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?