How I honor my father in a rapidly changing world

We were listening to NPR when the news came on: “The dentist with the greatest name recognition worldwide died yesterday. Dr. Louis Grossman developed modern endodontia (root-canal therapy), a technique to save teeth.”

Louis Grossman, my father, was born 112 years ago this month in the little farm village of Teplik of Czarist Russia. He was the first son of conservative Jewish parents, Harry and Roche (Rose). 1901 was not a peaceful time in Russia, especially for Jews who were often the focus of persecution. Jews had to live in separate communities where pogroms were frequent; these organized massacres killed and wounded thousands.

In 1905, when my father was just 3 years old, Harry left Russia to seek his fortune in the United States. A year later, Harry had saved enough money to pay steamboat fare for my grandmother and father. They came steerage class on the S.S. Potsdam, arriving at Ellis Island after an 18-day crossing. The “Manifest of Alien Passengers” states my 22-year-old grandmother was able to read and write. It declares, too, that neither she nor Louis was an anarchist or a polygamist, and they were in good mental and physical health. There is also a column on this document asking “Whether in possession of $50, and if less, how much?” The sum of $22.50 was crossed out and replaced by $20.

My father grew up in South Philadelphia in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood. Many of his childhood friendships became lifelong. He met for lunch with some of those men on a regular basis, and I got to know them as a kid.

When my father graduated from high school, he wanted to be a physician, but his family couldn’t afford the two years of college needed at that time for admission to medical school. Dental school, however, only required a high school diploma.

After graduation, Louis started his own dental practice and also taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. One day, he was very taken by a young undergraduate student with a toothache. Emma May MacIntyre would become my mother, but the marriage would have to wait.

Interested in furthering his education, my father had already made arrangements to study in Rostock, Germany, in 1928. The course there usually took a year, but he was motivated to return to his fiancée and thus finished in six months. He didn’t receive his diploma until much later because the rising Nazi power suspected he was Jewish. The wedding was a simple civil ceremony, but the marriage lasted 60 years.

Over time, I learned his family disowned him because of this, as my father never spoke about it. Indeed, when my parents married, they sat shiva for him, which is a seven-day-long Jewish ceremony to mourn someone who has died. He never spoke to his mother after this, and I grew up without much contact with my father’s family. By Hebraic law, a child is the religion of his mother. Because my mother was Christian, my father’s children (my sister and I) would be considered gentiles and lost to the Jewish faith.

Many years later, I was invited to a bris (ritual circumcision) in Durango of a baby boy I had delivered. The boy’s dad is Jewish and mom, Christian – the same as my parents. It was with trepidation I attended: Would there be friction between the two sets of grandparents? Indeed, would the paternal grandparents even attend?

My fears were unfounded. Everyone – Christian and Jew – had a great time with smiles and congratulations all around. Only the little boy didn’t seem to enjoy the party when the mohel performed his surgery!

Religions are changing. It is no longer a sin for Roman Catholics to eat meat on Fridays. Not all Muslim women wear headscarves. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) used to shun music, art, dance and reading (other than the Bible), but now we enjoy all these.

The Bible supports owning slaves (Leviticus 25:44), executing people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and forbids sowing seeds of more than one plant in the same field (Leviticus 19:19) – even though we now know planting beans and corn together is beneficial.

I honor my father who thrived despite his family disowning him. I also honor that the world is changing. While so much depends on whether we can change our way of life quickly enough to minimize damage to our planet, religions must adapt to the vast changes humanity has gone through since many religious rules were decreed.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2013

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