In His Dying Days, My Argentinian Grandfather Found Joy in Teaching Judaism

Pipa's secret plan was to teach Jewish culture to non-Jews, and he didn't let his cancer diagnosis get in the way.

We called my grandfather “Pipa,” and he was an endless repository of stories.

A merchant by profession, but an intellectual at heart, Pipa was always immersed in his books; he never risked leaving home without one. His ideal afternoon involved sitting in his old brown armchair in Buenos Aires, drinking a cup of hot tea and starting long discussions about Argentinian politics, or affairs in Israel, or 20th century history. Mid-conversation, while he added spoonfuls of sweetener to his tea, he would say: “Related to that, let me tell you something else…” And another tale would begin.

Pipa’s stories enchanted me. As a kid, I remember always asking him to tell me something. “Anything!” I would say. His favorite stories were from the Torah, so with chocolate cookies and dulce de leche on the table alongside store-bought Syrian “kaakes” (small, round savory cookies sprinkled with sesame seeds) and homemade Sephardic nut cake, my grandfather told us the tale of Isaac’s sacrifice, or the meaning behind the interpretations of Joseph’s dreams. And he remembered every detail of every tale, and every punchline to every joke that he never got tired of repeating. When I was sixteen, he gifted me the Old Testament in Spanish. “A light summer read,” he said with a smile.

A few months ago, about to retire and with more time on his hands, Pipa hatched a “secret” plan: In his own living room, he was going to teach Judaism classes for non-Jews. His goal was not to proselytize but to spread knowledge among people from different backgrounds, not only about Jewish religious beliefs but also history, culture and traditions, with the goal of dispelling misconceptions and promoting understanding among Argentina’s heavily Christian society. My grandfather envisioned himself personally leading these lessons, surrounded by curious minds like his own and wandering from topic to topic he was most passionate about.

But before he could get started, before he could even tell anybody about his plan, he was diagnosed with advanced cancer.

Last October, he fell ill and was immediately admitted to the “Sanatorio Mater Dei,” a Catholic hospital near his house. Days passed and he wasn’t improving. By the end of the month, the hospital staff arranged for him to receive religious-oriented psychological assistance, offered to all patients experiencing prolonged stays.

That’s how Natalí came onto the scene.

It was a warm November afternoon when she knocked on the door to his room and asked to come in. I happened to be there, and so when Natalí announced that she would provide “Christian spiritual support,” my grandmother, my mother and I exchanged looks: there was no way Pipa would have wanted any form of Catholic guidance stealing him from his books, his newspapers and his television shows.

And yet, to our surprise, he invited her in and had us leave the room. When Natalí started her session, Pipa told her he was not a Christian, but a Jew, and her eyes opened wide with surprise. “She looked as though she had never seen a Jew before in her life,” Pipa said later. Immediately, Natalí started asking him questions. And Pipa began to tell.

In a setting that now seemed absurd, with wooden crosses adorning the hospital corridors and one hanging over his bed, Pipa’s “secret project” began to come to life. During the next two months hospitalized, the last two months Pipa lived, Natalí sat next to him a couple of times each week, ready for a class. “The roles are reversed,” my grandmother said to me one of those days, drinking watery coffee out of plastic cups in the hospital cafeteria. Instead of Natalí providing Pipa with religious guidance and emotional support, the therapy sessions revolved around Pipa’s storytelling and teaching. And Natalí was the perfect student: asking questions, listening carefully, taking notes.

In late December, he asked me to bring him a Passover Haggadah from home, as he wanted to start his Passover classes early for his student. We brought him our beloved children’s copy, and his own favorite one: an ancient volume he had brought from Israel when he was young.

By the end of the year, the seminar was given a name, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Judaism But Were Afraid to Ask.” And that’s how word spread in the hospital. Although his condition had been getting worse each day and his voice faded as the weeks went by, he kept teaching his course to the staff that took care of him — to any curious non-Jew who was willing to learn. His mind had remained as bright and sharp as ever, and his plan intact.

One afternoon Natalí knocked on the door and entered with a laminated diploma in her hands. Among decorative swirls, on yellow paper and in elegant letters it read: “Honorary Diploma awarded to Eduardo Kossoy,” naming the full name of the seminar and signed by the general supervisor of the medical team of the sanatorium, with the official hospital seal. Natalí could see that the gleam in Pipa’s eyes was fading, and this was a way of thanking him for his effort.

Only a week later, Pipa passed away. Through the project that came to define his final days, I have now an even greater appreciation for the treasure of his teachings. In mourning his loss, I find solace in his achievement; not only he had been committed to passing down stories of Jewish identity through the generations of our family, but he had a remarkable vision of doing the same with anyone interested in our culture, aiming to foster greater understanding among us all.

Now, I wander around his living room and I stand in front of his bookshelf. The complete works of Borges are still squeezed in between his stories of Jewish gauchos, compilations of Talmud tales, Yiddish jokebooks and Spanish fables, the books stacked in double rows, their yellowed pages gathering dust. I reach for his old Haggadah and sit with the idea that he will never preside over another Passover seder for our family, dressed up as Moses and changing costumes acting out each part of the story.

And yet, here in his living room, I feel him close. I can almost see him sitting in his armchair, running his hand over his forehead and tousling his white hair, holding a cup of tea and his eyes shining with excitement as he says, one more time: “Let me tell you a story.”

Jessica Ruetter

Jessica Ruetter (she/her) is a Social Studies major in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Passionate about literature and storytelling, she's the author of the Spanish newsletter Bibliofilia, where she engages in conversations with Latin American authors over a cup of coffee. She participated in various educational projects and has worked at the Holocaust Museum in Buenos Aires.

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