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Our Zaideh

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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.


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