Ldor vdor lesson from a grandson of 10th president

Harrison Tyler strode into the classroom, looking fabulously fit for a man of 74. He was genial and gentlemanly, though why he was visiting my class — a postgraduate educational philosophy course — I couldn’t say. Tyler happened to be a friend of the professor, but as a chemical engineer, he had little to teach us about education.

Yet I learned something amazing from him that spring day in 2000: I learned that time can bend. Not in Einstein’s astrophysical sense, but in a more metaphysical manner.

Tyler is the grandson of John Tyler. As in President John Tyler, born in 1790. That’s right: I shook the hand of a man whose grandfather was born when George Washington was president.

Harrison Tyler never met his grandfather, who was born 138 years before he was. His father, Lyon Tyler, was born in 1853 when President Tyler was elderly and married to a second wife. Then, in turn, Lyon fathered Harrison (born in 1928 and still alive) late in life.

And that’s how casually I came face to face with a family that touched four centuries within three generations.

I often recall that amazing moment because it counters the typical view of time on the human scale. For most of my life I thought little of my ancestors prior to the 20th century. I never even knew the names and hometowns of anyone in my family before my grandparents, all shtetl-born. Surely these ancient ones couldn’t have much impact on my iPod-driven life.

But somehow, after meeting Harrison Tyler, my ancestors began to seem more alive. This might be, in part, what the sages meant by l’dor v’dor, or from generation to generation.

Rabbi Richard Winer of Pleasanton’s Congregation Beth Emek had a similar experience with time-bending.

While completing his studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1993, he befriended professor Jacob Rader Marcus. At the time, Marcus was 97 and had been teaching American Jewish history at HUC since 1920.

“There weren’t many originators of the American Reform movement he didn’t know,” Winer told me. “He knew basically everyone. He would say ‘I’ve forgotten more than most people know.'”

Marcus served as a living link to a Jewish past. But, added the rabbi, Jews need not befriend near-centenarians to experience that link.

He told me, “If you don’t have anything else to meditate on when chanting the prayer of the ancestors, for the avot and imahot [forefathers and foremothers], it’s grounding to connect with these people who connect further back, and to know we are part of that chain.”

He experienced the same feeling of connection in the Old City of Jerusalem. “There are certain stones that are more smooth,” he told me, “stones that have been in the same place for over 2,000 years. There, too, you know that through thousands of years, Jews have walked on those same stones.”

But for Winer, l’dor v’dor must not remain simply a museum piece. To do it justice, he said, we need to continually breathe life into it.

I think he meant we need not wait for a Harrison Tyler or a Jacob Rader Marcus to bend time for us. We can bend it ourselves through study, prayer and meditation. If we just extend ourselves a bit, we can feel as close to Abraham and Sarah as we do to our own grandparents.

For in a very real sense, they are our grandparents.

Oh, and lest anyone accuse me of overreaching with the John Tyler story, I came across a fascinating quote from our obscure 10th president.

Writing in 1843 on the separation of church and state, Tyler stated: “The Hebrew, persecuted and down trodden in other regions, takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid … and the Aegis of the government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it.”

Sounds like ol’ Tippecanoe and Tyler too had a feel for l’dor v’dor as well.

Dan Pine can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.