My father’s jahrzeit — as it is written in the German that was his mother-tongue — is on the 25th of Tevet, which coincides this year with the 18th of January. He has been gone for 30 years; I have lived more of my life without him than with him. He was 69 when he died and I was 28; at the time, I didn’t think I was particularly young, and I didn’t think he was particularly young either. In those days—1993—69, especially for a man, was considered “older”; furthermore, given that my father was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1923, he had already beaten some considerable odds. By 1993, I had been married for six and a half years and thought of myself as a full-fledged adult. But with each passing year, I realize more acutely how young I was, and the gaping hole his death left in my life gets deeper. I have had three decades to reflect on what I learned from him.
My parents were not particularly religious; observance was a choice I made on my own. I thus did not learn Torah or Talmud or halachah from him. Nevertheless, the ethics of my father have become clearer and more compelling every day.
He was an only child and lost his own father when he was 23. My Oma, his mother, was a Teutonic eagle, another reality I didn’t comprehend until many years later. Both of my parents had been divorced before they married one another—my mother had three children from her first marriage but my father had none. I was a late-in-life surprise—my mother was 43 and my father was 41—and I was his only child. My father worshipped the ground my mother walked on and demanded that all her children do the same; I could not argue with her, I could not begin eating before she did, and I was raised with the tacit understanding that I had to make up for all she had lost in the Holocaust. (I didn’t know until much later how classically 2nd-generation I am.) I grew up speaking German because my Oma, who lived with us on and off, spoke no English. If I spoke English in front of her, my father would address me in Portuguese, so I could experience immediately what it meant to not understand what was being said. It didn’t matter that being bilingual in a New Jersey suburb in the 1960s and 70s made me totally different and weird; I inarguably owed my grandmother the respect of being included in the conversation. (Thanks to my upbringing, I am still fluent in German.)
My father really had no idea how to interact with young children. Despite, or perhaps because of, his incredible brilliance, he was psychologically inastute. In modern parlance, he was somewhat of a bully, but more out of cluelessness rather than any malice. On the contrary: he was fiercely protective of the three women in his life—his mother, my mother, and (although I didn’t see it that way at the time) me.
I realize now how much I absorbed, even if unwillingly, about kavod, honoring others. Honoring one’s parents isn’t meant to be easy; it’s meant to be done. I am sure that having my Oma live with us was a psychological burden and a sacrifice, but there was no question that it would be that way. I imagine that it wasn’t always easy for my father to put my mother’s needs first and demand that of his child and step-children, but to him, it was just a given. You honor your parents because they gave you life, because they give you shelter and food, because they are older and wiser, and because if you don’t, then the seeds of your destruction, and your generation’s destruction, are sown. If you don’t honor those who gave you life, then you effectively don’t honor human life itself. My father was an agnostic, so it wasn’t about halachah or a Torah commandment or God. Kibbud horim was about truth and justice. From his dedication to us, I also learned that adults don’t only have privileges, they have responsibilities towards others: to provide physically and financially for their family, to treat them with respect and foster their strengths, and to love them, even when these too aren’t easy. I often felt very misunderstood, but never unsafe or unloved, and I learned what it means to be someone’s child, spouse, and parent.
My father was the consummate yekke; if he said we were leaving at 7:00, then it was 7:00, not 7:01. Lateness was an unacceptable moral failing, a form of theft; stolen time could never be returned. I have learned to tolerate lateness from others, especially those who rely on public transit or live in congested cities and suburbs where traffic is both a blessing and a bane. I accept the fact that people even forget meetings or other things; forgetting is a function of being human. On the other hand, I have to suppress waves of nausea and rapidly-rising hysteria if I am stuck on a bus or in traffic and know I will be late. Appointments must be honored because otherwise you’re disrespecting the one with whom you’re meeting and stealing their time. For better and for worse, I strive to maximize every moment of every day. It’s hard for me to truly relax, and I can’t ever seem to really turn off my mind—there is always more to learn, to read, to write, to teach, to think, to do. My father instilled in me that bitul zman, wasted time, like stolen time, can never be returned.
