and his wife ... I have forgotten too many. When the Seder was large and the table went far into the living room, the guests would not all fit in what remained of the living room, and would overflow into the dining room and hall.

When the guest had all arrived and chatted a bit, the Seder began, and proceeded on its traditional course, with traditional Finkelstein ornaments. Grandpa's practice was to read the Hebrew quickly, pausing at certain passages to translate into English, to explain a passage, or to tell a story. Some things he would say every year; others were new each year. There was the pilpul on השתה הכא ... which came down from Grandpa's great-great-grandfather, a tradition that must have pleased the soul of that otherwise unknown, 18th-century Lithuanian rabbi. The four questions, of course, were read by the youngest person there who could (except in the last few years of his life, when Grandpa arrogated the passage to himself --- why, I don't know.) I remember one year that Harvey recited the questions in Yiddish, which was quite a feat, and one year that Herschel Flax's three-year-old son recited them quite perfectly in Hebrew, with his face buried in his father's shoulder. At the four sons, Grandpa would always say ``The wise son --- that's < whoever had asked the questions >.'' He always made a point of emphasizing the three symbols pointed out by Rabban Gamaliel, and would call on different children to explain each of them.

For a few years, Grandpa was torn, as regards the Marror, between using horseradish, which was both pungent and traditional at his house, and using Romaine lettuce, which was edible in the halachically prescribed quantities. Finding, however, that it was impossible to persuade anyone else to view Romaine lettuce as anything other than a newfangled and insipid substitute, he gave it up. During dinner, while he was able, Grandpa would get up and walk around the table, chatting with each of his guests. At that time, it was child's play to steal the Afikoman (not that it was tremendously difficult at other times.) שפוך חמתך he would recite with great intensity. He told me once that 30's and 40's, he recited that passage with the Nazis in mind; later (and, I would guess, before) he had the Russians in mind. The final songs were mauled and mangled in the traditional mode; highlights were the crooning of אדיר הוא by Harry Starr, and the roaring of ארבע אמהות led by Bunny. The guests would remain briefly to chat, though one year they stayed and stayed while Grandpa's eyelids got heavier and heavier, till Abby finally had to throw them out. The Seder was usually over by 10:30, though it would occasionally last as late as 11:00.


Grandpa was as scrupulously observant of ethical Halacha as as of rituals. Two instances come to mind. Once, we were walking to shul and there was a crippled man in front of us. There is a Halacha that states that, under these circumstances, it is forbidden to overtake the man, so as not to remind him of his handicap. Observing the Halacha, Grandpa trailed behind him for a block or two, and then crossed to the other side of Broadway.

One Shabbat morning, someone sponsored a Kiddush at Grandpa's minyan. After Kiddush, the leftovers went back into the fridge. My cousin Naomi and I wanted to serve them at lunch, but Grandpa absolutely refused. We argued that there was no chance that the proper owner would come to collect them after Shabbat and that the leftovers would not last for a week; hence, if we did not eat them, they would just be thrown out. Grandpa brought the discussion to an end by declaring that he would no more eat someone else's food without their explicit permission than he would eat treif.

Grandpa's unwillingness to impose his own rules on anyone else was not just a polite habit; it was a principle scrupulously adhered to. I remember once that he was quite distressed when he realized, a minute too late, that a remark he had just made implied that someone in the company had violated the Shabbat.

Several times in his last years, Grandpa mentioned that he had three books he was considering writing, in addition, of course, to continuing his work on the Sifra. These were (a) a commentary on the Passover Hagaddah; (b) a new book on the Pharisees, which was largely written, and was sitting in his desk at the Seminary; (c) a book on the Jewish doctrine of immortality. The last time he spoke of this, he replaced the book on immortality by a book to be entitled (more or less) ``The Coming Kingdom of Heaven; the Future Evolution of Man'' in which he would consider the evolution of man from the protozoan, and speculate as to the greater heights that the future might bring.

Grandpa several times said that he had considered writing his autobiography, but had decided against it, since, if he told the truth, no one would believe it.

