Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Remembering Zayde's Zing

Though he was a deep and brilliant man, David, my father-in-law, most clearly radiated a single, powerful characteristic--joie de vivre. But Zayde, (Yiddish for "Grandfather," and his affectionate nickname used by my children and hoards of adoring adults) didn't just enjoy life. He didn't just smile a lot and bask in the good things. Zayde internalized the beauty, bounty and genius of the "natural" world, and then like the shiny foil-cardboard reflector sunbathers use to intensify the rays, bounced it back to others around him, stronger and more recognizable.

There was a morning. And then there was Zayde's morning, where he'd step outside, his Indiana Jones brimmed hat slightly askew, the chin rope dangling under his broadly-smiling face. He'd stand there a few moments admiring the vista, inhale deeply and proclaim joyfully the Psalmist's praise, "Ma rabu ma'asecha, Hashem!" ("How wondrous and varied are your works, O God!" Ps.124:24) And by his exuberance, you knew it was an amazing day.

Zayde was always proudly Jewish, but he only began his studies in earnest, inspired by my husband's own quest, after the age of 50, when he perfected his Hebrew and memorized the Five Books of Moses so he could read them flawlessly in proper "trop" (cantillations) for the congregation in services. He started applying the knowledge gained as a physicist/professor to his research of Torah, finding shocking "coincidences" between biblically-described phenomena and recent scientific discoveries. Some of them became the basis of his 2008 book, Hidden Light: Science Secrets of the Bible.

He'd always wanted to live in Jerusalem, first attempting the adventurous move in 1949 at age 23, when the Jewish state was fresh and immigrants were welcomed to Quonset huts and tents, often in communal farms called "moshavim." With his young bride and infant son (my husband), he sought an income and permanent shelter; after six months without finding either, the couple returned to a dingy basement apartment in Philadelphia, and with merit scholarships and his bio-chemist wife's income, completed his bachelor's of science, master's and doctoral degrees at Penn.

It was then that he left his Yiddish-speaking Mama behind in Phillie (where he'd won the [Knowledge of] Shakespeare Prize at the elite public Central High School) and moved with his bride and then 6-year-old son to a new job at Convair (later General Dynamics) in San Diego, to devise guidance systems for jets.

The hardy Ukrainian stock that had spurred Dave's father to leave his family behind, make the perilous crossing to America, and eke a living as a barrel-maker (reuniting two decades later with his wife, Sarah, who had suffered the loss of their five daughters to disease and starvation in the aftermath of World War I) inspired Zayde to apply to NASA just as the space race was heating up. After stints on the Gemini and Apollo efforts, he was so exhilarated by the physical training and excitement of space, he became one of six scientist-astronauts set to orbit the earth--only to be scrubbed just short of blast-off by periodontal problems. I think he considered that process the zenith of his lifetime.

Nothing could stop Zayde, large or small. He took a professorial gig at UCLA while working at Electro-Optical Systems, and then moved on to start his own fiber optics company in Santa Monica in the late 60s. By the '90s, he'd grown his business to hundreds of employees, but everyone considered him "the tinkerer" because he couldn't resist creating. He held dozens of patents and when he finally sold the company to Amoco in 1990 to realize his dream of "making aliyah" to retire in Israel, he lasted two weeks before epiphanies for more innovations led him to start yet another business, Jerusalem Optical Link Technologies (JOLT).

He'd use his big-kid charm to get nearly anything he wanted. In San Diego, when his four obstreperous boys were small and the budget that barely afforded their modest, boxy house on a busy Point Loma street didn't allow for Sunday swimming, they'd have their pool party--even if they had to nonchalantly saunter onto assorted hotel premises and pretend they belonged there.

Vacations meant a grand tour camping the National Parks with the family, Dave's thrill being hiking and savoring each forest path. In the midst of briskly clambering the trail he'd suddenly pause, drink in the sky and trees, and exclaim, "Boy, is this beautiful!" or "What a GORGEOUS day!" Even at home, Zayde enjoyed rough-housing on the living room floor as much as his sons did.

