A Worthy Inheritance: Words of Mourning, Words of Praise

(I shared the following reflections at the funeral of my father, z’l, fourteen years ago today, the 11th of Shevat. They are as true today as they were then. Truer, even…)

If I am able to stand here today and speak coherently, it is not at all because I feel that way. I feel like a primal scream, like twisted metal, like putty. I can’t even believe I can stand upright. But it’s important that I do, because it’s my chance to give you just the tiniest insight into who my father was, and why we feel his loss so very, very deeply.

It is strange to say “was,” when everything about my father before 10:30 yesterday morning was still “is.” How is it that a person goes from “is” to “was” and everything about him is suddenly in the past tense? Truthfully, I have felt the loss of my father (due to his Alzheimer’s) for some time. Those incremental losses have been heartbreaking, and I tried to ignore them along the way in the hope that they were only blips and would be reversed. Like the last time my father put his hands on my head—as he did with each of us every year at Rosh Hashanah—and blessed us for a new year. That was several years ago, but I don’t remember how many. Or the last time my father had the strength and awareness to wrap his arms around me and give me a hug. Few things can feel worse than knowing that somewhere along the way, you felt your father’s last hug.

Joan Didion, in writing recently about her husband’s sudden death, quotes a former priest who talks about the death of a parent, saying, “despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, the death of a parent dislodges things deep within us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far; buffering us with recollections.”

That is how I feel now, buffeted by recollections. So many images, so many moments come to mind, in random, crazy ways. And that is how I will share my father with you.

He was and is loved, deeply by his family. We daughters are daddy’s girls. Always have been, always will be. I can stand here as a 42 year old woman and honestly tell you that it never for a moment stopped mattering to me that my father be proud of me. I thought often of what my father would think of my actions and my choices. And I of his. Of how he took the trauma and tragedy of being a victim and survivor of the Holocaust and made a life. He never for a moment forgot the family he lost to murder, but he built his own, as an immigrant-refugee, a man displaced from everything familiar, everything known and loved. That bravery, coupled with his enduring ability to love and live after such loss, left a profound impression on all of us.

I can tell you that I never recall having heard my father tell me that he loved me, but I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life than that he did.

My father did not know malice. He did not know indifference. He did not know hatred. He was victimized by practitioners of all of them, but he carried none of those things within him. He was a man of few words, but all of them mattered. When we stumbled and made stupid choices, he didn’t rebuke us. He just gently reminded us of what the better path was. He upset my sister Ossie by telling her years ago that a house she wanted to buy was sinking. When she brought in an engineer, it turned out that my father was right. She never doubted his novice engineering judgment again. He charmed and made us laugh with his mispronunciations of English, so Citibank became ShittyBank, and going to the beach became going to the bitch.

My father gave religion a good name. He was an observant Jew who did not impose his beliefs or behaviors on his children, but set such a positive example for us that it was easy to choose to be a committed Jew as an adult, even if not as observant as he. He once told me that the Talmud tells us to live each day as if it is your last. I doubt I’ll ever live up to that standard, but I haven’t the least doubt that he did.

I learned about history, geography, war and politics from my father. We discussed ideas around the dinner table, communism, socialism, capitalism.

I learned from my father how to treat people with dignity and respect, not because he told me to, but because he showed me how to. I saw him interact in his business and personal lives with every manner of person, beggars to millionaires, and you couldn’t tell the difference in how he treated them. I learned from my father that you always help other people, because that’s what it means to be a good human being, and a good Jew. I saw my father say please and thank you and hold the door for women, even as he was dying. And I thought to myself, nothing can knock the mensch out of this man, not Alzheimer’s not cancer, nothing.

I learned from my father that real men cry. I learned that some pain never, ever goes away, like the pain he freely expressed to us about not being able to save his 2 and 4 year old nephews from being murdered during the Holocaust. I learned that that pain can co-exist with joyous memories of an early childhood, and it all made sense to me when I became an adult that love and heartbreak are simply two sides of the same coin.

Some of you know that when we found out officially that my father was dying, we decided to take him to Israel, a trip most people thought we were nuts to take. And we were. It was also the greatest gift we gave ourselves. There were moments, like when my father entered the hotel in Jerusalem screaming “police! Police! Someone call the police!” that I thought we had made a mistake. But when I watched him walk to the Kotel to pray, when I heard him say Kaddish for his family at Yad Vashem, when I watched him approach his 92 year old friend Tamara like a school kid about to settle a friendly, 60-year old feud, I knew we had created our own miracle.

I’ll share with you one entry from my diary of that trip,

4:15p.m. Monday, 23 January, Tel Aviv

I’ve gone for a walk on the beach and am now sitting in the sand, just at that time of day when the sun begins slowly to slip down on the horizon. I’ve been walking and thinking. I left my father in the room, singing a continuous reel in Yiddish, of prayers. It was so lovely to listen to, and so devastatingly sad.

I was thinking as I was walking of how this trip will turn out, most likely, to be a trip of “lasts.” I will remember it as the last time I heard my father…the last time I saw my father…the last time I remember my father…the last time he said…the last time he did…

I know that I really lost my father some time ago and that this trip—depending on one’s vantage point—is either a desperate or poignant attempt to reconnect with him, recover him, just be with him. Perhaps it is all of these things. I guess I just can’t quite come to terms with any and all of this. How is it possible that my father might not stand with Sam at his bar mitzvah? How is it possible that my children will not have him in their lives? How is it that I will not have his wisdom to call upon? How can it be that after I have worked so hard to become someone he can be proud of, that he will leave me? I have lost so much of him already; how is it possible that there is more of him to lose?

I learned from my father everything I will ever need to know about love, loyalty and legacy. And it is to my children that I want to address the following: there are people who may tell you that your inheritance will be the money we give you, the things we divide up some day. That is nonsense. Your inheritance is within you. You carry your legacy in your DNA.

Sam, you embody not only your Papa Jack’s physical strength, but his deep and abiding sense of fairness, his abhorrence of bragging and conceit, and his desire to right injustice, in his own quiet way. You inherited his gift for languages, and his family’s gifts of musical ability. And you certainly have your Papa Jack’s wisdom.

Noah, you share with your Papa Jack a pure soul, a pure n’shema, one that I often think is simply too good for this world. You too do not know malice, hatred or unkindness. You bring us laughter and joy with your silly sayings, just as we chuckled over Papa Jack’s funny English.

Ariel, with your passion and fire, you carry within you Papa Jack’s fearlessness and determination to do right in the world. You share his compassion for others, and commitment to helping those in need.

I am so glad that Papa got to see you Sam and Noah reach beyond your seventh year, as Papa would say that you are the same at 7 as you are at 70,and it therefore is as if he knew you as adults. Ariel, since you already act like a teenager, we can safely say that Papa got to know the fully formed you as well.

I want to end by sharing something my husband said to me on several occasions over the years, and especially during this last year of my father’s life. Len said that if his children love and care for him half as much as my sisters and I loved and cared for our father, he would consider himself a very lucky man.

To have been—and to be—my father’s daughter, I consider myself the lucky one. The very, very lucky one.

About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half.
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