September 26, 2018

Happy Father’s Day

I have been a single mom since my son was a baby. I was divorced before he turned one and while his father lives close by and has a relationship with our son, I raised this boy with no financial, emotional, spiritual, or physical support. My son is a wonderful human being because even though he has a dad, I have been his mother and father. Being a single parent is a remarkable job for remarkable people.

I taught my son to ride a bike, took him on his first fishing trip, passed on my faith, comforted him through loss, explained sex, taught him to respect women and himself. I encouraged him to follow his dreams and that no dream was impossible. He was raised to help those less fortunate and embrace everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, the name of their God, or who they love. He is a good man.

Being a single parent is as difficult as it is rewarding. I raised my son in a city where I had no family, so I created one. I leaned on my friends, temple, Rabbi, teachers, parents of his friends, and employers to help raise this remarkable human. I did not and could not lean on his dad. In looking back at my life as a single parent, I am proud of myself, wish it had been different, and am grateful for our life together.

When my son was one, my father sent me flowers for Father’s Day. He told me he was proud of me and said I was a great mom and a wonderful dad. It meant a lot to me that the man I loved and respected more than any other man in the world acknowledged I was doing everything and being everyone for my son. I raised a boy to be a man on my own so Father’s Day is interesting for me.

Life as a single parent is full of blessings. There is an us against the world connection. As single parents we cry harder, laugh deeper, worry more, and pray longer because we are alone. Life is loud because it is just you listening, and life is silent because you are by yourself. It is a life of sacrifices and rewards. I am a strong and proud single parent because the title makes me a super hero.

This morning my son made me breakfast and bought me flowers for Father’s Day, then he went to spend the day with his dad. He always makes this day special for me and I appreciate it. It makes my heart swell that he understands the roles I have played in his life and honors me, I am wishing a Happy Father’s Day to all fathers, and to all the mothers who are sometimes father’s too. Enjoy this day.

Happy Father’s Day those who have lost their dads and wish they were still here. Happy Father’s Day to sons of single mothers who are the men in their mom’s lives, and to the moms who are everything for their kids. Happy Father’s Day to men who are going to become dads for the first time, and dads who are raising their kids alone. Do right by your kids and respect the women who made you fathers.

To my own beloved father, Bob Angel, I love you and miss you every day. I want to call you and tell you what is going on and have you guide me. I will never be too old to need you, and I will never stop missing you. Your children love you and your grandchildren are perfect pieces of you, carrying on your legacy and keeping you alive. We love you Dad, and we know you are watching, so we are keeping the faith.

 

Happy Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day to new dads, old dads, estranged dads, moms who are also dads, dads who are also moms, men about to be dads, and dads who have passed away.

I miss my Dad.

Everyday.

All day long.

I hope you all have a wonderful Father’s Day and may you all be happy, healthy, kind, blessed, and appreciated.

Keep the faith.

A Special Father’s Day “Staycation” in Baku

The many enchanting places to visit in our hometown of Baku

My friends in Los Angeles and throughout the United States will celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday. Father’s day is a special day and it has been especially on my mind since I lost my husband this year, and the father to my beloved daughter. We miss him very much, every day, and it seems that as each day and week passes, we only miss him more and more.

I wanted to make this weekend special for my daughter, a young, beautiful and kind girl who has the whole world ahead of her, but no longer has her father in her life or by her side, to guide and support her through the tricky teenage years she faces now and the days soon ahead when she will be an adult, out in the world on her own.

We decided to plan what in America is called a “staycation”, in our hometown of Baku. That is a vacation where we may not travel far from home but we get to have a lot of fun with what is available nearby. I know that in Los Angeles, this is a common way to spend the summer months, with so many attractions, like the beach or the many attractions of Hollywood.

I have planned the special vacation day for Sunday, because it is a significant day around the world, and I want to bring my daughter extra cheer. Even though we will not leave town, there is much to do in Baku.

Our day will begin with a walk through the beautiful city center park, where we hope to catch a glimpse of the stunning brides as they are photographed before their wedding days. This is a common tradition in Azerbaijan and particularly in Baku, where we have gorgeous city parks that are especially enchanting in the summer months. Bridal parties and their families come together to take pre-wedding photos, and it’s something I know my daughter will enjoy. Perhaps we will stop in a cafe before and have a warm tea to enjoy on our stroll.

