The Shvitz Of My Father Nitzavim

 “What is the meaning of nobility? A person whose hidden wealth surpasses his outward wealth. Heschel

With honor and in loving memory on the upcoming Yartzheits of my mother Ruchul Bas Aaron Shmul and My Father, Naftali Ben Zvi Hersh

The Shvitz of My Father

With this piece I must especially thank Rabbi Siff for pushing me to create these drafts. In exploring the possibilities and elements of this essay, a revelation came to me, resolving a lifelong battle of disturbed confusion related to a matter posed by my Dad O’H’…May his soul rest in peace. 

The following is my imagined dialogue Avraham Joshua Heschel could of had based on real comments he made. It was said that it was difficult to go for a walk with him because he would immerse himself in the wonder of everything.

Rav Heschel why are you for one hour staring at that tree, what do you see?” “My dear friend, I see a Chassid standing there, an ancestor from my former world. When I look up, I see a struimmel (fur hat), as I look lower I see his majestic bekesha (black coat) and when I look down, I see the roots that blossomed into my very being.”

I will never forget the shock and confusion that overtook me while picnicking on a lawn in Brighton Beach when my father told me, “there is no G-d.” How could he say that, why would he say that? How dare he say that!? I knew as a Holocaust survivor he had a right to question things, but he sent me to Talmud Torah, we had a Kosher Home, we went to Shul on Rosh Hashannah and fasted onYom Kippur. We had Seders that he masterfully led. “Why would you say that to me Daddy?” “Heshela, how could there be a G-d if he let them take everyone from me, my family was religious, very religious.”

I knew that, I saw pictures of his Chassidish looking family in garb in a Shtetl……what makes you say that to me, why? That scene is so fresh for me, especially this time of year. It was so confusing, his inner actions did not reflect his statement.

You see, when he was preparing to go to Shul and then in prayer, he did it with such Kavanah that I felt the family would be protected just because of his intensity, especially in davening. He was so serious about prayer and the rituals on these holy days I felt because of his commitment to G-d, my burden was relieved. I could play tag, ring o levio with my friends outside of Shul.But he would not have it, no! This man who told me there was no G-d, insisted, demanded I be at his side in the service the whole time. I complained and begged him to let me go out.“No, you stay right here!” Next to him, I could not help but experience the Shvitz of his body in devotion, the smell of his Talis. I was upset with him, I did not want to be there, my heart was not there, it was looking outside at my friends all playing, without me. However, I did feel safe, good with G-d’s judgment, because of him.

In an essay “The Marginal Jew” Nechama Leibowitz explores the implications of the passage that we will read on Shabbat;…lest there be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood… comes to pass when he hears the words of the curse that he bless himself in his heart saying: I shall have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart- that the watered be swept away with the dry.

She brings down first the Ramban discussing the “root” saying that the father is the root and the son the shoot that buds forth from it. She cites Ibn Ezra who shares regarding “the watered be swept away with the dry” means, I will have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart because I shall live in virtue of the saintliness of the righteous…….And from Akedat Yizhak who says that statement…the water to the a parable about a person who has two adjoining fields one thirsty always needing water and the other watered. The dry field is bound to get benefit of the watering of the dry.

Oh my, this was me and my father next to me, feeling his Shvitz, his intensity watering me though I had a stubborn heart. BUT! it did not mesh with what he said to me regarding G-d.

We are in a season of remembering, of remembering and addressing what we did this year. Of remembering G-d’s relationship with us, of remembering G-d’s power, of Yiskor, remembrances during the next few weeks in holy ceremony of our departed love ones. As a Jewish people just as we add sanctity to time we ignite power to memory. That may well be the essence of Teshuva, return.

Heschel brings out that even though we did not have Israel for thousands of years we always actively remembered her. The reminders, minhagim/customs and Halacha being involved with our lives all the time…. incomplete jewelry, 3 weeks of sorrow, the 9 days, fasting, statements said in mourning, rituals at weddings, leaving something undone in our homes, soil at funerals, words at grace or at a Shiva house and on and on. The implication is that our beloved county, our land, our home to our fathers returned to us because of that active memory. “The substance of our very being is memory, our way of living is retaining the reminders articulating memory.” AJH

I can’t but help all these years remember even during Yiskor those chilling and confusing words my father said to me. Again, how, why say that on the outside and on the inside demonstrate something else. Why would you teach me and my brother to duchun (bless the people as only the High Priests Kohanim can) under the Shvitz of your Talis only to tell me we shouldn’t do this because only Shomer Shabbat Yiddim should do this. Daddy, why did you teach me that? Never could I understand that until now.

In a documentary I saw on PBS on the second generation of survivors, a daughter confronted her mother in her later years, “Mom, why could you never say you loved me?” Her mother responded, “because everyone I ever loved was taken from me. I could not admit my love out of fear of losing you.”

I now believe, my father felt, that on the outside showing you were a frum observant Jew was dangerous, don’t actively believe in our G-d, they will take you from me! Don’t show the velt- world our attachment to G-d. However on the inside; Heshala, he is there, I am here, you are here, your children are there, there is no doubt, stay with me, remember me and feel it, sense it, carry it on. I can’t bring myself to publicly display it, but you can, you must. I am sorry for being so strong, please understand.

Heschel writes in Pikuach Neshama- To Save a Soul- “What is the meaning of nobility? A person whose hidden wealth surpasses his outward wealth. The whole honor of Judaism is internal, in the depths , in the small containers that are hidden from sight. The blessing….. the beauty is not in the top of the trees, but rather in the roots which are open to the ANCIENT FOUNTAIN.”

Naftali Ben Zvi Hersh knew he was watering……..he saw tomorrow like Moshe in next week’s Parasha, with Joshua who Moses was actively influencing, the task of carrying on to the coming generations.

In my fathers’ later years while suffering from dementia and macro degeneration, even though he could not see, from his wheelchair he looked up at me; “Heshala, vos is dos auf dayn kup, ah coppel, dos is git.” What is this on your head a Coppel/Kippa, this is good. As if he said, yes of course there is a G-d, he is good, please, it is ok to share him with your family and the world now.

Toward the end of the Parasha we read, .. G-d will open thy heart and the heart of thy seed…….. And thou shalt return and hearken to the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command thee this day.

Dad, as you probably know, all the boys during their Bar Mitzvahs wore your Talis as they read from the Torah. This Summer, I stood within two Chupahs , two Kosher Chupahs dressed above with your Talis as well as my father in law’s- O”H’. I looked up and saw those marks of Shvitz hanging over my family. As I looked down, I saw two of our boys that blossomed from your roots watered by the Ancient Fountain ready to be swept with their beautiful wives into the magnificence of the fields you and our ancestors cultivated.

This time of year we Ask for Mechila, forgiveness. I didn’t know that was also protocol at a funeral, so at the time I didn’t ask you. Daddy Forgive me, I just didn’t know the value, the beauty, the majesty of being by your side during these coming days. Know however, I now truly understand everything and that you live on daddy, the Shvitz of my father seeped in deep. Oh and Daddy, All the boys as you also probably know, are able to Duchun these Yom Tovim. Keep watching us and give mom a hug.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

About the Author
Co-founded with Nan Klein in 1976 one of the country's first video companies. We produce programming for the top organizations in the world. We live a fully Shomer Shabbat life in Woodmere, NY.