The writing on the wall

‘You know what finding a book with your great-grandfather’s name and address in it means?

311_ Gaba family photo (photo credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Silver)
311_ Gaba family photo
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Silver)
The other day, as I walked out of my building in Jerusalem, I spotted a book, Jews of Medieval England, on a wall next to our trash can.
Having recently attended a Jewish history lecture series, I couldn’t resist opening it.
Written inside this 1939 edition was the name “Isaac Gaba,” followed by an address in Wales – 17 Winchester Ave., Penylan, Cardiff.
I did a double take: “Gaba” was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, and she’d spent her childhood in Wales.
Book in hand, I phoned my father, who told me that Isaac Gaba was my great- grandfather. My father had actually visited that address before he married my mother.
I was flabbergasted. I’m no mathematician, but I reckon the chances of randomly coming across one’s longdeparted Welsh great-grandfather’s book in the street in front of one’s home in Jerusalem are pretty slim.
News of my find spread quickly – together with speculation regarding its significance.
“You know what finding a book with your great-grandfather’s name and address in it means?” a friend asked me the next day.
“It probably means the book belonged to him,” I replied.
“No. Your great-grandfather is sending you a message; he’s obviously trying to tell you he wants you to get married.”
While I would be delighted to comply, I wasn’t convinced. Sending me a book about the Jews of medieval England seemed just a little too subtle a way of expressing that sentiment.
One of Isaac’s daughter’s, Sarah, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, phoned me.
“Since you’re a writer,” she suggested, “maybe you could document my father’s life story.”
It was an interesting idea; maybe he would have wanted that.
From what I gathered from family members, Isaac fled from Russia to the UK as a young man in 1905 during the disastrous Russian-Japanese war.
Arriving in London, he was interviewed by a representative of a committee dealing with immigrants, who, upon hearing that Isaac had no one in the UK except for a friend in the Welsh mining town of Tredegar, sent him off there.
Isaac worked as a peddler traveling around the Welsh valleys. Barely able to speak any English, he learned the phrase “look in the basket,” which he used whenever anyone inquired about whether he had a particular item for sale.
Isaac’s friend also turned out to be his matchmaker. He mentioned to Isaac that he knew a woman back in the old country, Malka Perl Yossem, whom he felt would be ideal for him. Isaac wrote to Malka’s father asking him for permission to write to his daughter.
Isaac and Malka corresponded. All went well, until Isaac proposed and asked Malka to join him in Wales.
Malka agreed, but her father was adamantly against his daughter leaving their village.
The stalemate was resolved when Malka went on hunger strike until her father relented. He accompanied her to Wales.
In 1911, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Tredegar. Isaac, whose English by then had apparently improved considerably, sent an urgent telegram informing the home secretary, Winston Churchill, who sent troops to protect the community.
Isaac and Malka had six children in eight years, the eldest being my grandmother, Celia.
The family eventually moved to Cardiff, Wales. Isaac passed away in 1957, and Malka in 1966.
While I pondered Sarah’s suggestion to write Isaac’s story, Judith, one of Isaac’s granddaughters, mentioned to me that he had been a prolific writer, and that she had a suitcase with hitherto unpublished Hebrew handwritten sheets by him that seemed to be a commentary on Rashi, a famous French 11th century Biblical commentator.
As luck would have it, a world-renowned expert on Rashi, Prof. Grossman, lives just a few doors down the road from me.
Upon hearing my story, he offered to take a look at a few of the sheets.
As the expert pored over the faded handwriting, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing, if this chain of events led to Isaac’s writings finally being published.”
The Rashi expert was less enthusiastic.
“The sheets do occasionally refer briefly to Rashi,” he said, “but most of the content isn’t really a commentary on Rashi, so I can’t really be of much help in assessing it.” So, was this a blind alley? A little while later, I was walking in our neighborhood, when I saw another book left on a wall.
Would it surprise anyone to learn that I immediately picked it up? It was a 1936 edition of a Hebrew book called Devarim by Chaim Weizmann – elected Israel’s first president in 1949 and founder of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Inside, the author had written his name in English.
I phoned one of Isaac’s grandsons, Victor, who used to work as a research scientist at the Weizmann Institute.
“Guess what?” I said.