As we work up our appetites on the walk, we’ll leave the park and stroll over the Old City of Baku, a truly enchanting place to visit. I know my daughter will be thrilled as we walk through the Old City entrance, onto the cobblestone streets, past the merchants selling their classic Azerbaijani goods, such as silk scarves, dolls, keychains and much more, to the visiting tourists. I plan to surprise her by allowing her to choose a special gift just for herself. We may not be tourists, but we can enjoy the Old City just as if we were.

We will walk through Old City until we find a good place to lunch, perhaps one of the stone buildings leading up to the famous Maiden’s Tower, the highlight of the Old City. There we will enjoy traditional Azerbaijani delights, such as Plov and Lamb Sadj, two of our favorite dishes. Perhaps we will have some classic Azerbaijani tea with pastries Shekerbura and Pakhlava to finish our meal, and relax and digest before we continue on our special day.

I plan to add in an extra surprise, to take my daughter by the university, called ADA University, so she can take in the buildings and the students and the majesty of learning, since I know she loves to dream of the days soon to come, of attending college herself, and studying full-time. We will sit on a bench or by the tables in the student quad, and talk about what will come next in life.

I hope this day will bring my daughter some much needed cheer and some excitement, about her summer and about her future. I hope she will remember this special Sunday and that we will have many more Sundays like this to share in the future.

And I hope that this Sunday, Father’s Day in America, is a joy and delight for all my friends in Los Angeles and across the United States. Perhaps my friends in Los Angeles will visit the Griffith Park Observatory or sunbathe at Will Rogers Beach in Santa Monica, two attractions I enjoyed very much during my last visit. Or have a festive, delicious meal at one of Los Angeles’ famous delis.

Wherever you go, make sure to do something fun, and remember that you don’t have to travel far to create a memorable experience, and that memorable experiences mean so much.

 

DIY: Paper fortune cookies for dads and grads

Want to send good wishes to the dads and grads in your life? Do it with paper fortune cookies. While they’re not for eating, these fortune cookies are a whimsical way to convey any greeting, such as “I love you,” “You’re the world’s best dad” or “The future looks bright.” Get creative and have fun tailoring the fortunes to your recipients, then package several of them in a takeout container for a unique gift that shows you’re one smart cookie.

What you’ll need:

– Paper or cardstock
– Scissors
– Glue gun or glue dots
– Fortunes printed on paper

Step 1

Trace a 4-inch diameter circle on a piece of colored or decorative paper. You can trace using a small plate or anything round you have at home. I used a 4-inch flower pot.

Step 2

Cut out the circle using scissors. Your circle doesn’t have to be 4 inches exactly. The larger the circle, the larger the fortune cookie.

Step 3

Fold the circle in half — but don’t crease it — and glue the point where the two sides meet. It will look like a mini taco. You can use glue dots or a hot-glue gun. Hot glue works best, but keep it away from kids.

Step 4

Hold the “taco” shape with one hand, placing your middle finger on one end and your thumb on the other. Slowly move the middle finger and thumb together to join the two ends while your index finger presses into the middle of the fold. This step gives the paper that fortune cookie look.

Step 5

Where the two ends of the fortune cookie meet, place a glue dot or a dab of hot glue and press the two ends together to hold them in place.

Step 6

Hand write or type fortunes on a piece of paper and cut them into strips of about 1/2 inch by 2 inches. Slide them inside the paper cookie.


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Uh, Papa, we have big news … we’re straight

Martin Finkelstein with his twins, Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes (left) and Harrison Finkelstein-Hynes, in 2003. Photo courtesy of Martin Finkelstein

do my most important parenting in the car — often not by choice. Living in Los Angeles, the car is simply the best place to talk.

The snack-covered leather seats of my black Honda Civic have been the scenes of multiple conversations with my twin children that I’ll remember forever. Like when my daughter, Juliette, then age 3, announced to my brother, as we picked him up from the airport, that she recently made a poo poo on the potty and demanded some sort of payment — or at least recognition from her uncle.

Or a year later, when that same daughter decided she wanted to convert and announced that she would like to be Christian because they celebrate “Eastern” and “Eastern” has better candy than Passover! I still remember her words ringing in my ears: “Eastern is better than Passover!” I tried my hardest to defend my position, but when it comes to candy … “Eastern” sort of wins.

