When I was growing up in Argentina, my mother's side of the family used to get together every 31st of December - not specifically to welcome the new year (that was a nice add-on) but to celebrate my grandfather's birthday. He was born in Narodizhe (Ukraine) on December 31st, 1899. By the time he was 14, he was an apprentice at an Yiddish printing house, learning how to compose text on a linotype (remember, those big machines that were used to create lead lines for the big printing machines?).
By the time he was 16, his parents decided to leave the Russian Empire and their first choice was Philadelphia, were my great-grandmother had a sister. No luck; as my great grandmother's tracoma left them out. They headed for Argentina instead. Shortly upon arrival, my great grandfather Mosheh passed away, and my great grandmother had to take over their shop. My grandfather, as the oldest of her children, also went out to work to help the family. At the time my grandfather arrived in Argentina there were no Yiddish newspapers nor Yiddish publishing places in Argentina. He was one of the very first Yiddish linotypists if not the first.
While he worked, he also volunteered his time at the Jewish home for orphans, where he taught many the use of the linotype, and I would meet some of them later in my life. But most important, my grandfather met a Jewish orphan from a Russian pogrom who was living at the home... my grandmother.
My grandfather was, by conviction, a socialist and a democrat. He believed in personal freedom and had a profound sense of social Justice. It was not until my mother was older and became involved in the HaShomer HaTzair (A Zionist-Socialist youth group) that her father began paying attention to Zionism and became its strong advocate. In the meantime, my grandfather was among the founders of the first Yiddish Newspaper in Argentina: the Yiddishe Tzaitung, set up as some kind of cooperative. Like a good Jew, however, when he had a fight with some of his partners, he left the paper with some of his co-workers and they went on to found the second Yiddish newspaper in Argentina: Di Presse.
After a few years he left Di Presse to start his own business; a small printing shop where he specialized in Yiddish books but also printed in Spanish. During the years of Peron's presidency in the early 1940s, he was approached by the members of the Communist Party who asked him to print some books for them. My grandfather, convinced democrat that he was, took the job. Peronist thugs came to his print shop, trashed it, destroyed his printing machines, and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. He left, with my grandmother and his two teenage daughters, for Uruguay where they lived for a few years. While in Uruguay, he helped found the first Yiddish newspaper in Uruguay, the Uruguayer Morgn Shtern.
It was not until several years later that he was able to return to Buenos Aires - Lucky for me, as my mother met then a young man who was active in Maccabi, a Buenos Aires Jewish sport club. That young man was my father, who had spent two weeks in jail for participating in a student movement opposing Peron.
My grandfather remained an activist all his life, with a passion for Jewish community, for socialism, for democracy, and for Zionism. Toward the end of his life, he learned that the Yiddishe Tzaitung was in financial trouble, so he volunteered to sell advertising to help keep it afloat. It was while he was doing just that, that all the years of working a linotype and the lead poisoning that brought, that he had a brain aneurysm and passed away in less than 48 hours. I was then a teenager.
So every December 31st, my memory goes back to my grandfather and the heritage of activism and love of the Jewish people he left me and my cousins. And every December 31st I feel the need to rededicate myself to that heritage. Probably my choice of career is also something I owe him. He believed in people, and he believed that Jewish community was built "Yiddele by Yiddele" (one Jew at a time). He believed every person was important, and he believed that dissagreements in the Jewish community were its most important strength. And he was the eternal optimist who was always, nevertheless, preparing for the worst. So every December 31st, I think "Happy Birthday, Zayde"
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