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  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

    Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.

    The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.

    Rabbi Seth Goren

    One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.

    Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.

    We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.

     

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