And that was the easy stuff. These sun-scorched seats also witnessed some tougher conversations, like when Juliette asked, through tears: “Why does our teacher keep saying that we are adopted when we are not? I tell her every day I’m not adopted! I have two dads and they had a surrogate in order to bring me and my brother into this world.”

Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I imagine that it would be in this same car that my children — both of them — would come out to me! We were on Olympic Boulevard on the way to the Fish Grill, and they were 9 or 10 at the time.

How can this be happening, I thought? It took me until I was 21 to have enough courage to come out to my parents. I planned and rehearsed it for years. I was already a college graduate, and yet my kids are doing it before middle school (and on the way to the Fish Grill).

Truth be told, I never dreamed that this conversation would happen in the first place. As a gay dad, I was not prepared. Sitting behind the steering wheel, I started to understand how my parents must have felt. No one teaches you how to be a good audience when your kids give you life-changing news.

Plus, what are the chances that two kids with gay dads would feel the need to come out to their parents? I always swore that I would never let my son and daughter go through what I did: the secrets, the fear, the confusion, the feeling of letting down the rest of the family. I came out before “Will & Grace,” and doing that in the Reagan years was not easy or fun. 

So you can imagine how fast my heart began beating after Juliette, speaking for both herself and her brother, Harrison, apologized for their sexual orientation. In the backseat of our Honda Civic. On the way to Fish Grill. At age 9.

“Papa, you know Harry and me are straight … right?” 

Silence.

I tried not to crash the car. Looking back in the rearview mirror, I tried to see her eyes. Could this really be happening? My thoughts were going a mile a minute: How does she even know? She’s so young. Why is her brother not saying anything?

Neither of them could look at me. I could see they felt bad, like they let us down. As parents, we could not care less, but the more I told them that it was OK, the sadder they seemed and the more they felt they needed to explain.

Finally, I said the words that every child wants to hear, the ones that I’ve learned are so important to hear any day and every day. (I heard similar words when I came out at 21.)

“Daddy and Papa love you guys no matter what.”

This is sort of the Golden Rule of fatherhood, right? All the rest is commentary.

We continued: “We never assumed you would be gay just because we are. Nor do we care. We just want you to be happy.”

Just make sure your Auntie Vera in Boca doesn’t find out that you’re straight!  


Martin Finkelstein is executive director of advertising at the Jewish Journal and the father of two teenagers, Juliette and Harrison.

Dad steps into unexpected role after tragedy strikes

Dan Freedman and his wife, Karen Macarah, with their children and stepchildren: In front, from left: Sam Macarah, 13; Lexi Freedman, 11; Cate Freedman, 8. In back, Abby Macarah, 12; Jake Freedman, 14. Photo courtesy of Dan Freedman

Nothing can prepare you for fatherhood. Sure, Amazon has an endless supply of books, and there are a million websites dedicated to the topic. Beyond all that, there is no shortage of friends and neighbors willing to lend an opinion.

And yet, despite all that, little could prepare me for the three versions of fatherhood I experienced before my first child became a teenager.

I went from your typical dad with two kids, to a single dad with three, to a stepdad with a blended family of five in a dizzying period of my life that challenged me in ways I never could have imagined, but ultimately shaped me to become a better, more patient man, and hopefully, a better, more patient dad.

But, as we dads know, when you first hold that baby, or when you first wake up to a plaintive wail, or when you play your first game of catch, there is no preparing for that.

Dads are, by and large, the butt of the joke, the bumbling father who can barely make it out the door with his briefcase and coffee, struggling to get to the recital without embarrassing his daughter or angering his wife. We try and we fail.  I was — and am — no different. 

During my first six years of parenthood, I had an amazing wife who booked the doctors’ appointments, enrolled in all the right classes, made sure our kids had sufficient “tummy time” and knew just when to start potty training.  It was as if she had memorized the entire “What to Expect” canon. Sure, she had her moments of insecurity and failure, but those paled compared with my daily entreaty: “Please don’t let me screw up.”

In hindsight, those were the easy years. I was the classic suburban dad — more useful on weekends, trying to be present during the week. I was never where I was supposed to be, whether at the office or at home, but I was muddling through, and my wife loved me enough to want a third child. So we decided to forgo the man-to-man defense; we were prepared to play zone with three kids.

But then, one day I woke up and found myself a single father of three. The painful details are not important, but 21 hours after our third child was born, my wife died. In an instant, it became a three-on-one fastbreak. This, I hadn’t signed up for.

