I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, a friend with a wayward son, a son who tortures his mother not from lack of love but because he is a revolutionary, wild in the streets. He finds the edges and pushes them, sees the world in extremes, will not follow the rules. Because of ideals.
It's brutal to be a mother of a son like that. (It's hard to be a mother.)
But I found myself sticking up for the son, even as his mother -- my friend -- sat in front of me, confessing sleepless nights. "Youth does not have to answer to the Old," I said.
Words from my childhood, a legacy passed down.
My great grandfather Sam Lerner was a revolutionary not far from Minsk, in White Russia, now known as Belarus. The pogroms were devastating communities, the socialist Jews were resisting, and my great grandfather was arrested and jailed in a Czarist prison, scheduled to be sent to Siberia.
A group of friends came to see Sam in prison, to say goodbye; ten or eleven of them, men, and women in their long skirts and shawls, weeping. And when they left, the guards didn't notice that there was an extra woman in the crowd. The women had worn extra skirts, extra shawls, dressed Sam as one of them, and smuggled him out.
After that Sam swam rivers and crossed borders and made it to America where he and my great grandmother Ida settled in Nebraska and he became the Secretary of the Socialist Party. (Or so the story goes, though perhaps there were no rivers -- perhaps they came the way everybody did, by train and then steamer, then Ellis Island, etc.)
But that's not really the part of the story I want to tell.
When my great grandfather Sam was smuggled from jail by his friends, before he fled from Belarus, he went home to see his parents, to say goodbye. His father (my great great grandfather) was a rabbi. Sam Lerner, like all good revolutionary socialists, was an atheist. When his father wanted him to kiss the mezuzah, he refused.
My great great grandfather, the rabbi, was appalled. Angered. He turned his back and refused to say goodbye to Sam. My great great grandmother begged, pleaded with her husband, "He's leaving for America, you won't ever see him again." Pleaded with her son, But Sam stood firm. "Youth does not have to answer to the Old," he said. He left. And never saw his parents again.
Year later. "It wasn't right to ask me to do that," Sam always said. He understood the passion and commitment to principal, even when he wasn't young anymore. Even when he was old he would say it, "He shouldn't have asked me to compromise. Youth does not have to answer to the Old."
My friend's son is a revolutionary. Yes, Revolutionary Youth is extreme, yet makes change, holds his ideals pure, does not have to answer to anybody. "Take a deep breath," I wish to tell her. I wish to hug her and console, to reassure her that most of them make it through. My great grandfather Sam was smuggled from a Czarist prison, fought the good fight his entire life, never forgot the passionate engagement of youth, and died in his nineties in an old folk's home.