Lives My Father Told Me

I just said my last kaddish for my father A”H until his yortzeit. So this is as good a moment as ever finally to commit to writing the post I had meant for so long to write, and said last year I was not writing then, and that so many of us have in us. It is the post about how a non-religious parent earns so much merit for so many religious descendants. And while I alluded to these issues almost a year ago, when I first wrote about my father’s passing, naturally over the course of the year of avelus [mourning] I have come to understand so much more.

I could write a book about this topic — and certainly about my father. But here I will offer little more than bullet points. The purpose of doing so is not merely to remember him a little more, and a little more publicly, at this juncture. Rather it is to offer other BT’s hints, reminders and appreciations of how their parents, knowingly or otherwise, have helped them get to where they are today — whether or not they would like to admit that, or even if they wish it were not so. Or even if the influence was a negative one, as in, “I don’t want to be like my parent.”

It’s best of course if one is fortunate enough not to have that last case in one’s life. In my case, I am glad to say the influence of my father (and there was influence from my mother too, and plenty, but that is not this article) to value being Jewish and to act on that feeling was a positive one.

Some of the things my father did that added up later were subtle; some overt. The quality they shared the most was the sincerity and, well, what seems on reflection to have been a sort of simple faith, really, though my father was neither simple nor, in his mind, particularly “faithful.”

But these, sincerity and faith, are the stuff souls are made of. This sincerity was the quality of my father that was most admired by those who knew him. Today we call this quality what our grandparents called it — ehrlichkeit. And my father, well, was also known for underestimating himself. In the area of faith, in fact, he gave himself far too little credit, as you will see.

Now, my father’s Jewish education was poor. He attended a Talmud Torah or “Hebrew School” in the Lower East Side and “graduated from [organized] Judaism” at his bar mitzvah. But he took no pride in this non-achievement. Indeed it was precisely his lack of Jewish learning that motivated him to ensure that we had a more thorough Jewish education than he did. “I’m not religious,” he would say — not just to us, but to some of our more ideologically anti-religious relatives when defending his choice to send us to Hebrew school. “But that’s out of ignorance, not choice. I want my kids to make their choices based on understanding.” And so we did.

Thus being poorly educated in Jewish matters did not stop my father from making what he understood to be the best effort he could at doing the right by us and God as he understood it.

Now, again, my father was not a “simple man.” He was pretty sharp, in fact. He was great with numbers, a talented investor and money manager, quite well spoken, and read a lot. Of course he enjoyed Star Trek and the Yankees and the Knicks, but back in the day he also found time for fairly serious science fiction and what in retrospect seems pretty esoteric material for a payroll clerk and benefits administrator who described himself as a “dropout” (he meant college, though). I even remember him telling me as a young child that he had just read — where?, I wonder now — that while we certainly don’t have to believe this, Sigmund Freud theorized (he liked “theories”) that Moses was an Egyptian! Even I knew this was ridiculous; the movie explained quite clearly how silly that idea was.

Yes, my high-school-educated dad read books and articles that raised ponderous issues, even existential ones, though he would not have used that word or likely even read works that did use it. But my father was engaged with cosmological issues, in his way, and he engaged us about the things he read. And from this we learned that questions such as why and how were questions worth asking and whose answers were worth seeking.

And we knew that he valued being Jewish, and the Jewish answers to these questions were, in his view, presumptively entitled to a very serious hearing. But he knew very, very little Torah. My father was more than a sincere man, however; he was a humble man, as I said, and readily admitted what he did not know, and never considered ignorance either a point of pride or a positive heritable trait. So when we were very little but still too young for Hebrew school he bought a book called The Children’s Bible.

It had pictures, and he knew this would interest us, and that’s why he chose this particular Bible. And my dad would read it to us at night, as he sometimes read us entries from Tell Me Why, which we loved.

And when he read us this Bible on the yellow living room couch, our tan little legs sticking to the plastic slipcovers in the sweaty Brooklyn heat, I remember how my father would pronounce the name Avrom, which was spelled “Abram” in this Bible, as “A-brum” — a logical pronunciation deduction from “A-braham,” after all.

As I think of this now, I remember that I used to get Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, tangled up in my mind with the company Dad worked for. It had the name “Abramowitz” in it, and even though that was pronounced “Uh-brahm-uh-wits,” it was spelled like “Abram.” Somehow this association bound up our Father Abraham, born as Abram, with my father who worked for Abramowitz in my little head.

Which was hardly inappropriate, in its way.

I also remember the picture of Noah’s Ark in that Bible. The tevah looked to me like a giant brownish autumn-time leaf fallen from an impossibly giant tree (yes, trees grew in Brooklyn), shaped as it was in the illustration and with its keel looking life a leafy “spine” running its length and the beams radiating outward from it to form the Ark’s hull. This sure didn’t look like anything I’d seen afloat at Sheepshead Bay! I found this more remarkable than the fact that God, my father read to me, told Noah to get all those animals into the thing. Well, if my father says God could do that, and that God in fact could do anything, I had no problem with that. But that leafy ark?