I learned early on that life isn’t fair. But in my sadness, I was not afforded the opportunity to lament this injustice, or wallow in self-pity. I had a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. They needed their dad — not some shell of a man but someone who was present, available and accountable.

I was lucky. I had two sisters who were there at the drop of a hat; friends who could be counted on for any need; a temple community that rallied to the cause; a mother-in-law reeling in grief but up to the task; a father who lent a shoulder more times than can be counted; colleagues who acted like family; and a nanny who took on extra responsibility without gripe or groan. It was never “Why me?”; it was always “Why not me?” Add to that my preternatural son who internalized the loss of his mother and quickly moved into “this is my new reality” mode. My girls were too young to understand. In my darkest moments, I thought how much worse this would have been had it happened 10 years later.

The gravity of it all hit home a few weeks on when my son was home sick. I saw him on the couch, and I knew what he needed more than anything in the world — his mom’s cuddle. No matter what I did, I wasn’t her. But I adjusted; I adapted; and most important, I grew — as a father and as a man. I took on the dual role of father and mother and did what I could to provide my kids with what they needed. I failed. A lot. But I tried. And I was present.

My wife had instilled in me the importance of “being there,” and I made sure that I was. Some things, such as work and friendships, suffered — but people gave latitude, and I took full advantage.

Fast forward a few years, and I became a stepdad. Now I was really in the fire. I had met a wonderful woman with two kids; it was a package deal, and I was up for the challenge, or so I thought. To be candid, being a single dad of three was considerably easier than being a stepdad to two. The learning curve was — and remains — steep.

Stepdads are a dime a dozen; being one doesn’t make me special. What makes our situation unusual is that even though all five kids live with us, my stepkids still have two biological parents, and my kids have one. As stepparents, we try to fill the void, but you are, at best, a reasonable facsimile. That’s OK, but it means I retain the vestiges of being a single dad.

When my kids wake in the middle of the night, they come to my side of the bed. When it’s time for their annual physicals, I make the appointments and take them. When they give their biography presentation at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, they want me there. None of this is an indictment or even a judgment on my new wife — she is a terrific stepmom. It is just our reality. As a parent — as a father — you give your kids what they need, and my kids need me. And that couldn’t make me happier.

All of my three phases of fatherhood have been different, and yet all quite similar. The journey has been fraught, and it certainly hasn’t been what I envisioned when my first wife looked at me at the top of the Target escalator and said: “Let’s have a baby.”

Every dad celebrating Father’s Day has his own story, some more harrowing than others. But whether we are single dads, stepdads or just plain, ol’ garden-variety dads, we all have the same goals: provide for our kids, be there when they need us, guide them on their way and hope like hell they take care of us in old age.

Happy Father’s Day to all.


Dan Freedman runs business affairs for the independent film company Good Universe. In his free time, he writes a blog about his first love, baseball. When not trying to keep up with his five kids and their activities, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Karen.

Me, my dad and his prostate

It’s midnight in the waiting room at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and my dad’s catheter is malfunctioning. He’s doubled over in pain I can compare only to the male equivalent of childbirth. It doesn’t look pleasant.

Let’s back up to why I’m discussing a 71-year-old’s urology in the first place. The reason is simple: If you happen to possess male genitalia, then this is your ultimate fate — if you’re lucky.

If you live long enough, the truism is that you don’t have to wonder if your prostate will begin to malfunction. The question is when.

My dad has walked me through a number of life’s pleasant and unpleasant realities, everything from how to navigate romantic misadventures to how to unclog a shower drain with a paperclip.

Asher Arom is a man who is totally open about all topics. My Israeli-born father has a story for every occasion, and nothing is taboo, nothing off limits — least of all his prostate, which is a frequent and cherished topic of conversation.

So, if you’re a man or intend to marry one, he wants you to know about his recent struggles.

Two weeks before I took him to the emergency room, my dad underwent what’s called a transurethral surgery. If you didn’t gather more information than you wanted from that illuminating piece of medical jargon, I won’t go into much more detail, except to tell you how he explains it in conversations with friends and perfect strangers: “I got a Roto-Rooter for my prostate.”

The midnight incident at the hospital, we’re told, is a perfectly normal outcome of the operation, an unpleasantness that doesn’t even rise to the level of a surgery complication. I’m happy to report that my dad now urinates like a man not half his age.

