Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fathers Day

This week’s Torah portion, Be’haalot’cha, could very well be called the Kvetch parsha. With a couple of notable exceptions, the chapter deals with complaining – the Israelites complain that they left all the wonderful food in Egypt, and now all they have is manna. Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses and about God speaking to Moses and not to them – everybody complains.

I guess that’s not a bad parsha for Father’s Day weekend. After all, in most families who does everyone complain about? Dad.

Actually, in looking into the Bible we find that Dad’s don’t do so well. Avraham Avinu – Abraham our father – was much more devoted to God than to Isaac, and after the incident of the binding of Isaac, Isaac never spoke to Abraham again (for that matter neither did God – kinda makes you wonder…). Of course Abraham had another son, Ishmael, whom he sent away.

Isaac favored his manly son, Esau, over the more effete Jacob, and then allowed himself to be tricked into disinheriting Esau nonetheless, and Jacob raised 10 sons, nine of whom sold the tenth into slavery. When we get to Joseph we find a good father who raised his sons Ephraim and Menashe well enough that now, when fathers bless their sons they pray that the sons will be k’efraim v’chi menashe.

Later on things don’t improve a lot. King Saul is a pretty good father to Jonathan, but David’s son Absalom rebelled against him and was killed. How David’s second son, Solomon, got along with his son Rehobam we don’t know.

Since the Bible doesn’t offer much inspiration when it comes to fathers, I decided to look closer to home. My father has been gone for almost 30 years now, and I’ve found a lot of truth in Mark Twain’s observation When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years” and even more in Gabriel Garcia Marquez; “A man knows he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.”

My father was a small man – maybe 5’5” if he stretched, and it’s sort of customary when remembering such men to say something like that he was a giant in a small body, but really my dad wasn’t. He was a modest man, quiet, maybe even shy. He was self-educated beyond high school, very well read, but didn’t discuss ideas much. Looking at him, knowing him was hard to square with the story of how he escaped Russia in the 20’s by hiding in a boxcar on the Trans-Siberian railroad, how he lived in Shanghai and then came to the United States, to New York.

I guess he was a salesman – I never knew him to do anything else. When he lived in Shanghai he sold wine for Carmel Israel Wine Company and I have a letter from Baron Rothschild recommending him to anyone who was considering him for a job when he got to America. He had his own store – I guess you’d say he was a small business owner – that was the kind of joke he would have appreciated. The store was nothing grand or fancy – the fancy stores were on Main Street, downtown in our little town, and his store was just outside the main business district and catered to working people. He sold clothes, or as he would have it “pants,” though really he had everything short of suits and dress clothes – dresses, jeans, slacks and work pants, nylons, shoes, whatever you needed. His customers ranged for blue collar to poor, and for the latter he had a seemingly unending piece of paper where he would record what they bought and couldn’t pay for right now. Farmers, mechanics, black and white, Gentile and Jew, “Jack’s” was where they could go and know that no one would look down on them, no one would snub them, and no one would turn them away.

He went to Shul rarely – Friday night and Saturday were big days and he had to mind the store – but everyone there knew him and respected him. He wasn’t Rothschild, but he wasn’t Tevye either. He was just a little guy who raised his family and went home to a homemade pizza on Saturday night.

He didn’t play golf or ski or swim or bicycle, but he was a mean hand at checkers and could hold his own in a pinochle game and he loved to fish – sometimes he even remembered to bait the hook.

But mostly, in contrast to those dramatic Bible stories, he loved his sons, and if he had an ounce of pride it was pride that he raised two Ph.D.’s. If he were here in this Temple, wearing his fedora (never a yarmulke) he’d be paying less attention to praying than to the fact that it was his son leading the service.

So it’s Father’s Day. And if your Father is still around, or even if he’s not, take a few minutes and just look at the old guy and see if you can see who is there – it took me a long time and I didn’t fully see him until after he was gone, first in mind and then in body. Now my brother and I sit around and laugh about the Old Man and the funny stuff he did, and the memory is almost as good as if he were here. Almost.

Have a happy Father’s Day.

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