IN MY FAMILY, as in others, it was money that finally broke us apart. The brother who was out—my uncle—was now in. The brother who was in—my father—was now out. An old story, set now in southeast Georgia: Lear in the Low Country, the prodigal son come home to the provinces. My grandmother left her real estate—this was the business my grandfather and father were in, and some properties were apparently in her name—to my uncle and, in trust, to me, with my uncle as guardian. My father got a thousand bucks. I heard the news when I was a sophomore at Yale. In the warrenlike subterranean post office, a letter arrived from my father’s lawyer, asking me to relinquish my claim to the property, so that his client could then sue for his rightful share. Next a letter arrived from another lawyer, counseling me to think carefully about how much I stood to gain. But tempted as I was by the will’s provision for graduate-school money, I didn’t see much upside to claiming my inheritance. What did I want with a bunch of old houses in the inner city of my hometown of Savannah? There was nothing I needed in the world but the education I was already getting.
It was clear to me that my grandfather, through the vehicle of my grandmother’s will, was trying to realign the family in a way that must have seemed more natural to him and that he certainly preferred: the favored son transformed, via legal fiat, from the beloved grandson’s uncle into his guardian. My uncle and I were very much alike, and now my grandfather had gone and formalized it, had harnessed the bloodless law to create a new line of descent. I was my grandfather’s “heartstring,” as he would say, and he meant the world to me, but this thing with the will seemed misguided at best, shitty at worst. I don’t think my grandmother ever had any idea what she’d done, what had been done in her name.
In photos from the 1920s, her decade for sure, my grandmother stares out defiantly, costumed in knickers and a man’s tie, short hair unconstrained by the schmatte around her head, her arms around her sister or some other girl. Sometimes she poses with props—cigarettes, playing cards, more girls. On the beach in her checked bathing costume, she shows off her terrific legs. At summer camp she sits on a fence and blows smoke right into your face. She comes on strong, but the smile she either flashes or fails to suppress dilutes the effect. As tough as she tries to appear, her essential sweetness comes through in every shot.
Sweetness: eventually her entire being was distilled into this one quality. This boyish flapper, this elegant wife in a cloche and a tailored suit, this mod grandma in a sleeveless paisley dress and cat-eye rhinestone glasses—by the time I was of bar mitzvah age, she wore only her nightclothes and never left the house. She floated in and out of the kitchen. I can never eat when I cook, she explained at the table with a smile. I can’t stand the smell. Well, she no longer cooked, but still she didn’t eat. To stimulate her appetite, my grandfather poured her Wildcatter bourbon, a finger, then another. He made her a salty brown omelet, spaghetti and meatballs in black gravy, coffee ice cream topped with granulated instant coffee—all the weird, unforgiving, fattening foods that he enjoyed and knew how to prepare. But she simply smiled over her dish and drank some more bourbon, which she preferred to the nutrition shakes, purchased in bulk, optimistically, by my grandfather and me on our marketing outings every Saturday after synagogue. It was sweetness my grandmother lived on, lived in.
Only when she went into the past would her perennial smile sometimes twist into something else. Those legs, for example, attracted attention—the wrong kind. He tried to make me! she cried in her kitchen half a century after the event she was describing. Called me a horseface and tried to make me! Right on the beach! What, I inquired, does it mean to make someone? You know what it means! she said. Said he was a talent scout, and when I kicked him, he said, “If you had a face to match your figure, you could have been in the Ziegfeld Follies.” And then the storm passed, her features relaxed, the sweetness returned.
Not long after I signed over my rights to my grandmother’s inheritance, a slip in my mailbox announced that a package had arrived for me. It couldn’t be from home. My mother didn’t do care packages. She sent envelopes stuffed with coupons for snacks and articles clipped from the Savannah papers, with pointed little notes running up the margins like, This was your kindergarten teacher’s daughter, that beautiful blonde, or He bullied you and now he’s dead.
The package contained a slim hardbound edition of the tsava’ah, or testament, of the Tzaddik of Lazday, a privately published, annotated translation that I’d learned of from the family genealogist. Lazday, now spelled Lazdijai, is a small town in southwest Lithuania, near the Polish border. A tzaddik is a righteous man, and the town’s Jews honored my ancestor this way because of his exemplary life, principles of which he captured in his will for his seven sons and their descendants, including me, seven generations removed from the great man. The Tzaddik of Lazday’s name was Joseph Moses Abraham, and he was the chief rabbi of the town, where he also ran a yeshiva. Students came from near and far to study with the famous sage.