But back at UCLA, the situation looked dicey. Brace yourself for more transurethral fun.

About an hour after he was doubled over in the waiting room, he was lying on a hospital bed while a slight, unimposing urology resident prepared to perform a procedure called “irrigation,” a word I once thought applied only to agriculture but, as I learned, can also be applied with zeal to the human penis.

Multiple times, I was asked if I wouldn’t like to leave the room before “this next part.” Half out of solidarity with my dad, and half out of the understanding that to see is less traumatic than to imagine, I chose to stay.

And so it was that I watched the urology resident pumping fluid with perfect stoicism in and out of my father as if she was filling a tire with air while he writhed in discomfort.

If it feels like I’m being confrontational with my language here, it’s because I am. If my dad’s urology confronted me with an ugly reality — and I sincerely believe I’m the better for it — then it won’t do you too much harm either.

If I’m lucky, this is an unpleasant reality I’ll one day have to deal with, hopefully later than sooner. Watching my dad writhe in pain was a metaphorical ripping off of the Band-Aid — though perhaps ripping out of the catheter is more apt as a metaphor.

My male friends wince when I tell them what happened to my dad. I understand the reaction. Catheter talk once made me wince. It doesn’t anymore.

Leave it to dad to have his prostate turn into a life lesson.

So let this serve as a reminder: We should appreciate our fathers not just for the warm and fuzzy things they do for us, the roofs they put over our heads, the educations they pay for and all the fringe benefits like working light bulbs and a ceiling that doesn’t leak.

Let’s also appreciate the unpleasant stuff, the details that act as a roadmap for how to and how not to live our lives. The crotchety, hard-line politics. The herbal infusions and dietary supplements. The fascination with discount stores. And yes, the grapefruit-size prostates.

Thanks, Pop, as always, for showing me the way. 

Y-shaped scar

“I am calling from the L.A. coroner’s office to ask if you’re related to Allyn Franklin. He’s been here since January and we’re trying to find his next of kin. You’re our last attempt. He’s scheduled to be buried on Monday in Riverside.”

A heaviness flooded my chest. “This is the call,” I said to myself. For years, I wondered how I’d find out my dad died. Keys in hand, I sat. Sank. There would be decisions to be made.

The county morgue conjured stone-cold, gray images of men in blood-stained white coats, scalpels in hand, standing over blue-tinted cadavers. “Law & Order” stuff until the call moments before I rushed out the door to pick up my kids from school that Thursday in Westwood.

“I am his daughter, but we have been estranged for almost 20 years,” I heard myself say. Flushed, ashamed, I wondered what the caller must think of me.

In the Boyle Heights office of the caller, someone leaned close and asked with a loud whisper, “Did you find one?”

“Yes, shhhh.” I heard a cupped hand over the phone receiver. I glanced at my watch. I knew too much to know this wasn’t a prank call.

I pictured my dad at his best — jet black hair, azure eyes, proud in uniform or a suit from overseas. Then childhood memories together — playing guitar and singing “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Me and Bobby McGee,” his pitch-perfect, deep voice rendition of the Joplin gritty chorus; body surfing alongside him yet tossed in a riptide, drowning; skateboarding luge-style down the dark multilevel parking lot of his Fox Hills condo.

I imagined him now within a plastic bag upon a shelved stainless steel tray. Refrigerated. Identified only with an orange paper tag attached by a twist tie, probably serenaded by the coroner’s radio playing rap music.

My parents married in June 1963, just before my dad left for the Vietnam War. From 1963 to 1967, he served in the Navy on a ship, the USS Newell, off the coast of Vietnam. Twice a year, he returned to our small home on the Honolulu naval base where my mom lived. I was born in 1966, their only child. I think everyone in our family felt alone, lonely. Between firefights and to lift spirits onboard ship, my dad created a radio program enjoyed by the crew. Black-and-white photos depict clean-cut, uniformed young men crowded around him at the microphone, seemingly trying to make the best of a bad situation, namely Operation Market Time.

Dad returned home a lieutenant haunted by demons. Mom, struggling with moods of her own and a baby, couldn’t manage him or their marriage. In 1967, we moved from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Soon they split. Dad spent time in and out of state-run psychiatric facilities, ingesting a variety of medications and enduring electrical shock treatment. There was no name for his suffering then. No groups, no effective treatment.

