Remembering – and Thanking – Those Who Came Before Me

Ninety years ago on today’s Hebrew date of Kislev 12, my great-grandmother Millie Rhoda White breathed her last. Her husband, Rabbi Isaac White, survived another her for decade. Their grandson Steve, my future father, was 14 when Isaac died.

My Dad’s occasional musings to me about family lore included a few amusing personal recollections featuring his paternal grandfather. For example, Dad mentioned that his Isaac would never fail to bring his own food whenever he came to Dad’s family home for dinner; devoutly orthodox Isaac kept kosher, but Dad’s own father had given up Jewish dietary practice when he married my grandmother. Dad also used to recount how his grandfather liked to pose riddles to the grandchildren, such as asking them to figure out why bagels have holes. But of his grandmother Millie, Dad had nothing to recount, reason being that she died when he was very young; he never really got to know her.

The only evidence I have of her existence is a single photograph of her and Isaac, she standing next to his sitting figure, both of them looking rather stately, she with a rather plain face, his face framed by a luxuriant black beard, a generous yarmulke crowning his head. My life didn’t begin for another 20 years after Isaac died. Millie died a full 30 years before I was born. They lived in another time altogether, even if I walk the same ground they walked here at the confluence of two great rivers. It’s hard to imagine, much less relate to, what their life was like. But about one event in their life, a huge event, I am ready to speculate.

In 1890, Isaac and Millie left behind the place where they – and presumably numerous generations of my paternal family before them – grew up in what is today Belarus, and came with their young family (four children at the time; three more, including their son Harry S. White, my grandfather after whom I am named) to a strange land with a strange language and strange customs. That could not have been easy. But they were brave enough. Good thing. Who know what would have become of the Whites (actually, before coming to America, the “Fites”), if they had stayed in Europe. We well know what happened to Jews in that part of Europe 50 years later. On Millie Rhoda’s 90th yahrzeit, I say to her spirit Yishar Koah – and Todah Rabbah.