Notes from a Granddaughter

imageMy niece, Tzipora Wacholder, gave me permission to post her memories of my father, Ben Zion Wacholder z”l.
More memories will be shared on the Ben Zion Wacholder z”l memorial page, to be maintained by my niece Shifra. You can send material or links to bzwacholdermemories@gmail.com.

 

My Zaidy:
You were a wonderful grandfather. You did so much for all of us and showered us with love and attention. You cared that we should think and learn and grow. You exemplified the phrase —œlifelong learner— and were able to communicate that to all of your descendants.

I was happy to have introduced myself to you one last time. The conversation we had, each time I came to visit, replays in my head. Zaidy would grasp my hands firmly, and ask —œWho is this?— I would say —œThis is Tzipora. David’s daughter.— You would call me your lovely granddaughter and tell me how much you love me.

Whenever we saw you, we would cuddle next to you and talk about our lives. Zaidy was always most eager to hear about our studies. —œDo you like school?— he would ask,  —œWhat are you learning? Then  he would ask us incisive questions in order to deepen our understanding.

Occasionally he would teach us an interesting random fact. I remember him telling me about the beauty of prime numbers, and his delight in how many of the special numbers in Judaism are prime, such as 613, 13, and 7. He loved all kinds of knowledge and, even more, he loved sharing his knowledge with others. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Ziady treated every person with tremendous respect. He did not discriminate between people by status, money, religion, or even age. Anyone he met was judged solely by their content. This enabled him to speak as easily to a child as to prominent academics.

Zaidy related to each person on their own level, but he especially loved children. My earliest memory of Zaidy is him playing with my fingers, trying to find the one that he claimed  had —œdisappeared—. —œHmmm, this is interesting—, he exclaimed, —œYou only have 9 fingers!— His talking watch was another source of endless fascination to us children.
As a grandfather, Zaidy was very loving. He would feel our faces and tell us that he has beautiful grandchildren. Although he never saw our faces, it was uncanny how he could follow our thoughts.

My siblings and I spent several Shabbosim with Zaidy in Aunt Nina’s house. Zaidy was fun to spend Shabbos with because he so enjoyed participating in everything. We would sing Zmiros with him. Everything he did was done in a complete way. When he sang with us, it was with his entire heart and soul. Although he did not have a melodious voice, he more than made up for it with his enthusiasm and joyous smile. Even when he didn’t have the strength to sing, he would bang on the table.

Zaidy always encouraged our learning. To him, it was like breathing. We knew to be prepared for a grilling about anything we mentioned learning in school. In both secular and religious topics, Zaidy could test us and teach us something we hadn’t known. In Jewish studies, we knew that with a prompt of only a few words, he could —“ and would —“ recite most things from memory, and that included the Bible, the Talmud, and commentaries.

Zaidy respected every point of view, as long as it was logically consistent. I remember an incident that occurred while I was reading to him a book he had authored. He suddenly stopped me and asked what my opinion was on what he wrote. Knowing the high value he placed on intellectual honesty, I answered —œI think it borders on the heretical—. He very much enjoyed that.

He was an extremely honest person with strong principles. He believed that knowledge cannot be hidden and should be in the public domain. Although he possessed a very easygoing personality, he did not hesitate to stand up for his principles, as in the matter of publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Zaidy was a Holocaust survivor. With his talent for languages, he was able to pass himself off as a gentile laborer. Although we asked, he did not share much about those frightening times with his young grandchildren. Instead, he told us the humorous story of how he passed time teaching —œGemoorah— to the cows while working in a farm. —œGe-MOOOOO-rah—, he emphasized, with that special twinkle.

Education was so important to him. He came to America in his late teens, and earned a doctorate degree. When I was in high school, he would always ask me, —œAre you in college yet?— When I reached that point, he was no longer able to converse in depth about each course, but he immediately wanted to know what I was going to study for a doctorate degree. He was so happy whenever he heard that someone was pursuing higher education. To Zaidy, learning was everything in life.

Although he lacked sight, he possessed the sharpest insight. He sensed when someone was not being completely honest with him. Zaidy only wanted to hear the truth. Maimonides says, —œAccept the truth from wherever it comes— and Zaidy excelled in this. Consequently, he loved critiques of his work and sought them out.

Zaidy was a proud Jew and a true —œPerson of the Book.— He authored many books and articles during his life and wanted the last book he published to be an autobiography.