Self-respect and dignity was communicated in one’s clothing: He wore suit jackets, often a Harris tweed, white shirts, and conservative ties. I sometimes begged him to wear some more fanciful ties—paisley perhaps?—or more colorful shirts—pink or blue?—but he never did. Only on summer vacation did he wear long shorts—with knee socks and sneakers—but never a T-shirt or even a polo. He believed in quality over quantity; he wore the same Bally wingtips every day, until they wore out, which took years. And when they did, he bought another pair of Ballys. On the rare occasions when he took me shopping, he would take me to Bloomingdale’s—a place we could ill-afford—because he would rather I have one really good-quality item than several poorer pieces. His Harris tweed jacket still hangs in my closet, I still wear the loden wool cape he bought for my mother in the 1970s, and my eyes and fingers still gravitate towards cashmere and crisp, pure cotton. (I do like bright colors, though.)
Kiso v’koso—his pocket and his cup. My father’s attitude towards money and on what to spend it took me years to appreciate. In many ways his pocket was closed tightly. When he would visit us in Chicago, he would stock up on generic deodorant there because is was pennies cheaper than in New Jersey. He never bought soda from a vending machine, and he insisted I “put on a sweater” rather than raise the thermostat a degree. Eventually, I learned how he gave generously to charitable causes, and I realized the sacrifices my parents made to provide me with a Jewish education when I wanted one. On the other hand, he clearly reveled in his kos, the pleasures the world had to offer: good food of all genres, concerts, summer trips with my mother. We argued over my wedding—he wanted a simple backyard reception so he could give us money instead; I wanted a traditional wedding in a shul with a catered dinner, a band for dancing, and the usual trimmings. Our wedding was traditional and wonderful, but modest; yet, at the end, there was a white limo waiting to take us to our hotel. He taught me that one should give both generously and graciously accept the gifts given them with an open heart. And taking pleasure in the world around you, especially when you have earned it, is the best use of your time as well as your money.
For my father, derech eretz, treating others with manners and decency, was definitely uber alles. Doors were held open, every single person was entitled to please, thank you, how are you, have a nice day. The highest value was one’s character rather than their class, gender, race, occupation, or salary. His standards of excellence were extraordinarily high because he was both a genius and a yekke. He had no patience for fools or for slouches in any arena. I’m not sure that being an over-achiever is always best-practice, and I have come to value the concept of mental-health days (and mental health in general), but the lesson of “you can and you will” became as supportive a mantra as any other foundational belief. My father had unwavering faith in the potent combination of potential and hard work. Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor—you didn’t always have to finish the job; v’lo atah ben chorin lehibateil mimenah—but you had to try your best, and keep trying, to rise to the challenge.
My father, together with his parents, emigrated from Germany in 1936. In one of the few stories I was told about my grandfather, I heard that he sagely took the advice of a German aristocrat who did business with him: leave now because this will get worse before it gets better. I had no sense, however, that my father suffered the same traumas that my mother did. As a matter of fact, he took great pride in his Bach-Beethoven-Heine-Hesse-Goethe heritage, and it didn’t strike me at all odd that we spoke German in our home. As I became more aware of the Holocaust and what the Nazis had wrought, I developed a burning hatred for all things German, and I was horrified when I learned that my father flew Lufthansa and did business in Germany with Germans. He wanted to take me to Germany to show me where he had grown up, and I patently refused. When I was a teenager, I challenged him on this (among many other things). How could you do business with Germans after what they did to the Jews, to you and your family? In response, he quoted the verse, “and the sons shall not be punished for the sins of the fathers.” I was stunned by both his knowledge of Torah text and his attitude, and I was forced to think. If I am guided by Torah values, how can I ignore this precept? Is it fair to blame people who were not born when their parents committed heinous crimes? Isn’t this value critical to achieving some kind of harmony or, at the very least, paving a way forward? My father was neither an idealist nor a liberal; for him, this attitude was both pragmatic and just.
In 2017, I went to Germany with my son, who is named for my father. In the well-maintained cemetery in a small village called Waldorf, we found my great-grandparents’ graves and the house where my Oma grew up. A German gentleman, Dieter Astor, saw us and invited us into his home. He was born in 1946 and was an ad-hoc town historian; he corroborated some things I remembered my grandmother telling me. He showed us pictures of the village, and spoke quietly of the pain and shame of his generation, who did not know things until they found them out on their own because their parents had their own code of silence. We found my father’s childhood home—which survived the bombing of Mannheim—and visited Heidelberg, where he would have gone to university. I heard the German my grandmother and father spoke (as opposed to the German my Viennese mother spoke), and saw the landscape he grew up with. I found both some history and some peace on that trip, and I finally understood completely the credo of forgiveness my father taught me.
These are but some of the ethics of my father. I miss him very much. Yehi zichro baruch.