Mort Laitner

Sitting shiva

My father was a male Scheherazade, but it took a couple of his old friends to tell the story that helped me understand his life
My dad (second row center), in slave labor before death camps. (courtesy)
My dad (second row center), in slave labor before death camps. (courtesy)

Three days after my dad’s death, I sat shiva in my mother’s Boca Raton home.

In her villa, a group of 10 men — our minyan — stood, talked and waited for the rabbi to make his appearance.

Alone, I stared out the kitchen’s glass doors at the lake and the golf course.

I flashed back at how happy my father had been when Jason, his grandson, caught a large bass in that lake.

I smiled, realizing that picture had become one of my in-erasable Kodak moments.

Each day of shiva, in this kitchen, I sipped flavorless coffee, as my reddened eyes noticed that the lake appeared a paler shade of blue and the golf course a browner shade of green.

In this kitchen, I recalled the sweet taste and rich aroma of my dad’s freshly-brewed coffee.

How it ran over my tongue and ignited my taste buds.

And how, in this kitchen, I admired him.

Walking into the living room, I found myself surrounded by acquaintances, family, and unknown friends of my parents.

My father touched all their lives.

They shook my hand, expressed their condolences, and said how much they respected my dad.

These living room walls were lined with impressionist paintings.

Like these paintings, I now lived in the shadows of a blurred life.

In this living room, on these couches, next to these paintings, my dad and I talked for hours.

He was a master storyteller — a male Scheherazade.

We discussed wars, history, and how life was treating us.

He told off-color jokes, and I laughed.

I loved his sense of humor and he knew it.

Those days and those laughs were now gone forever.

The rabbi’s appearance broke my daydream.

He instructed the minyan to stand and face east.

He led us in prayer.

He helped my mom, my sister, and me recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

As the three of us searched for meaning and comfort in this ritual, I silently prayed, G-d walk through our house and take away our sorrow and please watch over us and heal my family.

After the rabbi left the villa, two elderly men cornered me in the vestibule.

“Hi, I’m Saul and this is David. It is our pleasure to meet you.”

They appeared to be in their late 60s or early 70s… short, balding men with protruding stomachs.

They both wore white cotton short-sleeve shirts and like my father, bore tattooed numbers on their forearms.

I shook their hands and glanced into their eyes.

I sensed they were messengers, sent to tell me a story, sent to hand me another piece to the puzzle that made up my father’s life.

In a thick Polish accent, Saul said, “You know you look an awful lot like your father.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Many folks considered him a handsome man.”

David piped in, “Many women loved the way he looked and dressed. He told us many stories about the time he spent in Rome before the war, when he was in medical school, about those beautiful Italian women he knew. Boy could he tell a story — so descriptive, down to the minutest detail.”

Saul interrupted, “Your father befriended us during the last days of the war… in the death camp, just days before we were all liberated by the Soviet army.”

“We wanted to tell you that he saved our lives.” David continued as he rubbed his tattoo.

I remembered hearing those words before. Usually from my father’s patients or their family members who told me how he pulled them away from death and back to the living.

“Thanks for telling me. How did he do it?” I inquired as I pulled on the small piece of black cloth pinned to my jacket.

“He gave us the most important gift of all… the will to live,” Saul said.

David continued, “Well, it was near the end of the war. We were all imprisoned in a concentration camp… inches away from death.

“We were ill and starving.

“We were skin on bones.

“Bombs exploded in the distance, but we didn’t know how many days it would be before the Russian Army liberated us.

“Every minute, prisoners died all around us.

“Both of us were 16-years-old, and your father knew we were virgins.

“He kept telling us, ‘Keep struggling, don’t give up.’

“Your father exclaimed,’Boys, stay alive, you have to make love to a woman!’

“He told us one story after another about his sexual escapades.”

As David talked, my mind wandered:

Did my dad know that by telling these stories, to these boys, he was also saving his own life?

Was storytelling his salvation, his medicine of hope and love?

Would I exist if not for those stories?

Tears formed in David’s eyes as he whispered, “He kept our minds off of food and death. He gave us hope in our darkest moment.  Your father, without medicines, used the only tool left in his medical bag… his brain.”

Saul jumped in, “A brilliant strategy. It worked! We fought death and we won.

“I doubt that without those stories we would be talking to you today.”

Hugging both of them, I replied, “Thanks so much for telling me that story. My dad never did.”

Alone, I stared out the kitchen window feeling proud of my dad.

I noticed the brilliance of the lake’s blue waters and the sharpness of the green radiating off the golf course.

About the Author
Florida's Jewish short-story writer, speaker, film producer and retired attorney. He has authored, "A Hebraic Obsession", "The Hanukkah Bunny" and "The Greatest Gift." He produced an award-winning short film entitled, "The Stairs". Movie can be viewed on my TOI blog. ChatGPT says, Mort is known for his works that often explore themes of love, loss, and the human connection. Laitner has published several books , including “A Hebraic Obsession.” His writing style is characterized by its emotional depth and introspection. Laitner’s works have garnered praise for their heartfelt expression and keen insight into the human experience.
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