Every visit involved a lot of reading. He never tired of it —“ instead, the more he learned, the more he wanted to learn. More recently, we would read him the last book he published, —œThe New Damascus Documents: The Midrash on the Eschatological Torah of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Reconstruction, Translation, and Commentary—. He was very proud of this book. He most loved hearing our questions about his work. Whether explaining —œeschatological— to a 12 year old or debating a Talmudic point, Zaidy would go to great lengths to make sure he was understood.

For as long as he physically could, Zaidy insisted on going to shul to pray. This involved a long and tiring walk, but he loved the atmosphere in the synagogue.

Zaidy loved all of his grandchildren  deeply. He expressed this love through loving words and actions, but most importantly by instilling a love of learning and thinking. Each grandchild perceived Zaidy in a different way. Zaidy was like that. He spoke many languages and was a polymath. No one could compete with him in depth or breadth of knowledge, so he would discuss whatever interested us. In this way, he made us feel comfortable with him and was able to teach us as only he could. I know I have only merited to glimpse a few aspects of the complex person who was my grandfather.
It would make him happy to know his children are going to Israel together with him, and that his grandchildren remember his example and his accomplishments, and value his legacy. And yes, Zaidy, we are going to read your book.

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Comments

  1. What a wonderful letter and an amazing heritage. Your father was an incredible man and I am sorry for the pain you are feeling.

  2. Hannah, what a beautiful tribute to your father. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. What a wonderful tribute! Your father sounded like an amazing man, and you must be so proud of him, as he was, I’m sure, so proud of you.

  4. This is a beautiful tribute. You must be proud that he was your father.

  5. Tzipora says:

    Aunt Hannah – Thank you for correcting my inaccuracies in the original version.
    Thank you everyone for your comments.
    May we only share good news.
    Shabbat Shalom / Good Shabbos,
    TW

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us. I see that the talent of writing runs in the family! Your father was a very special person.
    E.L.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing with us about your special, warm and knowledgeable father.

  8. Very moving tribute to your Dad, Hannah. May you and all his children and grandchildren come to remember him in joy.

  9. Nice tribute.. have being meaning to wirte you

    and send sympathy wishes on the loss of your father.

    May you have only simahot to share in the future.

  10. This is a very moving tribute and beautifully written. I’m sorry I never knew your father, Hannah. He sounds like a fascinating person, and his book sounds particularly intriguing. I would love to read it. He must have been very proud of his family.

  11. Marty Abegg says:

    Tzipora!
    I read your memories of your Grandfather through a mist of tears. So many of your experiences were also my own. You are so right, he did have that special knack of treating all who came in contact with him on their level. But I like to think that–especially after reading your piece–that he treated me a lot like you … as a son, or a grandson. And he always asked about my own children (whom I would imagine are close to you in age). My older daughter, Steph, has good memories of sitting with him and talking. Maybe he played the missing finger game with her too. Perhaps we will meet someday–I would very much like that–and have the opportunity to share stories. I will read his book too!

  12. Rabbi Stanley Howard Schwartz, HUC-JIR 1969 says:

    Zichrono l’vrachah. Prof. Wachholder has become a blessing already, and this eulogy amplifies why it has. Today I was writing down my thoughts for a future sermon on Deuteronomy/D’varim and included this story from your grandfather’s commentaries class from sometime in 1965-66:
    One day as I took my bag lunch to the basement staff dining room in the Hebrew Union College library and was eating alone, Prof. Ben Zion Wachholder came in and walked right to my table, stuck out his hand like a fellow student, although he was a 50-year-old faculty member, and said, “I’m Ben Zion Wachholder; call me Ben.” That was the kind of loving, humble man he was.
    And here is one of my stories about him which relates to this week’s Torah portion, the first section of the Book of Deuteronomy, as he recounted his teacher back in Europe questioning the students about the first two words of the parasha called D’varim.

    “Why does the sedra begin “V’ayleh ha-D’varim?” As soon as the rabbi said that, a student said, “But, rabbi, it begins “Ayleh ha-D’Varim, not “V’ayleh !” Prof. Wachholder then continued by telling us how the teacher responded, “Davar acher ! That too is a good answer.”

    SHABBAT SHALOM

    • Rabbi Stanley Howard Schwartz, HUC-JIR 1969 says:

      I just read my beloved professor’s biography and discovered that he was only 42 in 1966. zecher tzadik livrcha

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