The title on the book’s spine is Ethical Will. Later I would learn that ethical wills, in one form or another, had been around since Bible days and, toward the end of the tzaddik’s life, coalesced into the reading list of a spiritual movement, called Musar, focusing on moral conduct. But at the time I knew only that I much preferred it to the will that aimed to transmit my grandmother’s worldly goods to succeeding generations but only ended up causing them pain. My father no longer spoke to my grandfather, which was only to be expected, considering the former was suing the latter for exerting undue influence over my grandmother’s will. My father and his brother—that relationship had soured a long time before. As for my beloved grandfather—well, apparently I’d chosen sides, something that I’d always managed to avoid, and now he didn’t talk to me. This would have hurt a lot more when I was young and spent every weekend at my grandfather’s house, just a few blocks north of ours. But now that I was in college, I didn’t see much of my grandfather, my synagogue companion, anyway, and he, like religion itself, had faded in importance to me; Saturday mornings, for the first time in my life, I slept in.
I had other things on my mind. Art really was my new faith. Books could teach me everything I needed to know about good behavior and bad, though in fact, in literature classes, my Hebrew day school background gave me a leg up on my classmates, the secular Jews from New York to whom I was instantly drawn; the Bible references went right over their heads. I worked through what troubles I had by writing fiction and found myself exploring a creative world set in a South that was both the one I’d grown up in and completely nonexistent, at once real and unreal, as any good fictional landscape should be.
And I was facing my desire for men, which entailed going to a counselor as well as coming out to friends and, in the Yale Daily News, to the entire student body. But I was less well adjusted than I seemed. The possibility of actually sleeping with another man seemed remote, despite Yale’s famously gay-friendly social scene. I didn’t feel worthy of being loved, fucked, or even held. Every one of my shortcomings, physical and otherwise, was magnified in my head, and I didn’t dare get close to anyone else, for fear they would find them intolerable too. The guys who lived in my imagination were much safer objects of fantasy.
And so when the ethical will came into my life, what first attracted me to this ancestor of mine, separated by a continent and more than a century and a half, were the familiar hungers of the body that his will addressed. For this was what most of Rabbi Joseph’s moral guidance concerned: how to control your urges, which he didn’t demonize but simply accepted as fact.
The will is divided into two parts. The first covers practical matters relating to the tzaddik’s death and burial, like how to handle his corpse: roughly, by throwing it, dragging it around, and jerking it up by the head; and then tenderly, by bathing it in a certain quantity of water. The tzaddik was invoking a familiar superstition, that if someone were punished in this life, he would be spared a much worse punishment in the next one. “In this life” meant before burial. No less an authority than Rashi said that punishing the body after death served as atonement, and this is what the tzaddik, implicitly acknowledging his own sins, is counting on; the harsh treatment he wants for his body is meant to simulate stoning followed by hanging. And God, seeing how he’d suffered, would have mercy on him.
The second part of the will, directed at his “sons and relatives,” focuses not on the tzaddik’s body but rather on those of his descendants. For the tzaddik, as for subsequent leaders in the Musar movement, improving oneself by attending to one’s emotions and impulses was as worthy a goal as studying the law—indeed, was a way of studying the law. This was in line with the currents of individualism that ran through the age and that, of course, flow so mightily through our own.
In fact, the corporeal concerns of the second part bleed into the first. Before handling the tzaddik’s body, the ten men of the burial society must first take a ritual bath. Why? In case any of them has “emitted his seed wastefully,” the bath absolves them of the sin. While nominally about the burial details, the first part of the will is as concerned with ethics as the second, as if the rabbi’s death were simply another occasion for the moral improvement that his students and family had been undertaking with him their whole lives. Charity and prayer figure into every step of the preparation of the body and the burial.
The tzaddik’s will fits squarely into the tradition of ethical literature and touches many of its usual concerns, chiefly the need to fight counterproductive impulses. The editor, another of the tzaddik’s descendants, footnoted it heavily, but not at the cost of our ancestor’s voice; the book brims with personality. It’s the tzaddik’s take on the material that makes it his own. Naturally he points out the problems that excessive passion can cause. But the extent to which he dwells on these states, notably anger, a denunciation of which closes the will, suggests more than a passing acquaintance with them. And the techniques he shares to restore one’s equilibrium sounded so kooky to me that I had to try them. Angry? Picture, in as graphic detail as possible, your dead sons, or someone who’s just been slain by a sword, with blood gushing from his throat. That one sort of worked, because I’d grown up on a steady diet of horror films, and calling up images from them made me smile. Horny? Stand barefoot on a cold stone floor. Tried it—but my lust was in no way dampened. In the tzaddik’s will, standing barefoot refers to the treatment of a man who refuses to marry his brother’s widow; she removes his shoe as a way of symbolically stifling his lust for other women. But the tzaddik truly considers this practical advice.
