Excerpt from Israeli Men and Other Disasters© (All Rights Reserved) in Honor of My Father
My father was the kind of person that everyone loved. He was black-haired and smooth-shaven, handsome, rugged and athletic and as he put it a “spiffy dresser.” He worked very hard for the six of us, which ensured that he was not home a great deal. But when he was present, he made up for his absences in spades. His demeanor around us was nothing less than silly. I can only ascribe my father’s complete lack of seriousness towards us to his own childhood with a more-than-doting mother and an occasionally domineering father.
He was fluent in Yiddish and Latin, and he was a clown of the highest order with a quick mind who could take a sentence or words and reverse them spontaneously, a feat none of us could ever master.
We all had nicknames, the obscure origins of which were based upon our character traits (or flaws) as children. We knew their origins as someone who knows their family tree. My siblings and I still use them on each other to this day. When we saw him–no small feat for a family whose father who worked almost 90 hours a week–we would have his undivided attention. We never referred to my father as “father.” I once asked him how we should refer to him and he told us just to call him “Daddyo” or “Pops,” or to call him “anything but late for supper.”
In his professional career, he was an attorney, or as he would correct us, an “attorney-at-law.” Thus, he naturally called himself an “attorney-at-flaw.” He was one of the first gun control advocates in the Old Dominion. He sat upon a committee of the Virginia State Bar to make it more difficult to get a gun in a Commonwealth where everyone either had one or believed the Constitution said they could have a gun. My father once said to me that if we could arm bears and deer, then he would remove his objection to hunting. He himself was a crack shot with rifles, from his ROTC and Navy days, but he felt it was disgusting to shoot unarmed creatures.
In retrospect, it seems to me now that the events of his life during World War II molded him more than anything else in his life. His intolerance for violence and racism, his insistence upon order in the universe and from all of us were colored by his early days during the war. When pressed for any stories about his days during the war, he told us his best apocalyptic, prophetic and bizarre stories the veracity of which we could never ascertain.
My father often engaged in “freebies” as he referred to any work he ever did without recompense. He represented the B’nai Brith, an organization devoted to removing all traces of anti-Semitism and racism in the United States. He gave free legal advice to our synagogue. He gave legal advice to the group suing George Lincoln Rockwell, the avowed American Nazi Party leader in nearby Arlington, Virginia. I remember this well because we received threatening phone calls for weeks and my father told me to just give him the phone when they called.
I was often granted the privilege of going with my father to the countryside when he visited clients. I remember meeting a family of sharecroppers whose son had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and who my father took to court for the wrongful death. He spent so much time representing poor clients that he began referring to his representations of them as his “$250 Specials.” He would take their cases, conduct all the research and court appearances and do his best for $250.00. Even by today’s standards, that was one hell of a deal.
I recall my father telling me that they would not let him and his friends join a fraternity at George Washington University, so he and his other Jewish friends organized and chartered their own frat. Many years later, he was dressing for their annual dinner and proudly showed me the list of fraternity brothers. It read like a Who’s Who of Washington’s political, financial and social life.
When we would drive up and down the main street of our little city, he would point out where things were before when he was a child–the “For Whites Only” drinking fountains, the bowling alley which had now become a respectable antiques shop, and where the prostitutes would hang out in the doorways down by the docks, to the great annoyance of his family friend who owned a furniture store there and would chase them away with a broom. It was an amusing contrast to the current tempo and sanitized nature of my hometown.
It was not uncommon for my father to introduce us to his childhood friends and acquaintances, be that person a judge or similarly high-ranking official of Alexandria’s inner elite, as “Stinky” or “Lefty.” To this day, I have no idea what Stinky’s real name was. My father took on no airs about anyone or towards anyone. When he would call a plumber, he always used the shortened version of his own first name like he has just seen that plumber at the ballgame the day before. His lack of pretentiousness made us very proud of him and his examples of how to treat others were never lost on any of us.
In 1977, he achieved a lifelong ambition and became a state court judge. The solemn occasion was typically a bit much for my father who told me in an aside that a local reporter unfortunately heard, that he was only wearing his “skivvies” under his judicial robes. He presided over serious crimes that would sometimes make him physically ill. His reputation as the fairest arbitrator of justice of the three appointed judges earned him the nickname “the Hangin’ Judge.” He always let the “punishment fit the crime,” whether it was for murder of an elderly couple, or a man who shoplifted a standing rib roast from the local grocery store. My father had no compunction whatsoever about sentencing people to jail for being “so totally stupid they deserved to be in jail.”
One of my father’s last decisions issued, ironically enough, as he was being treated for cancer. It concerned a terminally ill man who wanted to leave the hospital and die in his own home. My father wrote the most eloquent decision I have ever read regarding a moral and just world where the law provides for “death with dignity.” This opinion later became incorporated in hospital policies all over the Commonwealth.
My father never missed an opportunity to be humorous and he would also try to make us laugh after things went wrong. Nothing would ever go more terribly wrong in our lives than his death from cancer in the spring of 1985 at the ridiculously young age of 58. He bore it with incredible grace and humor, more so than his doctors and we could handle. Jews have an unerring knack of using humor, whether black or not, to lighten the loads of the living. When we would become upset at his failing health and ponder in his presence, why him? Why did he get cancer when he had lived a rather healthy existence? He would just roll his eyes and say: “Life causes cancer” and more depressingly, “death cures cancer.” As ill as he was to become from chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my father missed very little time from work. The sheriff’s deputies whose sworn duty it was to protect the judges told me at his funeral that he was so ill he would call a recess, vomit, and return in a few minutes to the bench.
We all believed our father was the smartest and funniest man to ever walk the face of the earth. But then he used to countermand us by saying his grandmother, “Bubbe” was the funniest person he ever knew. I knew her. She would sometimes visit my grandparents, and as she sat in a chair in their TV room, she would glare at us as she read the Jerusalem Post in Hebrew. The only thing she ever said in my presence was “a clux i Columbus.” (The rough translation is “a curse on Columbus,” presumably for finding America). It figures. She lived in Detroit.