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Lessons from my grandfather

By Ari Pliskin

The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.
— Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

Early on the morning of April 4, 2016, the spirit of my grandfather Dr. Moises Moschkovich, left his body while I lay at his side at hospice. We called him Zeide (Spanish pronunciation of yiddish). Since he was born in Romania in 1921, he journeyed to Argentina, and then the United States – and now beyond. During his final days, my family and I accompanied him and increased his comfort. He cracked jokes and expressed love until his last words.

Being at his side for the last hours was one of the most beautiful, horrible, experiences I’ve ever had. I’m filled with love, inspiration, awe, wonder and grief.  Through the experience I felt very connected to my mother, sister, aunt and our partners. We laughed, we cried. We sat in silence. We shared.

We read the Spinoza quote above at my grandfather’s memorial service.  A decidedly non-religious man, reading the philosophy of Spinoza during his later years gave him meaning.  He never stopped studying, reading and learning so the quote is appropriate.  His lifelong quest helped him find freedom in a number of ways.   

1. Ambition

My grandfather broke free from poverty and political instability.  His story is an intercontinental journey of evading violence and improving life for his family.  His family escaped Russia in 1917.  He was born during a brief stop in Romania and came to Argentina when he was an infant.  His father was a barber.  His father insisted he stay in school despite family economic pressure for each child to bring in money.  His completion of medical school was interrupted only by protest (see Justice below).  After practicing medicine in Argentina for several years, he was frustrated that he could still not afford to buy a house.  He brought his family to Cleveland, OH.  He continued to work through his adult life and didn’t fully retire until he was 90 years old.

Growing up, there was never any doubt in my family that I’d attend university.  My Zeide supported me morally and financially in first receiving my undergraduate degree at Wesleyan and then in attending the Zen Peacemakers seminary.  This last piece is especially important because he was supporting something that conflicted with his modernist, rationalist worldview.  I differentiated between the dogma of mainstream religion and the open-minded pragmatism of progressive spirituality, which helped him open up to appreciating the universal values in the path I was forging.  While he struggled to understand it at times, he also made an effort to read about the life of the Buddha and appreciate the elements of Buddhist philosophy and practice that could resonate with his own worldview.  

2. Culture

My grandparents found freedom from boredom and convention through culture. While my parents and I watched a copious amount of TV during my childhood, my grandparents discouraged us from watching too much.   Instead, there was often classical music or tango playing in the background at their house.  They brought me repeatedly to the Cleveland Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History.  At their house, Zeide showed me books about evolution with images of homo sapiens’ predecessors and there was also a big Picasso book. 

Photo by Mindy Tucker at my sister's wedding 2 years ago. 

Photo by Mindy Tucker at my sister's wedding 2 years ago. 

3. Wellness

He found freedom from poor health, which helped him live a long time in relative good health.  “I started exercising on a regular basis at age 60,” my grandfather told the Cleveland Jewish News "I left the addiction of smoking for a new addiction: that of exercise,” he said. “I miss (exercise) if I don’t do it.”  I remember going together to the health club and doing the routine together: exercise, hot tub, steam room, a little snack of apple or crackers and laying in our towels.  This was our man time.  

Age 91

Age 91

4. Caring

He found freedom from isolation by caring for others.  I remember Zeide drying me after a shower at his house.  I remember a feeling of warmth and a sense that he was caring for all of me in a very intimate and safe way.   The way he cared for my grandmother while she was in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s in her later years touched me deeply.

When the music therapist at the hospital before hospice asked what attracted him to medicine, he explained that he loved caring for people.  As I sat next to both of them, I was touched to hear him explain to her that his grandson (myself) is also called to a vocation of caring as well. 

5. Justice

He also worked for political freedom, from oppression and injustice.  I was told that my grandfather never turned away a client who came to his house unable to afford his services.  As a student, he protested the anti-democratic rise of Perón.  He recalls being incarcerated with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was an younger student at the same medical school.

Participating in student protests

Participating in student protests

Participating in the student political paper.  

Participating in the student political paper.  

Conclusion

My biggest current project is supporting the pay-what-you-can community cafe movement through Unity Tables.  I can see the influences of my grandfather in this work.  A sense of ambition has propelled me to steadily build this work, a bit at a time, over several years.  With live music and other cultural events, community cafes not only feed our bellies, but also our need for meaning and creativity.  My grandparent’s lifelong insistence on eating well and exercising regularly have stuck with me and played a foundational role in my daily habits.  Eating well is a basic goal for Unity Tables’ efforts to increase access to locally grown organic food.  Community cafes differ from soup kitchens in that they increase access to food in a spirit of caring and dignity.  Finally, I explore how community cafes actualize food justice, addressing concerns of environmental sustainability and labor, in addition to public health.

Zeide, you are my foundation. You taught me wellness, culture, caring, ambition and justice. I hope I can make you proud.