Remembering My Father Who Died with a Song on His Lips and a Song in His Heart

On the 12th of Iyar which falls on Wednesday, May 6th of this year, my brother, sister and I will observe the 27th Yahrzeit of our dear father.  He died suddenly at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Sunday, May 2, 1993.  My father, who was just six weeks shy of his 77th birthday was at the hotel with my mother to celebrate the annual dinner of the Netanya Chapter of AACI, Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, an organization founded in 1951 to assist Jews from North America to make Aliyah and help them acclimate to Israeli society.  When my parents made Aliyah in 1983, to spend their retirement years closer to my sister and brother (who made Aliyah in 1971 and 1978), they became actively involved in volunteering with AACI and their synagogue,  Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue. The night my father died, he had just performed a duet with one of his closest friends, of the famous Maurice Chevalier song, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

After the song concluded, to the applause of everyone at the dinner, my father walked off the stage and collapsed, dying of a massive coronary.  When I arrived the next day with my oldest son Avi, to attend his funeral and sit Shivah with my family, a local Netanya Hebrew newspaper featured a short article about my father’s death.  The bolded headline of the article said,  “Met Im Shir B’sfatav v’Shir Balev“—–“He died with a song on his lips and a song in his heart.”

Since my parents had moved to Israel, I called them every Sunday, but on that Sunday, May 2nd, it was the first Sunday I missed calling my parents.  Many friends and family tried to console me suggesting that my father didn’t suffer.  But while comforting to know that, to this day, I wish I had made that phone call, just to hear his voice one last time.

Not making that phone call reminded me of when some years ago, the late football coach of the University of Alabama, Bear Bryant, was asked to do a television commercial for a telephone company called Southern Bell. Coach Bryant’s part in the commercial was simple. He only had one line. At the conclusion of the text of the commercial, Bryant was supposed to say, as though barking an order to his players, “Call Your Momma!” But when the actual filming of the commercial took place, something unexpected happened. As Coach Bryant turned towards the camera, tears welled up in his eyes as he said: “Call your momma. I sure wish I could call mine.”  Those last words, “I sure wish I could call mine” were not in the script.

The telephone company executives told the director of that commercial to leave that adlibbed line in and the commercial aired with Coach Bryant’s additional line. The impact of his words was overwhelming. Television stations were flooded with calls by those who had been touched by the sensitivity and tenderness of Coach Bryant. Many were prompted to call their own mothers or another relative or friend they had been meaning to contact but never did.

One caller who expressed appreciation to the phone company related that, as soon as he saw the ad, he immediately called his own mother with whom he had not spoken for several months because of a disagreement between them. The caller explained that his mother had died the morning following that telephone call, and he knew that, if it had not been for Coach Bryant and that commercial, he never would have resolved his disagreement with his mother before she died.

I love that story and do you know something?  If we wait that long, most of us will not get those second chances.  I certainly didn’t.  A few days ago I called my 97 year old aunt, Toby Olender, the only one of my 14 aunts and uncles who is still with us.  While she has her aches and pains, she never complains and is thankful to God for every single day.  She ended the call reminding me and my wife Judy to be there for her 100th birthday.  I told her that God willing, we will be there!

Whenever I visit Israel, my brother, sister and I always make a time to go to the cemetery in Netanya to visit our parents’ graves.  We always have a “conversation” with them, letting them know what’s going on with our lives and their grandchildren’s’ lives.  Our maternal grandfather always talked to his parents when he visited the cemetery.  And so, we carry on that tradition.  My sister reminds my parents that we still tease her.  I share with them that my older brother still picks on me (And he and I are now in our 70’s!).  Before we leave the cemetery, we always wash away the sand and dirt which seems to accumulate on the granite.  I take one last look at my parents’ Matzevah and as I walk away, I turn back to see my father’s headstone with the usual information about his date of birth and date of death.  And in addition, is the inscription, “He died with a song on his lips and a song in his heart.”  May his memory endure as a blessing.

About the Author
Reuven Taff has served as the rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California since 1995. A trained Hazzan and Jewish Educator, he served as Cantor and Educational Director of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, Arizona and Headmaster of Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia. In addition to his blog on Times of Israel, his opinion pieces have been published in The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento News and Review, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Algemeiner, The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Forward and other publications. He can be contacted at rabbi@mosaiclaw.org.
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