From “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” by Rabbi Steven Z. Leder (Behrman House, Inc.)
“A parent’s love isn’t to be paid back; it can only be passed on.”— Herbert Tarr
Tomorrow is Father’s Day, and we are thousands of miles apart — apart as we are too often and for too long. So it seems a good time to write you and tell you — dear God, what to tell you? How can a son possibly say what a father means to him — how can I say what you mean to me?
From the time I was a little boy, I always knew you were different. You didn’t play ball like other dads. You didn’t help with homework. You didn’t cook burgers on Sunday afternoon. I never really understood why, until much later. Later I learned that there had been no time for sports, or even school, when you were growing up. You grew up poor — burning-wax-paper-to-stay-warm-in-the-Minnesota-winter poor, picking-tin-cans-out-of-the-garbage-dump poor. I learned that when you were young and would come home from school with a book, the laughter and ridicule was too much for a little boy to take. “Look at the professor,” they would say.
So you could never be the Little League-coaching, algebra-tutoring kind of dad. But we had other things:
Fishing. God, how I loved to fish with you. Watching you row the boat across the lake, shirt off, tan, strong, eyes sparkling like the water. You were a giant; you were my dad. We had long walks in the woods. Smelling, tasting, feeling the wonder of God’s great, green earth. We had work. If there was one thing you were going to teach your children, it was work.
When I was young, I never really noticed that you came home with bloody hands and frostbitten toes, wounds from the war you waged for 40 years at Leder Brothers’ Scrap Iron and Metal. I never considered the fear and responsibility you must have shouldered.
Married at 18, with five children to feed by the time you were 30 — yes, work, work was your salvation. Or so I thought. Now I know better. Now I know you were never working for yourself. To this day, in spite of your success, you have a hard time spending money. You were working for me, for Mom, Marilyn, Sherry, Joanne and Greg, too.
I started cleaning toilets and mopping floors at the scrap yard when I was still a little boy. “You have to start at the bottom,” you told me.
When I got caught shoplifting, you had three truckloads of dirt dumped on our driveway, handed me a wheelbarrow and shovel, and ordered, “Spread it over the yard, front and back.” It took an entire summer. It was punishment, a humbling reminder, and it worked. I turned around that summer. Hard work was your salvation, and, somehow, it had become mine. It still is and will always be. Can I ever thank you enough for teaching me about the salvation of a job well done?
We never talked much about women, but somehow I grew up respecting women because you always demanded I respect my sisters and my mother. We never talked much about Judaism, but you brought me to shul with you to say “Kaddish” for your father. You sent me to Israel when I was 16, and when we said goodbye at the airport, it was only the second time I ever saw you cry.
We never talked much about education, ideas, or the world, but from the time I was a little boy, you said, “There’s always money for books.” Later, you sent me off to Oxford to study Shakespeare, to tour Europe and Russia. You supported me through college and five years of graduate school. The boy who was teased by his immigrant parents for wanting to read, became the father whose mantra was “There’s always money for books.”
We never talked much about tzedakah, but somehow you were always helping someone who had much less. We never talked much about family, but you raised five children who live today without sibling rivalry because we had a father who knew how to forgive. Somehow you managed to rework your worldview to embrace a son, my brother, who is gay. Somehow, even now, you manage to guide your children without ever telling them what to do.
We never talked much about marriage, but at our wedding toast, you looked at Betsy and me, raised your glass with a wide smile, and simply said, “May you always be each other’s best friend.” After all these years of performing weddings myself, of premarital counseling with hundreds of couples, of volumes read on love and marriage, leave it to you to have said exactly the right thing. Leave it to you to get to the heart of it all in one sentence.
We never talked much about being a mensch, but never once did I see you favor rich over poor, beautiful over ordinary, Jew over non-Jew, man over woman, white over black. We never talked much about being a father, but somehow, thanks to your example, I feel like I’m getting it right with my own children.
You know, Dad, there’s a story in the Torah about when Aaron, the High Priest, is about to die. He takes off his priestly vestments and puts them on his son El’azar. It’s our tradition’s way of saying we must carry on the work of our fathers, that eventually they live through us.
Lately, I’ve noticed something about us, Dad. We never used to, but now we end every phone call by saying, “I love you.” I thinks it’s because somehow we sense that ever so slowly, we’re getting closer to Aaron and El’azar; closer to the end than we are to the beginning.
So I’m writing to say thank you, Dad. Thank you for teaching me about God’s green earth, hard work, women and friendship, money for books and being a mensch. Thank you for being the man I will forever strive to become, for getting me ready to carry on your work. Happy Father’s Day.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder has served Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 1986.