The real meaning of Yom Kippur

My grandfather, Walter Graubart, came to this country in 1946.

He was a very smart man.

He recognized, seven years earlier, when the Nazis invaded his native Poland, that this was not going to be like other assaults on the Jews.

No stranger to anti-Semitism, he and his cousin ran away from Poland to Czechoslovakia at age 12.

They made a plan:  they would go in separate directions, find jobs teaching cheder or religious school, and then meet at the home of a particular cousin a year to the day later.

And they found age 12, mind you.

My grandfather's cousin told me this story 30 years ago.

He said that when they met a year later, they shared a bed...but stayed up all night telling each other stories.

My grandfather then traveled to Belgium...he's 13 now, and it's 1921...where he sold buttons door to door to support himself.

He put away enough money to open up a clothing store in Eyesden, Belgium, in mining country near the Dutch border.

The clothing company did so well that he went back to Poland, met and married my grandmother, and started a family.

My mom, born in 1936.

My grandmother was pregnant with my aunt when the Nazis began World War II.

My grandfather abandoned the clothing store - and also the furniture store he started next door - and the family was on the run.

First into occupied France, and then down into Spain, which they entered as refugees, in a hay wagon.

And then from Barcelona to Havana, where they spent the next six years, before they were able to make the short flight to Miami.

During that time, no less than 70 of my grandparents' relatives - young, old, married, single, children -- were murdered by the Nazis.

"Zoll zeyner sheyner menschen," is all my grandfather would ever say about them, and never to me.

That's Yiddish for "They were beautiful people."

Ironically, those are the precise words my 80 year old mother uses when she gazes upon her grandchildren.

My grandparents started a new life here, raising my mother and aunt, in New York City.

In the early 1960s, when I was a kid, I would accompany my grandparents to their synagogue, Ohav Zedek, on West 95th Street, on Yom Kippur.

It was long and boring, but I liked being with them and on some level I understood and appreciated the solemnity of the day.

Afterwards, I could sit next to my grandfather and watch him break the fast on a big chicken dinner my grandmother made us.

But I wasn't allowed to talk to him while he was eating.

And here we are, half a century after his passing, and this year on Tuesday night, begins Yom Kippur.

To me, the real miracle wasn't just that my mother's immediate family survived the war, thanks to my grandfather's prescience.

The real miracle is also the fact that despite the murder of 70 relatives, including both his parents and his wife's parents, and all of their siblings, nephews, nieces, and son, he still chose to fast on Yom Kippur.

If he could have maintained faith in God on any level after going through all that, to the point where he spent Yom Kippur fasting in synagogue, what about us?

Can't we have faith?

Of course we can.

And that's the meaning for me, at least, of this Yom Kippur.