Last winter, when traveling with a friend to the outskirts of Berlin, we passed by the city's monumental Olympic stadium, built by the Nazis in the thirties. Suddenly I was stirred by a memory. "You know," I told her, "This is the place my grandfather wanted to visit more than anything else, and couldn't."
In 1936 Shimon Waldman was a champion long distance runner, competing all over the Middle East. He was accepted to the olympics, but then Hitler decreed that no Jews could participate and my grandfather was forced to stay at home. Throughout his life he kept a clipping from a Berliner Jewish newspaper. The headline reads: "Waldman Kommt nach Berlin!" Waldman is coming to Berlin, a celebrity, a power to contend with.
My friend took a photo of me running in front of the stadium, symbolically fulfilling that old aspiration. Unlike my grandfather, who passed away last night, I'm a slow enough runner to be caught by a cheap lens. The Athletic skill was not something I inherited, but I'd like to think that he did bequeath the athletic spirit to all of us.
Berlin's stadium was the only place my grandfather wanted to go to and failed. No other destination was unattainable, be it the finish line, a high rank (he was an officer in the British Army's Jewish Brigade and later the chief of Israel's military police), faraway lands like Peru, the ripe age of 96 or a home he dreamed of. He dreamed of quite a few and moved again and again, so besides the determination I should also credit him for the travel-bug-gene.
After WWII, still in British uniform, my grandpa visited Rome and happened to be on St. Peter's square when Pope pius XII came out to greet the multitudes. My grandfather did not bow as the others. Religion meant less than nothing to him, but he remembered that Jews were not supposed to bow before a human being and that fit well with his stubborn, irreverent spirit.
The Pope approached the only man on the square left standing, noticed the symbol of the Jewish Brigade on his shoulder, and said to him in Hebrew: יברכך ה' וישמרך - may God bless you and protect you, the opening words of Judaism's most potent benediction.
A man who's gutsy enough to stay standing has little need for God's protection. A determined human being fulfills his own wishes. The night my grandfather met my grandmother he returned to barracks and told his fellow officers: "Tonight I met the woman I'll marry." Sure enough, the beautiful Malka Shtul was to be by his side for life. This life ended last night, but the determination remains in us, a very fine gift indeed.