To the end of his life, Grandpa was convinced that his opposition to the proclamation of the state of Israel was well-founded. It had worked out well, but it might have failed catastrophically. He quoted one of the Israeli leaders of the time as saying to him, ``We took a gamble and we won,'' an attitude that horrified him. ``One gambles with money,'' he said, ``or even with one's own life. But how can you gamble with hundreds of thousands of lives?''

It seemed to me that he sometimes tended to overestimate the centrality of the great powers, and to underestimate the degree to which local developments occurred by themselves. When Sadat gave his speech in Jerusalem, Grandpa's immediate reaction (which he partially withdrew later in the day) was that it was a show for the benefit of the American public, and didn't bring peace a bit closer.

One story I know from Rabbi Joel Zaiman. Someone once asked Grandpa who had been the greatest Jews of the last hundred years, expecting, presumably, some variant on ``Marx, Einstein, Freud''. ``R. Israel Salanter, the Chofetz Chaim, and Solomon Schechter,'' said Grandpa.

From time to time, Grandpa would read aloud to us: the first chapter of David Copperfield; favorite bits from The Innocents Abroad; essays by Max Beerbohm, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes; readable passages from Churchill's Second World War. Other authors that he particularly loved and used to quote: Bernard Shaw; Bertrand Russell, especially ``A Free Man's Worship,'' and ``An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish''; William James; Maurice Samuel; Jane Eyre; Sherlock Holmes.

He used to recite bits and pieces of poetry that he had learned at school, especially The Lady of the Lake. I never got the impression that he was otherwise much interested in poetry, though he was very sensitive to the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and liturgy.

Certain areas of science fascinated him, particularly medicine, the theory of evolution, and cosmology. He twice borrowed from me Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, an account of the Big Bang theory, and read it very carefully. He used to say that the complexity of the human brain and eye were proofs of the existence of God.

With the exception of reading Perry Mason novels, Grandpa was as ignorant of popular culture as he was of professional sports. He had no ear whatever for music. If he knew anything of art beyond the photographs in David Finn's books, I never saw any sign of it. In the time that I knew him, he only once went to a movie (Fiddler on the Roof) and only once watched television (Sadat's speech in Jerusalem). However my uncle Ezra and aunt Muny tell me that when his children were growing up, he sometimes took them to movies, including Pygmalion, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz and that he sometimes went to the theater. (The playwright Moss Hart was a cousin of my grandmother's, and he would invite the family to his Broadway shows.) He also used to take his father to the Yiddish theater every year on Purim.

The End

On the second day of Succot, one year in the mid-70's, an attack of angina in shul served notice that walking to and from the Seminary twice in one day, marching around for the Hoshanot, and eating in the cold Succah was an overly strenuous combination for a man of eighty. Over the following fifteen years, Grandpa's world gradually shrank away. His walks to the Seminary became slower and less frequent; the same happened to his walks to the 110th street shul; then he could only walk to the corner of West End Ave.; then only around the house; then only from his bedroom to his dining room table; in the end, not at all. He was forced to cut out his annual trips to Israel and England; then all trips out of town; in the end, he could not leave his house at all. He outlived many of those who were closest to him: all his brothers and sisters, almost all his near contemporaries at the Seminary, especially Prof. Lieberman, his closest friend for forty years; his beloved nephew Jimmy Finkelstein. Hearing and speaking became progressively harder, until in his last few months he could hardly communicate at all. In his last two years, he was sometimes depressed, which I had never seen him before in my life: worn out with pain and weakness, troubled in mind that he had not used his life as well as he should have, terrified that he might lose his mental faculties or that he might have to leave his home, two fates that, thank God, did not overtake him.

But Torah stayed with him to the end. At a time when all other activities were impossible, he was still able to study and write for hours at a time. He could barely see, but he could read the small print of the commentaries. When conversation was impossible, it was always possible to communicate by taking down a Sefer, and roaring out the text to him.

At all times, Grandpa had faith that, in some form, life continued after death. ``When I come to the future world,'' he once remarked to me, ``I expect that they will let me into the Yeshiva shel Maala. Not that I'm such great shakes myself.'' he smiled, ``But I have friends on the faculty.''

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