Now, one thing. If you clicked that link, you’ll see that the Children’s Bible had, um, “both” “testaments” in it. So Dad told us not to look at the back part. “We don’t believe in that.” And we believed Dad, because every word he told us was believable. So we didn’t look. Except, well, I did kind of peek but didn’t read anything. And I saw “theirs” was much smaller than ours. So, “heh,” I thought. Nothing going on there, obviously.

Well. When I started this piece I was going to lay out bullet points, I said. I intended to mention how he kissed the mezuzah when he came in the door — well, we thought it was a mezuzah; it looked like one from outside. I was thinking about how he insisted on having us eat matzah instead of bread during Pesach. There are lots of little things like that.

And of course there were big things, values things. There was his understanding of how he was responsible to help out other Jews, and how he acted on that as if it were simply an axiom of human decency to get a few dollars into the hands of a needy fellow Jewish person, even if he didn’t have so many spare ones himself. And I could never forget how ashen-faced he was when he told us on Yom Kippur in 1973, as we woke up in the convertible bed in our grandparents’ living room overlooking Brighton Beach, that the Arabs had attacked, and how bad it looked. He was so upset — so scared. That, I had never seen.

These events in that far-off place that he had never really talked about with us must, it turns out, matter a lot.

As I said, I could write a book.

But my father wrote the book, really, that is the lives of all his many offspring k”eh who learn Torah and do Torah and mitzvos with the understanding and utilizing the choice he wanted us to have and which he made sure we had.

He wrote it, really, when he read that Book to us, in his humble way, because he knew as a father — he knew, somehow — that it was his duty to ponder these things in his house, and on his way, and to write them on the lintels of our door, that he was bound too to teach these things in that Book to his children as best he could.

As best as he could.

So when indeed will my merits approach those of my father?

24 comments on “Lives My Father Told Me

  1. Mom, thanks for your heartfelt words. It’s true I wasn’t there for this discussions (being away in law school or yeshiva and, later, married) but I like to think I have some share in their having taken place. Plus with those two rabbis you and Dad were in very good hands!

  2. Ron, dear son Ron,

    I had no idea that you had ever written such a beautiful article about your dad, my loving husband. I wish I had known before…but, nonetheless, I have cried many tears reading your loving words about a father who was so special to us all…as a father and as a husband and…as a friend to all who knew him. His wit was also wonderful! and if one of his puns was bad…he just loved to hear that comment as well. He was funny, he was loving…he was a wonderful human being to the very end…loving to his children and wife to his dying day. Too bad you were not there to enjoy the nights dad would discuss religion in Twin Rivers with Rabbi Gruman and those were some very wonderful points of view that he would challenge…May he rest in peace as he so well deserves to rest. And Ron, again…thank you for your wonderful writing. I love you and your brother and all the wonderful grandchildren dad got to know and love too. Your mom, Terry

  3. Me too, mine, Judy. Three years in now and I can’t imagine Year 27 feeling any different.

    Brian, that “allowance money” was ten cents! And yes, we did value a dime in those days; you could buy an ice cream with that.

  4. This Fathers’ Day, if your father is alive, give him a hug and say, “I love you, Daddy.”

    If your father is in Gan Eden, remember him today by doing a kindness for someone in his name.

    My Daddy’s gone 27 years….I still miss him.

  5. I remember that money was tight when you lived in Brooklyn.And I was watching you and Glenn getting allowance money.My uncle saw me watching and he gave me allowance too even though I didn’t earn it.We were about 4.

  6. It is interesting to think how our fathers would have been different if they were not so deprived of chinuch and a frum household.They had the brains to hack Tosfos .A strong character is important.I remember my uncle refusing to vote for Clinton because he had cheated on his wife.That made an impression on me.That was the last of the secular Jewish people to hold the line on intermarriage and Hebrew school.Having been a Hebrew school director all the students except for one had only a Jewish mother.Some would tell me they celebrated X-mas.But had that generation not kept the ban on intermarriage there would not be the doros to come out of them.Ken Yirbu!

  7. I remember that quote about Freud. But what I remember the most was how your father described our grandfather’s founding of a girl’s dorm in a remote area of Cuba. He said “Who knows. That may very well be the reason why the daughters did not intermarry”. He spoke to my sister about the dangers of intermarriage and missionaries.

  8. To everyone who still has a Dad, Abba or Totty: show your appreciation not only on Fathers’ Day, June 19, but every day.

    For those of us (including myself and Ron Coleman) whose fathers are gone, let us remember the hard work our fathers did, whether they were frum or not, to make us into the people we are today.

    L’zecher Nishmas Yosef Chaim ben Menachem Alter, my dear departed father Joseph Kluger, niftar on 11 Sivan 5745 (May 31, 1985). May his memory be for a blessing.

