My grandfather died, suddenly, on the rarest date of the year: March 3, 1957, which coincides with today, the 30th of Adar Rishon.
It’s a leap year date that only appears seven times in the nineteen-year cycle of the Hebrew calendar. Following our Lithuanian Jewish custom, we observe his death anniversary on the 1st of Adar in non-leap years, but if we were to hold by the strict standard of the exact date, his yahrzeit has only appeared 24 times in the last 65 years.
More strikingly, this is the very first time that the Hebrew date of 30 Adar I and the Gregorian date of March 3 have coincided since his passing. In a way, it’s as if he died just last year.
I never met my grandfather Henry, but his daughter—my mother—chose to bestow his name on me, and I feel a special responsibility to reflect on his life and legacy.
Henry was only fifty-two years old when he died. I’ve relived the scene many times in my imagination, especially on Yom Kippur when I contemplate the fragile brevity of our human lifespans.
My uncle Leon, then fourteen years old, was having difficulty with his homework. My grandmother Pauline sent him downstairs to speak with my grandfather in the finished basement of their Montreal duplex, a quiet place to which Henry often retreated for personal study. Leon remembers hearing Henry’s labored breathing just before he collapsed to the floor and died within moments, right in front of him. Coronary thrombosis was later listed on the death certificate.
I picture Uncle Leon as a young boy, just starting high school, suddenly burdened with the task of telling his mother that she is a widow, his eighteen-year-old sister that she is an orphan. I reach out with my mind and gingerly touch the mental picture, tentatively placing myself and my own wife and children in my namesake’s place, looking sideways at the result so as not to be overwhelmed.
Yehudah Leib and Shifra Ravvin, originally of Zagare, Lithuania, gave their newborn son the Hebrew name Hillel when he was born in Leonpol’e, Belarus in 1905. I don’t know why they moved from Zagare to tiny Leonpol’e: Zagare was a significant Lithuanian town, famous as the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter a century earlier, father of the Mussar movement. Leonpol’e, on the other hand, barely registered on the map. Some 800k to the south-east, closer to Kyiv than Vilnius, it was known principally for the ramshackle wooden synagogue that stood on the outskirts of the shtetl.
Henry’s childhood was shaped by the turmoil of World War I and the Russian Civil War, and antisemitism truncated his studies at the University of Moscow. When he emigrated to Canada he booked passage with his Russian name Ilya, although he would later use the English name Henry, hoping to avoid prejudice in the new world.
It was on his journey from Rotterdam to Halifax in February 1930 that he met his wife Pauline, also a Lithuanian Jew (their names are sequential in the Canadian immigration record, suggesting that they got off the boat together). They were married in the Chevra Kadish congregation of Montreal, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Henry was linguistically gifted, and he mastered Canadian English with an accent that was reportedly undetectable, eh? He completed his degree in Electrical Engineering and worked in the aeronautics industry. When he died he was studying toward a PhD candidate in History at the University of Montreal, specializing in the Slavic studies, a fact I only learned when I was accepted to graduate school for the same degree.
He was a man who valued a well-rounded education, working in science and technology yet appreciating literature, music and culture. My mother and my uncle Leon tell me he was a loving father, a hard worker who supported them with an encouraging warmth. His wife Pauline never remarried, but before her passing in 2010 she merited to see his children have children of their own—me and three cousins, one of whom also bears his name—and many great-grandchildren.
My cousin Michael is flying in from Washington, DC to commemorate our grandfather’s yahrzeit at a siyum, a traditional celebration on the completion of a Talmudic tractate. If you are in New York, please feel free to join us at the 8:00 am minyan at Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst.
May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.