March 19, 2018 will mark the 38th yahrzeit of my beloved grandfather, Chone ben Aryeh z’l. He passed away in 1980 and rarely a week goes by that I don’t think of him.
He was a tough and pious Jew. Coming to Canada just after the First World War he became a cap-maker and helped to unionize his fellow workers at a time when “union” was a dirty word. When I look at pictures of him back in the day, I see a man who regularly expected to have his head broken and was ready to dish out the same.
But he was also a chazzan who, almost to the end of his life, led the congregations at Montreal’s Beth Moshe and Zichron Kedoshim through the arduous day-long prayers of Yom Kippur. As I write this, I am listening to tapes that he recorded as he practiced.
He was also a practical joker. When he wasn’t practicing, he would record my dog barking and then sneak upstairs to replay the sound, to see if he could fool the dog. He thought it was funny as hell when the dog would charge up the stairs to confront the intruder. He thought it was even funnier when the dog refused to take the bait and saved his angry barking for when he came down the stairs in defeat.
The story that stays with me always is how, at the end of the Second World War, the non-Jewish local of the cap-makers union (in which he proudly held membership card #1) was trying to decide whether or not they should sponsor refugee workers from Europe. The economy was not good, and people were reasonably fearful that more workers would mean fewer jobs for them. The story is told that Chone listened for a while and then ended the discussion by bringing his hand down on the table, saying “We will do this because it is the right thing to do.” It was. And they did, bringing 600 people to Canada as a result. As the Canadian director of the Union told my mother in 2000, “it was Chone Byer’s decisiveness that made it happen.”
Along with my Bobbe Raizel, he was the ethical centre and foundation of our family. They asked themselves what they should do and what G-d required of them. They prayed without affectation, loved without condition, laughed from the belly, gave with two open hands and hugged hard.
I miss them both.
An earlier version of this refection appeared in The Exchange on February 19, 2014