What I Learned from my Dad

Today is both Father’s Day and the 6-Month Anniversary of my father’s passing. So in honor of his memory, I want to share a few thoughts on what I learned from my dad. For he was, among other things, my greatest teacher. And while he of course taught me the skills that all dads teach their sons – to play ball, to tie a tie, to drive a stick shift, to open the door for your date, etc. – I want to share some of the other things he taught me.

My dad taught me how to laugh – especially to the Borscht belt humor of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner; Gene Wilder and Sid Caesar; Billy Crystal and Neil Simon. The kings of Jewish laughs were his idols. My dad loved to laugh. We shared the same sense of humor, and as my wife, Ronit, will tell you, the same joke-telling voice too: It didn’t matter if we were doing a Scottish guy or a Russian one, the voice was the same: the 2000 year old Jewish man.

I have tried to pass that on to my children as well. On one of my trips to visit my dad, my 10-year old daughter went to the bathroom and found a copy of the book, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” I didn’t realize this until I heard her cracking up – from the toilet. She soon emerged with the book in hand, laughing, asking me, “Daddy, what’s a schmuck?” My dad laughed at that one too.

My dad taught me how to eat Jewish. For starters, that meant our crazy way of keeping kosher – no pepperoni pizza in the house, but mu-shu-pork at the local Chinese restaurant was ok. I remember the time we went to a fancy restaurant and my dad ordered the lobster bisque, and told the waitress to “hold the lobster” – meaning the tiny lobster garnish they put on top. That was typical Bodner kosher.

But my dad also taught me about bagels and lox; whitefish and herring; corned beef and pastrami; rye bread and pickles. We had a ritual when I was growing up. Every Sunday morning my dad would take me with him to get bagels and lox from Boychick’s Deli. Then we’d stop for donuts too. That was our religious outing. That was our shul. The baker was our rabbi. And now, I do the same thing with my kids every Sunday morning – except Starbucks has replaced the donuts, and bad California chocolate chip bagels have replaced good New York pumpernickel ones. My dad loved Milton Berle’s famous line, “Whenever someone orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”

My dad taught me how to tell stories. He was the consummate story teller. He was a writer and an orator. He told true stories and half-true stories. He always exaggerated, but that was part of his charm. He wrote essays and columns called “A Daddy’s World” – stories about my brother and me growing up – and my dad would never fail to stretch the truth just enough to embarrass us for maximum effect. I almost felt bad when Google was invented so we could finally call BS on my dad with the push of a button. To his credit, Google still never stopped him from telling the story his way. (See for yourself with his final book, “My Lemonade Life.”)

My dad also taught me to be spiritual. He cared deeply about his faith but was never dogmatic. And ultimately, that’s what led him to become the “Rabbinister.” So many friends asked him to perform their wedding ceremony that he went online to make it official. But his spirituality went deep. He believed in purpose and passion in life. He used to always say, “Follow your heart.” He never forced me to take a job for a paycheck. He always encouraged me to follow my passions. He lived life that way and he encouraged me to live life that way too.

He believed that there were no such thing as coincidences, that everything happens for a reason. He believed that G-d has a plan, so he accepted the cards he was dealt. For the past couple years, as he was dealing with his cancer, every night he’d take a special stone and he’d hold it before he went to sleep. And he’d think about all the things that happened that day – all the good things and the bad. And he’d thank G-d for the blessings in life. When my family went to Sedona last year, we brought back a special red stone for him because rocks from Sedona were said to have healing qualities. And that’s the stone he held every night.

My dad taught me how to be a Jew. He taught me how to celebrate Shabbat dinner with my family. How to bless the challah and the wine, the children and the woman of the house. He taught me how to love Israel and speak a little Yiddish. Okay, a very little. But at least it was the important words. Some of my greatest Jewish memories are of the Passover seders we had with my dad’s parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins. We were just kids but we’d drink so much Manishevitz that watching Charlton Heston play Moses in “The Ten Commandments” really was a religious experience. He also taught me how to be a part of our organized Jewish community. From BBYO to the JCC to the Federation to AIPAC to the shul – he loved the Jewish community and he taught me how important it was to be a part of it.

My dad also taught me how to be a family man – first as a husband. He was complimentary and chivalrous. He was sweet and loving. He was open with his affection and his praise. He always said thank you. And he was never too shy to say, “I love you.”

Second, as a father. My dad taught me unconditional love. He taught me that no matter what a son did, no matter what mistake he made, no matter how badly he messed up, a father would always, always be there for him. He regularly told me he was proud of me and he loved me. To this day, I still say goodnight to my children the way he said good night to me every night. I kiss them and say, “Good night. Pleasant dreams. Don’t be sick. See you in the morning. I love you.” Because that’s how a father says good night to his kids.

And third, as a provider. My dad worked hard, doing a lot of different jobs, and he did well, but he was always solidly in the middle class. Yet, he always provided for the family. He sent us to summer camp and took us on family vacations. He paid for expensive club soccer and private tennis coaches. He always gave tzedakah. And he paid for my college and grad school. The family joke is that my brother, Gabe, got the orthodontia and I got the Yale tuition. That’s why Gabe went into ROTC and I will be getting braces next year.

My dad also taught me how to be a mensch. He was patient. So very patient. Even with people that none of us would ever have been patient with – my dad had enough patience for all of us. He never dismissed anyone. He gave everyone their say. And he was respectful. Almost exactly a year ago, he slipped and fell and wound up in the hospital with a broken neck. Gabe and I rushed out here to see him and be near him. And when he was lying in the hospital bed, recovering, the “Men of God” came by to visit him. First, the Chabad rabbi came around. And my dad, lying on his back, drugged out of his mind, was still Mr. Mensch. He introduced us to this Rabbi as if he was the Moshiach himself. My dad was so generous with his praise of the rabbi – and perhaps the rabbi was so excited to finally find a Jew in a Vegas hospital – that Gabe and I both felt compelled to wrap tefillin with this rabbi.

But then the Christian preacher came by. And while Gabe and I were uninterested, my dad was Mr. Mensch. He welcomed the preacher. He allowed the preacher to lay his hands on my father. He allowed the preacher to pray for him. And even though the preacher knew that my dad was Jewish, he still said: “May you watch over this man, dear Lord, and may you watch over his family, dear Lord, and may you watch over the State of Israel, dear Lord. In Jesus’s name, Amen.” And my dad, in his semi-conscious state, added with a smirk: “In Moses’s name, Amen.”

That story is the epitome of my dad. Patient. Menschy. Funny. And always ready to create the scene for a good story.

But perhaps most of all, my dad taught me how to turn lemons into lemonade. He had a knack for always seeing the glass half full. My dad was Mr. Optimistic. He was encouraging and inspiring. He would motivate and praise. People loved being around my dad because he had a contagious energy and charisma. He was a diplomat and a leader. He got others on board. He was an evangelist for what he believed in – especially his friends and family.

I will miss him dearly. Not a day will go by when I won’t think of him, when I won’t wish he were here to enjoy a moment with me. Every Shabbat I’ll think of him putting his hands on my head. Every bagel I eat will be a little less sweet without him to share it with. And every joke I laugh at, will be a little less funny because I won’t be able to retell it to him.

I miss him terribly, but he will live on in me and my children, forever. May his memory be a blessing.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

About the Author
Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA. Prior to joining the JCC, Zack served as the Pacific Northwest Director of AIPAC (based in San Francisco) for 14 years. He lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three kids.
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