A Hidden Blessing

A Hidden Blessing

In memory of

Yehoshua Mayer ben Efrayim (1850-1916)

Yehoshua Mayer ben Eliyahu (1916-2008)

It was recently my privilege to see the grave of my paternal grandmother, Rosse Prouser (née Applestein), for the very first time. I never knew my Bubby. She was the last survivor of my grandparents, but she died before I was born.

Upon examining her matzeivah — the monument marking her final resting place — in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I discovered a surprising discrepancy. The Hebrew inscription gave her father’s name as Yishayahu Mayer (Yishayahu is the Hebrew for Isaiah). My father, whose 13th yahrzeit I will observe on November 18 — 14 Kislev, was named for his mother’s father, but always said their shared Hebrew name was Yehoshua Mayer (Yehoshua is the Hebrew for Joshua). His extended family referred to him simply as “Mayer.”

Raised on stories of his grandfather’s faith, piety, and character, my father was profoundly grateful to bear his name. Is it possible he was mistaken about what that name actually was?

That the patronym I in turn have used all these years — the name by which I have been called to the Torah, by which I was ordained, and with which I sign religious documents — was incorrectly transmitted? Or was a mistake made in my grandmother’s epitaph?

I found the uncertainty strangely unsettling.

I immediately embarked on a process of research to determine with precision the Hebrew name that had (it now seemed, perhaps erroneously) so shaped my father’s identity, and my own. The heirloom kiddush cup my father had received from his widowed maternal grandmother for his bar mitzvah, and that long has been used at family seders and weddings (and that now is the cherished possession of one of his grandsons) bore his Hebrew initials, yod-mem-peh. This datum was unrevealing, as “Yishayahu Mayer Prouser” and “Yehoshua Mayer Prouser” produce identical monograms. My father had been the last of his generation, so there were no witnesses to question, and certainly no one who personally remembered my great-grandfather, who died more than 100 years ago. There were no relevant family documents to examine.

My research led me to my great-grandfather’s grave, his monument now significantly worn by the passage of time and damaged by the elements — but still legible — in a cemetery in Baltimore. The modest inscription clearly gave his name as Yehoshua Mayer (ben Efrayim). My father was right all along. Somehow an error had crept into my grandmother’s memorial inscription. Perhaps a mourner’s tortured Hebrew pronunciation of Yehoshua was misinterpreted as Yishayahu.

As one discrepancy in Prouser family history was happily resolved, however, a new mystery emerged. According to his epitaph, the elder Yehoshua Mayer died on 18 Shevat 5676 — January 23, 1916; both dates are given in the inscription. My grandmother was unable to travel to her father’s funeral, she often recalled, as she was pregnant at the time; my father was to be born that March. The historical discrepancy? My father reported his year of birth as 1917, not 1916, and we celebrated his milestone birthdays accordingly.

While the precise year of any historical event can be inadvertently misstated, it seems patently impossible that my grandmother’s memory of the conditions that kept her from her father’s funeral — her own eighth (and final) pregnancy — was incorrect. A woman’s testimony about the events surrounding her pregnancy can be relied upon as factual; they’re presumed to be deeply and accurately etched in her memory. Indeed, Bubby Rosse always took pride in having provided her revered father with a namesake so quickly.

My family history research thus has led me to the tandem conclusions that my father was correct about his name, but mistaken about the year of his birth, now established as 1916. I was profoundly relieved by the renewed clarity concerning Prouser family nomenclature. Even more significantly, I was deeply grateful — indeed, I was overjoyed — to learn that my father was born a year earlier than he had believed. At his passing 13 years ago at the putative age of 91 (by all accounts a long, and in many ways a blessed life), I nevertheless found myself wishing he had been granted more time.

What I would not have given, I reflected in many a prayerful moment, for another year, another month, even another day with my beloved father and teacher. Now, 13 years later, my wishes have been granted. My prayers have been answered.

Yehoshua Mayer (Melvin Prouser) has indeed been granted another year of life, having reached the prodigious age of 92, not 91 as the record had previously, mistakenly shown. I was deeply comforted. I was moved, truly grateful for this long-hidden blessing.

As Yehoshua teaches us: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you” (Joshua 3:5).

And as Yishayahu wrote: “He will swallow up death forever; the Lord God will wipe away tears from every face” (Isaiah 25:8).

Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.