Searching for Meaning with Saba Hank

Joshua M. Z. StantonSeptember 3, 2018The Question of MeaningPerSpectives

I was in a new school. New teachers, new classmates, new bus route, new schedule. I was struggling. My new middle school classes were difficult enough. Having to make friends at the same time was completely overwhelming. I found myself at once isolated and confused, determined but uncertain.

Worst of all was the lack of meaning. What was I even in school for? It was evident that I needed to get used to my new surroundings and make new friends. I couldn’t go on feeling so alone forever – but more importantly, I needed to know why. Why was I even in this new middle school? My parents told me it was supposedly the best public school in the state; my older brother told me that it was “cool” and “just the way it is”; but those reasons seemed distant. They could hardly get me through the day with a smile or feeling of fulfillment.

Not knowing where to begin, I began to study. That didn’t always mean cracking a book. I mostly studied people, school, my classes, and how they all fit together into what resembled a community. I came home from school and began to write in a journal. I would write my thoughts down and then cross some of them out, edit them, and put them down anew.

That didn’t last long. I would return to writing again and again as an outlet and passion. But I couldn’t stick with it when I had more questions than answers. Writing was a way for me to put down more complete thoughts, but all I really had for a while were snippets and the start of bigger ideas.

My writing went by the wayside. But I did keep studying. I needed to watch and listen carefully and start to figure out what this middle school was all about. Studying could mean going to a school dance and trying to make sense of the awkwardness when I asked someone to dance with me. It could mean playing a game of soccer with a new group and seeing what they joked about while passing the ball up the field. It could mean observing how my history class worked; figuring out what made the teacher proud or sad, what engaged the other students. It could mean playing videogames online with people from school I was trying to become friends with – and seeing what got them excited or angry or confused.

At first, studying people was even more confusing than trying to just get by in school. It took so much energy to get to know people, talk with them, spend time with them, and try to understand them. But gradually I began to make sense of the people I was with. Everyone seemed to want affirmation, a sense of purpose and companionship as they worked to fulfill that purpose. I could fit in by helping others feel good as they sought out whatever it was that gave them meaning – and in doing so fulfill my own need for friendship and a sense of belonging.

After what must have been nearly a full year of reflection, I decided to take a risk. I worked to befriend the most popular circle of friends at the school – the kids who knew everyone and led all of the school’s activities. I worked up some courage and then, one day in between classes, joined a circle of them in the main hallway. I tried to be funny – but most importantly, I just worked to be really nice. To my surprise, they were also looking for purpose and friendship. They were a bit insecure, worried about losing their places in the most sought-after social circle. In being nice, I helped them relax and drew out the kindness that lay behind their social deftness, athletic abilities, and smarts.

To my surprise, the popular group enjoyed my company. In time they took me in to be one of their own.

More surprising still was the fact that my quest for meaning did not go away when I became one of the popular kids. I was less insecure, but equally perplexed. Now I had friends and status; I got invited to parties and had people to sit with at lunch. But I still didn’t understand why I was in middle school and what it was all about. My feeling of belonging had not answered my desire for meaning. So I went back to what I new best – study.

Who seemed fulfilled? What did they do differently?

To my surprise, the person who seemed most fulfilled was not a classmate or a teacher, neither of my parents nor my brother. It was my grandfather, Henry. Who knew that someone so much older than me would be so relevant to my life in middle school?

I knew my grandfather Henry as “Saba Hank” – saba is the Hebrew word for Grandfather, and everyone who knew him well called him Hank. He was one of the strongest people I had ever met, but also among the most loving. He expressed gratitude for every day. I wanted to know why and, more importantly, how.

He lived in California, and I only saw him a couple of times each year. But we could talk more regularly by phone. I began to call him every month, then every couple of weeks, then every week, and before I knew it practically everyday. Saba Hank was using his sense of purpose to deal with a deep feeling of loss. His beloved wife of more than half a century – my grandmother Ursula – had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition that eroded her memory and made her depend on him more and more to take care of her. By the time I started calling Saba Hank regularly, he was her full-time caretaker. While he expressed grief at seeing his wife in such a state, he didn’t seem any less fulfilled.

How could it be that Saba Hank was both sad – grieving, really – and fulfilled at the same time? How could he be a full-time caretaker and grateful for every day? As he and I talked and talked and talked, I learned how he too had sought out fulfillment over a period of many years.

Saba Hank had been a refugee from Germany. As a Jewish boy growing up in Berlin as the Nazis came to power, he narrowly escaped from his home country with his life. He lost countless family members during World War II but managed to land on his feet – first in England and then the United States. After a brief stint in Chicago, he made his way west to California.

It was in California that he rebuilt – and worked to reestablish our family. In a community college in San Francisco, he met my Grandmother, also a refugee from Germany. She wasn’t a good note-taker, and he gave her his notes for the class they were taking together. In return, she offered to make him a German dinner of the sort they had both been used to in Europe. After a few dinners, a romance was kindled, and the two were soon married. It was a relationship that enabled the two of them to reestablish life anew after the devastation their extended families faced in Europe.

A major part of Saba Hank’s project with his wife Ursula was finding a way to earn a living in order to support the new family they were building. His wife was a talented nursery school teacher and in time shifted paths to run the food service of a local university. But my grandfather, like me, felt at a loss as to what he would do. Even though he was very bright, he never felt smart. After trying his hand as a hotel manager, he began to work for the American Air Force. He managed the delivery of supplies to different Air Force bases and found the work meaningful and challenging.

While publicly Saba Hank was a successful employee of the Air Force – indeed a job he took great pride in – he was also pursuing a personal dream: creating and supporting a new, safe, happy American family. His job enabled him, along with his wife, to support their family, which soon grew to include two boys. He was able to support them through college and until they were ready to establish families of their own.

The process of rebuilding a family that had nearly gone out of existence during World War II was a central purpose in Saba Hank’s life. It gave him profound personal meaning. It gave him a sense of purpose and fulfillment, even if he faced challenges his day-to-day work. It gave new meaning to the friendships he formed and added to his already-strong relationship with his wife.

In short, Saba Hank had a guiding vision of what he hoped to achieve in life. It was challenging and would take time to realize. But he also knew he could achieve it with time, effort, and patience. Even as he spoke to me decades later about his life’s path, his vision remained in tact. He could at once be sad about experiences that bothered him in his day-to-day care for my grandmother and fulfilled about his life as a whole and grateful for each day he had to enjoy it.

I, too, needed a guiding vision. But, as my grandfather cautioned me, I did not need to rush to find it. The process of finding a purpose was also full of meaning. So I returned to study.

Joshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and is working towards board certification as a Jewish chaplain and rabbinic ordination. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated in 2008 magna cum laude with degrees in history, economics, and Spanish as well as a Certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France. Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, and the Volunteer Hero Award from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. He is a regular columnist for the Tikkun Daily and Huffington Post and has contributed articles and interviews to newspapers, academic journals, television and radio programs, and publications in over nine languages. Josh currently has two book proposals under review for publication and numerous academic articles in print in fields as diverse as religious education, gerontology, and pastoral care. A sought-after speaker, Josh delivered a keynote address at the 2010 “Eight Annual Doha Conference,” sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. He has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and delivered the Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009.