On tradition and values

January 13, 2017

My father, Morris Kaufman, died on the fourth day of Chanukah in 1992. In 2016, his yahrtzeit (the anniversary of his death) will have occurred on December 27 and on that day, I will have recited the kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead). My thoughts are filled with him and I decided to write this not because he was unique, but because so many fathers, like mine, are the North Stars, the beacons of guidance in their children’s lives, even long after they are gone.


Shortly before his death, my father called me to his bedside specifically to tell me that there were two things (beyond his family) of which he was proudest in his life. The first was that he had been president of a Jewish day school for 15 years and during that time not a single child was turned away for financial reasons. The second was that in 1948, he had used his trucks to run guns to the docks to be shipped to the Jewish forces to use in the Israeli War for Independence. It turned out that he was caught and spent a night in the clink before he was bailed out!


I have thought many times of that moment by his bedside. I wondered why my father thought it so important to summon me, knowing that he was dying, for no other reason than to tell me about those two subjects of his great pride. I knew my father as a quiet philanthropist. He gave a great deal of money to charity, without fanfare or publicity. (He gave so much that very other year or so, he was audited by the IRS because he gave away such an outsize percentage of his income.)


I came to the conclusion that my father was sending me the powerful message that even more than charity, our lives must be lived for a purpose:  To fulfill the values that have been passed down to us. If we can do that then we can say goodbye to those we love, secure in the knowledge that our lives had meaning.


A few years after my father’s death, a friend approached me in synagogue and asked me to come over to meet his father, a Holocaust survivor, who was visiting his family. My friend introduced me by saying:  “This is Stuart Kaufman, Morris Kaufman’s son.” His father, the survivor of one of the worst episodes in the history of mankind, actually took my hand with tears in his eyes and kissed it! He said to me:  “If it were not for your father, my children would never have had a Jewish education and my survival would have been for nothing.” My friend (a doctor and a major activist for the Jewish people) and his sister had been students at the school of which my father had been president so long before. My father had made a difference — a huge difference.


Following my father’s death, I spent a great deal of time trying to decide which were the most important values in my life. This was not as easy as it sounds. My purpose was to consider what I could do that would make my father proud of the way I live my life. Would I live a life worthy enough to actually have accomplishments of which I could be proud enough to point out to those I leave behind? After several years of thought, I was able to focus on those things that are most important to me (other than my family, which goes without saying). Those things that are most important in my life — those things for which I would fight and, if necessary, die:  The United States of America, the Jewish people and the state of Israel. In the decade since I came to that realization, I have concentrated on involving myself in activities that serve each of those. I have spent the years fighting Islamists, leftists, Jew-haters and their dupes. It is what keeps me going and this column is part of that.


An existential allegiance to the U.S., to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel represent the essence of the traditions and values that my father passed on to me. As a result of his example, I, too, attend synagogue each week and participate in and support the Jewish communities in which I live. It is part of a family “tradition,” which can be defined as “a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.”


All too often, during these broken times, “tradition” is considered to be a negative. Think, “the rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.” However, traditions are the vehicle through which we convey our “values,” the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society. It is the affirmative obligation of parents to pass on positive values to their children. It can and should be conveyed in all that we do. And following my father’s tradition, I have tried to channel my life into doing something that will last after I have gone.


I also learned of the importance of tradition from my maternal grandfather. In 1910, my grandfather, who was 16 years old, left his home in what was then Austria-Hungary to come to America. The last time that he ever saw his father was at the train station on the day he left. During those final moments, just as the train was leaving, my great-grandfather handed my grandfather a package through the train window:  It was my great grandfather’s tallit, his prayer shawl. Throughout the years, my grandfather treasured his father’s tallit, which he wore on only one day each year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

When I was married, in 1968, my grandfather gave the tallit to me. I wanted to continue the tradition and on Yom Kippur in 1969, I wore that tallit to services in the synagogue in Fort Worth, Tx., where we had moved. During the services, an elderly gentleman (probably younger than I am now) came to me and asked where I had gotten that tallit. I told him that it had been given to my grandfather by his father. The man said:  “He was from Bukhovina?” (a province in what is now Ukraine). Surprised, I said that he was and asked how he knew. He told me that the neck piece on the tallit, which consisted of elaborately woven silver wire, was unique and was made only by a particular craftsman whom he had known in Bukhovina. He then asked me where my grandfather had lived. I told him that he was from a small village named Kharabchiv, near the city of Czernowicz. The man then asked for my grandfather's name and I told him:  Aharon Shammai Schvartz. At that point the man got a strange, faraway look in his eyes. He said to me:  “When I was a young boy, my best friend and I would run away from school and ride horses in the fields.” I looked at him and said: “ It was you!” My grandfather had repeatedly used the same words to tell me of his childhood memories.


Einstein said that, “coincidence is G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.” After more than six decades, half a world away, with a Holocaust intervening, the best friend of my grandfather’s childhood had found me because of my great grandfather’s tallit.


I gave the tallit to my son when he was married and he is now the steward of this emblem of our family’s values. He, too, wears it proudly each Yom Kippur. And it is his responsibility to make sure that at every family wedding, bar or bat mitzvah, that tallit is present as a symbol of the blessings of tradition. It is not merely a piece of cloth embellished with a metal wire neckband. It is the repository of thousands of years of tradition that provides my family with a mantle of protection, comfort and meaning.


A multitude of disparate factors come together in the values passed on from parent to child through the generations. There are universal values that are conveyed through the traditions of every healthy, functioning family. “Christian” traditions are important for Christian parents to convey to their children, just as “Jewish” values are important for Jewish parents to convey to their children, in each case because they contain the values that are implicit in western civilization. Each one of us must identify and understand those values so that we can conduct our lives in a manner that is worthy of passing on to our children.


Rabbi Hillel, the great first century B.C.E sage, has said that the measure of a man is not his children; it is his grandchildren. If we have properly passed on our values to our children then they will, in turn, pass it on to their children. That is the best way of honoring our own parents: by passing on their values to those who follow us.


There is one other thing that I would like to impart for your consideration. A short time ago, I was asked if I could impart the single best piece of advice that my father had given me and I knew immediately. On the day of my bar mitzvah in 1957 — the day that, according to Jewish law, I became responsible for my own actions — my father took me aside and said that he wanted to give me a piece of guidance to guide me for the rest of my life. The advice:



When he said that I started to laugh, but his look let me know that he was being very serious. He repeated that advice to me many times over the years and I can honestly say that it undoubtedly kept me from doing things that I would probably have lived to regret. The result is that, in the beginning of my 74th year on this planet, I can look back with few regrets, thanks to my father. I think that he would be proud of me.


May the memory of Morris Kaufman be for a blessing.


            Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.



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