He was a fabulous father-in-law, bursting with ecstasy at my wedding to his oldest son, dancing in such a frenzy he turned crimson. But he could be tender, approaching with a smile and loving hug, saying "oh darlink!" When he was with us for Shabbat, I always treasured the blessing he'd bestow, resting his fingers gently on my hair and bidding me softly to be like the Jewish mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Ruchel and Leah, a daughter who, along with my sisters-in-law Jane, Michele and Anne, he loved as much as his precious boys. He was equally sweet with his grandchildren, frequently asking with a lilt, "How are you, kinderluch?" But he didn't mind putting some force in his instruction to my sometimes slacking son, "You listen to your Baba now!" adding, "Do it for your Zayde."

But he was known most for his enduring childlike wonder over even the tiniest surprises. About 20 years ago, he bought a revamped apartment in our neighborhood to become one of five dozen families who learned Torah with our Rabbi, the only means of becoming a member of the synagogue he and my husband had founded on Venice beach, known for its home hospitality. Each week during services, my husband would quietly inquire which families were "hosting," and who was "available" as a guest. Sometimes the match-ups worked perfectly, and other times there were too many (mostly) young people "available," and members would be pressed into action to throw together a properly festive Shabbat meal.

Zayde, unattached at the time, was often one of those who hadn't made Shabbat plans. Though a non-domestic sort, he'd cheerfully accept a table-full of guests, and was famous for leading them up the stairs and into his livingroom, sweeping piles of papers off of the folding tables that served as his desk, flourishing a white tablecloth over it, and heading for his tiny tube kitchen. He'd root around in the mostly-vacant fridge, throw open the cupboards, and in a minute or two emerge, victorious: "Here's a can of tuna, a tub of garbanzo beans and some lettuce--we've got a FEAST!"

This was the man who attended high school and college with Noam Chomsky and emerged in his later years as right-wing as they come on both Israeli and American politics. Make no mistake, though he felt the gravity of the center of the world in Jerusalem, where he lived for the last 19 years, he remained an American patriot, having served in the US Navy during World War II. He was a talk radio devotee, listening to his son via Internet and podcast, regularly faxing pages-long comments, or phoning with an animated "Hi, Sonny!"

He viewed the world in capital letters, with exclamation points, savoring the people, the perspectives, the panorama, and he'd bring it all back to Torah, to the miracles of God's creation, the stunning amusements divinely built into numbers, cycles and seasons. His genius synthesized the pieces, almost the way he most enjoyed a plate of food--mixed into a melange of flavors, topped with the fire of hot sauce, the piquant zing that made his life so special.


  1. The world seems a little darker with his absence; the heavens are brightened.

  2. He sounds like an amazing man. I am sorry for your loss.

  3. My heart breaks for your family. What a wonderful post on what seems a wonderful man. (((HUGS))) to you all.

  4. Dr. David Medved ALWAYS greeted us with that charm and loving enthusiasm you so eloquently describe. We loved him and we will miss him. <3

  5. Baruch dayan emet, dear Light. May you and yours be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The world is darker at this time of Zayde's passing but Heaven glows brighter. We who knew him will miss him; it was fitting that he left surrounded by the love of his family. May our memories of his smiles, his laughter, his joy, his amazing life always be shining beacons we can summon to illuminate our own personal journeys.

  6. Thank you for your words of consolation--they are deeply appreciated.

  7. Amazing luminance. Along with an unusual connection. I found your tribute today and ended up ordering the book, Hidden Light.

    Last month I'd posted a comment on the Ann Althouse blog concerning the Creation story, how it seemed designed to reveal deep truth about the unfolding of the universe and I've been puzzling about it ever since.

    Today through a random series of links from Althouse, to Trooper York, to the Maternal Optimist, I happened on your story about David Medved with mention of his book. An unexpected zing.

    Thank you. His life continues to bless.