About 5 years ago, in late February 2011, during one of our almost daily conversations, my father told me that at some point (in the 1970s) his father told him that it was time for my father to take over responsibility for leading the Seder. To that point, his father, Alexander Schonfeld, had led our family Seders. My father continued and told me that it was now time for me to take over for him. At first, I resisted; it was his job. How could I possibly take over for him? It also made me even more mindful of what this statement implied. My father was adamant, but not in a harsh way. After discussing it a little further, I agreed.
I studied and prepared a bit more than usual that year — and then, before I knew it, Pesach arrived. Over those two nights, there were a number of incredibly powerful moments for me. My dad had me wear his kitel. With our extended family present, I led both Seders with him sitting next to me — in the same house and at the head of the same dining room table — where we had been having Seders together for almost 40 years. Passover 2011 was truly a memorable one.
Unfortunately, the feelings of satisfaction were fleeting. Unlike my father, who had the chance to spend quite a few Passovers with his father after he had taken on this job, it was not meant to be for me. Despite the fact that my father had been battling blood cancer for a long time, I did not think that it would all come to an end so quickly. I knew my father was ill and getting weaker, as he had been fighting myelofibrosis for about 19 years. At that point in time, the average lifespan for a person with that disease was about 4 years. Looking back, I think he knew time was getting short.
Not long after Passover, while visiting my brother and sister in New York (and on his way to visit me and my family), his spleen ruptured and he almost died. The doctors saved him. It was a miracle. He woke up and was beaming. He hugged and kissed my mother and saw me and my brother and sister. We thought we had more time. But the miracle was a brief one and 3 weeks later, on Lag B’Omer (May 21), he was gone. His body simply shut down.
It has been almost 5 years, but I have still not gotten over the fact that he is no longer of this earth.
Over the centuries, our Rabbis created an insightful and meaningful way to grieve. The stages of mourning in the Jewish tradition, over the course of 7 days, 30 days and the following 12 months, enable one to connect with one’s-self, family and the community. Saying Kaddish for a loved one each day nourishes one’s soul.
The passage of time and the recitation of daily prayers facilitate healing–but the healing is not truly complete. I suppose it never really is.
I was and still am quite lucky. My father, Gustav Schonfeld, was one of my best friends. We talked almost every day. We shared many of the same interests, read the same books and shared articles with one another. Whenever we visited our family home in St. Louis, I would raid his library for my next book. I do not think he minded.
A very young survivor of the concentration camps, my father taught me a great deal about what was important in life. He was only 10 years old when they arrived at Auschwitz — and he was saved numerous times by his father, Alexander Schonfeld, who also survived and accomplished a great deal in his own life (and led our family Seders). I am certain that their legacy as survivors was also why Passover has always had a special meaning to all of us.
While he enjoyed nice things, my father believed there was far more to life than the pursuit of material items. He valued family, our Jewish heritage, our traditions, and our connection to Israel. He and my mother made sure we spent time in Israel and sent me and my siblings to Jewish Day School so each of us would have the tools to live a knowledgeable and committed Jewish life. Much later, in 2006, Dad and Mom took me, my wife Suzanne and our three sons on our boys’ first trip to Israel.
My dad also instructed me in (or made sure I learned) some of the skills he felt were important in life, such as how to: swim, ride a bike, camp, fish, shoot a gun and drive a car. He also taught me to throw a ball and to appreciate art, history and music. He made certain I understood what it meant to be a professional, the value of a career and the satisfaction of a job well done. Beyond all that — he knew the value of humor and an off-color joke or two. Essentially, he gave me the skills I needed to become a man, a husband and a father.
As a physician-scientist and professor of medicine, he also gave back to the world through his work. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, he had, what he referred to as bonus years- – 66 of them. He simply refused to be defined as a victim. In short, my father accomplished a great deal in the time allotted to him. Gustav Schonfeld lived, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently described in his column as, a meaningful life.
He is still with me, in me. I can still feel his presence in some of our family discussions. For all of these gifts, I will be forever grateful. To honor my father and his memory, all I can do is to continue doing my best to carry on what he taught me and to model those attributes for my children.
On that last Passover, one of the last, and maybe one of the best, gifts my father gave me was the chance to lead our family’s Seders. I will forever remain grateful that he did, and that one of the last gifts I was able to give him was the satisfaction of watching me do so.