My father was larger than life. He was big in physical stature. He also made himself known and noticed. He had a tremendous footfall. If you’re familiar with Land of the Lost (I’m clearly dating myself now), he sounded like one of those dinosaurs thundering towards you. During high school summers and college breaks I worked for the company where he was employed for almost 20 years. One day someone told me they knew I was related to my father by the sound of my feet. Initially, I was horrified. I thought I walked with quiet grace. Then, I realized the comment was not about the weight of my footsteps but rather the confidence and kavannah/direction and intention with which I travelled (when I felt it and even when I didn’t). For a moment, I understood being like my father as a compliment.
Growing up, I joined my father in shul every Saturday morning and experienced the davenning next to his deliberate and pronounced participation. My father felt at home in his shul that honored correct trope, musical leadership and thoughtful, deep, challenging and contemporary Torah. He took pride in the community and made sure his daughters appreciated the gifts of Jewish education, and education overall. In my opening days of Rabbinical School, I fulfilled my dream of wearing tallit and learning to chant Torah. To this day, I remain grateful to Rabbi Morris Goldfarb z’l who taught me torah trope my first shabbos afternoon of rabbinical school and invited me to read for the first time on Simhat Torah. From then on, I practiced layning with my father wherever I was, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, NYC. When my daughter was little, she’d sneak out of bed (before that, her crib), sit in the doorway and listen to me chant with and for my father. Smart girl. How could I be angry with someone called to soak up torah, even when she needed sleep. What a gift to have 3 generations learning Torah together.
Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion taught: When two people sit and discuss Torah, the Shkhinah hovers between them (Pirkei Avot 3:3). When two people reside with words of torah between them, the divine is most fully present. This was the way my father experienced Torah as an ongoing experience of revelation. Not long ago, I came across a note written by a member of my family’s shul community from the days of shiva. The comforter wrote of my father, He always seemed to be having very intense conversations at Kiddush, and it was clear that he was quite engaged with the world. For my dad, kiddush was a time for torah, a time to engage with the rabbi’s (and rabbinical student’s) sermon(s), an opportunity to talk about Israel and about politics, after all the Torah is a political document, one that tells the story of a people demanding dignity and freedom, planting in our heart a GPS aligned with morality. It was the invitation to the divine presence to sanctify and solidify a sense of partnership and hevruta (healthy, sacred challenge and friendship) among community members. For those who knew my father, kiddush was about physical sustenance too. The post shabbos telephone call always included thoughts about the day’s sermon and a recap of the caterer’s offering for oneg shabbat.
As you can see from this picture, taken at a family simhah, my father was filled with life and greeted people with a smiling face. He took seriously the call of the Mishnah to greet everyone with a cheerful and pleasant countenance (Pirkei Avot, 1:15) Rabbi Israel Salanter, father of the musar movement, thought of the individual’s face as public property. How can this be? Your face is yours, there is none like it. Of all things, one’s face should be a personal possession. Salanter understood how our outward expression affected and influenced others. As individuals in community, sharing our face with the world can effect change and invite connection. A warm smile recognizes the humanity in the other and draws them close, making space for the divine.
My larger than life, compassion filled, community invested, world engaged, family guide was supposed to live forever. Filled with life (even when playing tennis with a cigarette in his mouth – a story and sermon for another time), he showed up for everyone and everything. No one’s footprints remain on earth forever, not even those as solid as a dinosaur’s. In the end, it is up to those of us who remain to carry their legacy, to water and nurture the seedlings they planted and carry on their torah.
Just the other night, I imagined my father kvelling in olam habah/the world to come as my daughter remained immersed in the Conservative/Masorti Tikkun Leil Shavuot, sitting in bed, enjoying the teaching and reporting on the different sessions and presenters long after the she absorbed the torah I taught (for which she told me she was cheering me on). What a z’chut/merit/privilege for my 11 year old to engage in her own kiddush, even in these corona-times, with flexibility and open heart.
Today, as many of us in the diaspora recite Yizkor, remembering those whose lives left open chapters, I am mindful that my father would have turned 80 today. The expanse of two treks through the midbar/wilderness of unmarked terrain. Today, in our home, we’ll celebrate his life in all of its thunderous presence. We’ll recommit to live and show up for one another and our community. We’ll sing Hatikvah for the place with which he felt deep connection even though he never walked the land in person. Because if there was one thing my father truly understood, it was the relationship between complexity and hope and the anchor of love at that intersection.
T’hi nishmato tzrura b’tzror hahayim/may the memory of Yitzhak Isaac ben Menahem Manes v’Rivka shine 80 candles worth of blessing and light into our world. For sure, we need it.
@Rabbi Lisa Gelber
May 18, 2021/7 Sivan 5781