His condemnation of lust, anger, gluttony, and other passions is emphasized less than the ways to overcome them. Or not. Under certain circumstances, for example, you are morally obliged not to tamp down your sexual desire but to fulfill it: on Friday night, the Sabbath eve; when you’re leaving on a journey; and when your wife wants to make love. (The tzaddik recommends semen-stimulating garlic.) Gluttony is bad only when you’re the guest of a jerk—a miser or a scoffer. Otherwise, why not enjoy? Just be sure to be happy when you eat and thankful for the food.
This is another way in which the will seems very modern: it’s about sublimation, not suppressing the passions but rather harnessing them for something more useful. Not self-flagellating over your shortcomings but accepting them, and turning them into ways to do good. If you like your food and drink, then eat and drink well so that you can be in good form to worship God. If you love to shop, just spend your money well, on “holy things.”
The ethical will did not lead me back to God. Nor was I under any illusion that the tzaddik would have given me a pass on wanting to lie with other men. A nice bath might not be enough to cleanse me of that particular sin—if I ever managed to commit it. But I was more than simply charmed by the concept of an ethical will. I had extricated myself from my grandmother’s will, but the legal battle was only beginning, and the bile erupting from the authority figures in my family diminished them in my eyes and made me glad I was hundreds of miles away. I could be mindful about the way I lived my life, even if the people I loved most in the world were not.
This sounds like a joke, but it felt dead serious: the only bright spot in the whole mess around my grandmother’s will was that she didn’t have to endure it. Like women from time immemorial, she hated family strife. What she wanted was for us to be together. After she died, I was filled with memories of childhood Thanksgivings, seders, Friday night suppers at the big house, my grandmother, in a checked pantsuit or slim slacks with pointy gold slippers, letting me eat the vegetables from around the roast, straight from the pan, before anyone else could get at them. She was not a stellar cook, and I considered her specialty—a meatloaf formed around a boiled egg and laid on a bed of spinach—gross, though the memory of her fried chicken, its skin rubbed with ground ginger and paprika and salt and pepper but not floured, still sings in my mouth today, long after I’ve become a vegetarian. But the food was secondary. It was the togetherness that mattered.
And then the family dinners came to an end. The house grew quiet and the lives lived in it increasingly narrow and strange. But the domestic scenes I witnessed during this period, with the bourbon and burnt eggs, were for me a love story. My grandfather’s demands for my grandmother to eat were a lover’s pleas for recognition of their life together, the importance of it, the necessity that it not slip away; but they also sounded doomed, wised up, like a lover unable to kid himself that he could convince his beloved to still care. For my father, what took place in the great shadowy house was a horror story, all booze and prescription drugs, craziness and neglect. His version apparently triumphed; he got the old buildings he wanted. And I ended up with nothing at all, except the idea that I had repaid my debt to my father, that we were settled up for everything he’d ever spent on me, including the education he was starting to see was opening my mind and causing me to reject many of the less tangible aspects of my patrimony; and that now I was free.
If she had written an ethical will, I believe my grandmother would have included the precept that all ethics comes down to: Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. She was known for what once was called “working the room,” for making everyone, including kids at a birthday party, feel they were special to her. I experienced my grandmother in this mode, though she appears to me more clearly as she was toward the end of her life, seated at her kitchen table while my grandfather tried his best to take care of us both. In her airy nightgown, her silk pajamas, she mostly just stared at me and smiled—and in this way succeeded, no less than my bustling grandfather, at making me feel loved. The tzaddik’s counsel to “greet all persons in a cheerful manner” immediately precedes his advice to “love every human being truly as yourself.” The moment we lay eyes on our fellows—this is when our responsibility to them begins.
Jason K. Friedman’s story collection, Fire Year (Sarabande), won the Mary McCarthy Prize and Anne and Robert Cowan Writers’ Award. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Tablet, Moment, and Cimarron Review, and has been anthologized in Best American Gay Fiction (Little, Brown).