    My son Yosef Chaim Resnick and my grandson Yosef Chaim Kurman carry his name.

  9. Ron,

    A very touching tribute. I hope to share it at my Shabbos table this week.

  10. Without getting into the semantics of “find” vs. “look for,” my point is that the premise of this dilemma, as I understand it, is that the person seeking mentorship or support doesn’t merely lack a phone book. He is at sea in terms of knowing who can help, and finding a way to connect and get that relationship working.

    But I am merely speculating. No one seems all that motivated so far to expand on this!

  11. 1. Jews are a great people and often do wonderful things even when, for whatever reason, they were not brought up or did not bring their children up according to 100% Torah guidelines. We each have room to improve, whether we call ourselves BT’s or not, but should not lose sight of our virtues.

    2. If someone has been disappointed with his kiruv mentor or religious associates, why should he waste time dwelling on it? Find a new, better mentor or better associates.

  12. I am sure it was nothing personal, Judy. It did make me think a bit. I have seen allusion to this “follow-up crisis” many times. I don’t think this is the post to have that discussion, and I have been so out of it for all I know it was just discussed a month ago. If not, maybe we’re due for it. I would be interested in understanding specifically what people mean by it.

    You are right about my father’s personal ethics, by the way, though I don’t think I mentioned them. He simply wanted nothing to do with money that wasn’t his, or even money that could be earned in a way he considered questionable.

    When we were still pretty young my father was a very talented stock picker, and for years people pushed him to become a stock broker. He finally acquiesced and scheduled the licensing exam. Then he did’t go. Why?, I asked.

    “The way brokers make money is by commissions on trades,” he said. “But I don’t believe in trading, I believe in investing. I can’t see myself pushing trades” — which was how he perceived the endeavor — “in order to generate commissions. I can’t give people financial advice I wouldn’t follow myself.”

    To the contrary, the only advice he gave was the type he would follow himself, even if he couldn’t. He made a lot of people with more money to invest very wealthy with his picks, and took nothing for it.

  13. Yosh #4: Yosh, I thought you were unnecessarily hostile toward Ron Coleman. As I recall, Sara Yocheved Rigler, the author of the biography Holy Woman and a BT herself, wrote a lovely article in appreciation of the fine qualities and ehrlichkeit of her own dear departed father, who had been a pharmacist in New Jersey and had done many acts of kindness for many different people. Although these men were regretfully not Orthodox Jews, there is a great deal we can all learn from the absolutely honest upright manner in which both Ron’s father and Sara Yocheved Rigler’s father conducted business. One of the first questions the Aibershter will ask us after 120 years is: Did you conduct your business dealings honestly? Both Mr. Coleman senior and the father of Sara Yocheved were able to answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!”

  14. I guess I would add that to the extent you are saying that having a wonderfully ehrlich father makes almost any endeavor in life more likely to succeed, I would agree with that, too.

  15. Yosh, your comment is certainly intriguing. As I wrote this I realized that in fact my father, by virtue of growing up really in the “old country” that was the Lower East Side of the 1930’s, definitely came from a different place than did the baby boomers who are the parents of today’s 20-something BT’s.

    My article was not meant as an analysis of kiruv [outreach] or kiruv institutions, of course, but mainly as an appreciation of my father and how he helped make me what I became. Of course there are many BT’s who are my age (even older!) and there will still be more of them.

    I can’t really speak to the concept of how a good relationship with one’s parent can “cloud” a person’s judgment. I guess you mean I am lacking in empathy.

    I bet there are all kinds of problems out there I have not encountered. I am not in the business of blanket excuse-making or condemnation. I see that some kiruv organizations and professionals are better at follow-up than others. I know that most are spread quite thin. But because your comment is both somewhat off topic and very general, I don’t know if I can say much more.

  16. Ron,
    Your wonderfully ehrlich father has left you woefully unprepared to guide most of the BTs of my generation, whose own parents were singularly lacking in integrity, thoughtfulness, and even literacy. Or you can just call it a generation gap. But for me, many of your comments on this blog appear insensitive to the real issues and problems that many other BTs are facing. Just to take one example of a recurring theme, the way that kiruv itself is done and the lack of support provided once the objective has been reached and the target has been m’kareved. Your positive and trusting relationship with your father probably clouds your judgment as to the amount of support many BTs need — and to the devastating effects of being pushed away by one’s own kiruv rabbi who is now hunting for fresh meat. If you can replace the kiruv rabbi with the lasting, loving memory of a strong and caring father figure, then that’s wonderful. But if not?

  17. This is a tease. I’m waiting for the book. And I’ll remind you every so often.

  18. My parents are the BTs – but all my grandparents were so obviously proud and happy to be Jewish, as your father was. So connected to the Jewish people and Jewish wisdom.

    This is, as you say, the foundation for all the rest.

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