Being a grandparent makes me think of a Hasidic proverb that says “Old age to the unlearned is winter. Old age to the learned is harvest time.” Grandparents entering your grandchild’s world is your harvest time.
As I head off to New York for a conversation at the JCC Manhattan with Rabbi Joy Levitt on “The Grandest Love,” it seemed fitting to share this letter from my grandson, Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky, written when he was 26. Now living in New York, Ethan will be joining me at the event to bring added depth and perspective to the conversation.
You have asked me to tell you what I have learned from you. This exercise is an example of the single most important lesson I have learned from you, Grandpa: show your family that you care about who they are and always keep them talking. You constantly ask me how I am, what I am doing, why I am doing things, etc., and you really want to know the answer.
You have made me share my school papers with you from ninth grade through my third year of grad school. I think that this single action is one of the most caring things anyone has done for me. For any groups that my grandfather is sharing this with, I will emphasize this point: always ask to read people’s papers; always show that you care about your family—not just because they are your family, but because you are interested in who they are.
Another thing that this reminds me of is that I have learned from you is to never be afraid to look weird or silly. I mean really, Grandpa…asking your grandchildren (and probably tons of other random folks in your life) to write letters to their grandparents? Most people would think that was weird. Actually most people (well the people I have asked to write letters at least) start out by saying “that’s kind of weird,” then they think about it for a minute and decide that it is actually really sweet.
You have taught me to never be afraid to look foolish doing something I think is worthwhile. You have shown me to go after what I want without timidity. “You think you want to be a rabbi? Go sit down with a rabbi and talk to him then follow him around for a week.” “You want to be a spy?”…etc.
Grandpa, you have taught me to seek the knowledge I need and to speak to the right people.
You have also not merely supported what I thought I wanted; you added your own two cents as well. “You want to be a rabbi? First go work in a factory and met real people.” “You are interested in summer camps? Don’t work at a summer camp! Go work in a factory and meet real people.” (Said the man who spent approximately 30 years working in a summer camp and approximately zero years working in a factory.)
These suggestions are all part of your caring for me. The lesson to go and make sure I know what life is like for all different kinds of people has been an important one to me. (And I apologize for never having worked in a factory.)
And, of course, Grandpa, no letter about what you have taught me could be finished without your famous phrase that I will never forget and that I will continue to use in every application and personal statement I write: “Always leave your campsite better than you found it.”
Right after teaching me to love and be interested in my family, you taught me to love and care for the world around me. I have learned from your words and from your actions that the world should be better, not worse, for having housed me. I live my life to try and make all the campsites I use, better; you have shown me not only that I need to make them better, but you have also given me glimpses of how to do so.
I am sure that I will add to this letter or want to change it (you have also taught me never to stop revising things I have written) but this is what I Have for now.
I love you and I will call you soon.
Thanks for reading my papers,
ETHAN (written at 26)