Our friends Grover Genro Gauntt and Krishna Das were here over the weekend, and on Saturday morning as I was preparing breakfast Genro asked what he could do.

I hate to ask you, I told him, taking out bagels to put in the toaster, but could you fill the bird feeders and give them water?

It was -8 Fahrenheit (-22 Centigrade) at the time, not including the winds, and we had 6 empty bird feeders outside along with a warmed birdbath that needed filling. The birds were eating up a storm, and who could blame them at the tail end of two weeks of historically frigid temperatures in New England. That morning we decided to close the zendo because of the cold, so instead there we all were, drinking coffee and planning breakfast in a warm kitchen, except that there were the birds outside to think of.

My grandfather used to say that one should always feed the animals first before you feed yourself, I told the guys.

He was the rabbi of a small shtetl in the very north of Rumania, bordering Russia, and after World War II he made it here to this country with his wife and one son, my uncle. I have very few memories of him, so it’s interesting what I recall. They had farm animals back in Europe—don’t know what kind—and they fed them before feeding themselves.

In 1999 I returned there with my father, along with brother and sister. The small house my father grew up in was still standing, empty and seemingly abandoned, looking more like a dark shed with 2 rooms, not all that dissimilar from the stalls they had in back for the animals only with a concrete floor and doors.

It was the shtetl world before World War II, impoverished and with few opportunities. The shtetl would have ended even without the Holocaust, my father used to tell me. Anybody with any brains and ambition got out.

My memory of my grandfather was of a bearded man who studied all day, was served tea with sugar cubes by his wife, and looked benignly at his grandchildren around the table without making much effort to communicate other than occasional comments that his wife, the grandmother is how he referred to her, liked to talk. I couldn’t relate to him.

What stayed? Always feed the animals before feeding yourself.

We don’t have sheep or cows, just dogs and lots and lots of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. So Saturday morning Genro layered up, put on hat, boots and gloves of a quality I’m sure they never had in Rumania, and took the big canister with birdseed out to the back. They were saying that morning that even 10 minutes of exposed skin could lead to frostbite, but Genro’s a warrior. Stanley went out with him for a minute—he loves to nibble on sunflower seeds–but came right back in.