As a child, visitation with my dad was spotty. His struggles kept him in bed in his apartment. I waited for him atop the couch in my mom’s home, my braids unraveling as I searched the window for his blue Volkswagen squareback.

His rage and urge to fight most anyone drew police on multiple occasions. Our visits then became supervised and even less frequent. Nevertheless, I pined for him, his hugs, and his version of love. Over the years, occasionally the social workers didn’t show. Those visits were the most exciting and terrifying, sometimes racing horses full gallop, their ears back, me terrified I’d fall off as I watched him cruelly kick his mare’s belly.

At night, Dad couldn’t sleep, so we went to late-evening movies as soon as they were released: “Billy Jack”(1971); “The Exorcist” (1973); “Carrie” (1976).

Jean: I know I’ve never said it to you, but I think you know. I love you.

Billy Jack: I think you know, too.

Why the noir, the macabre? To externalize the devil or the unspeakable intensity of war? Maybe just to feel something. Upon my return to my mom, I’d have nightmares. Seems dads and some people don’t always love you the way you might want them to. I think he expressed it the only way he knew how.

I remember the last time I saw my dad. He was drenched at the side of a dirt road in Valencia. He had called late one rainy night saying his car had broken down and he needed to get home to Culver City. It was 1990, and I was newly married. From our condo on Willis in Sherman Oaks, my husband and I headed out to get him. My dad insisted he could just leave his car on the muddy road where we found him standing without an umbrella. Drunk and at least several days unshowered, he got in the back seat of our Honda. For the 40-minute drive, he leaned his wet body between ours in the front seat relaying half stories through stale breath, then asking questions only to interrupt himself to tell another tale. He left our car and our life.

In March 2009, as I held the receiver to my ear, I heard an exhale on the other end of the phone. The voice from the morgue continued. “Well, if you want to claim him, you’ll have to let us know. Otherwise the burial is Monday.”

“Why Riverside?” I asked, imagining being at his graveside.

“It’s a military burial for people who have served in the Army.”

“Navy,” I said to myself. “Vietnam.”

“OK, so let me understand. If I claim his body, I need to bury him. Otherwise, he is buried in a military ceremony Monday.”

Again, a muffled conversation and, I thought, a descending volume of music, “Muh, Muh, Muh, My Sharona …”

“Yes, these ceremonies are done about every three months or whenever we have enough unclaimed vets. Let us know if you want his driver’s license and dog tags. And we’ll send you the coroner’s report.”

I was stunned. Although I hadn’t seen him in years, I’d bet he had no other contacts. I asked for the night to think it over.

“OK, here’s our number. Ask for me tomorrow. I leave at 4 and you have to let me know by tomorrow.”

“Wait, one more thing. May I attend the military ceremony?” I asked.

“No, that would mean you are saying you are his family. This is for unclaimed vets.”

I calculated the time to pick up one of my sons. Dazed as I drove, I called my husband and asked him to pick up our other son. I explained that we might need to bury my father over the weekend. I knew he’d understand. Together we’d take care of it. The two of us, graveside. “Honor thy father and mother,” said a voice inside my head.

I thought perhaps I could claim my dad now in a way I never could in life. I knew him not to be safe — when I was a child, an adult, a mother. I had lived with guilt electing not to include him in my marriage and my children’s lives. Maybe now I could show him my love by claiming his finally calm, cold body — usually addled by alcoholism, bipolar disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now no longer flying into a violent rage, damning my mother or the Viet Cong; no longer tearful, in fetal position, depressed; no longer guzzling booze and perusing porn.

Or, I wondered, would it be more loving and respectful to allow my dad to remain “unclaimed” and receive a military burial, ceremony and all? I visualized the moment he died. He had to have been alone. What would he have wanted? What we all want? To know we’re loved, wanted, valued.

That Thursday night, as I lay in bed, I sobbed — at the loss of this dutiful young man broken at sea and of his promise as a new husband and father. I thought of all he could have been and his new scar, a Y-shaped autopsy incision over his heart. I had never before known such grief. Everything ached.

I went to services on Friday night, said Kaddish. At home, I lit a memorial candle. Friday had passed without a phone call to the morgue. I’d made a decision. Over the weekend, I moved as if in a seaboard fog and hoped my choice was the right one. On Monday, I stayed home and imagined the ceremony: the formality; taps; his casket being lowered; how proud I thought my dad would feel if he witnessed it all.

A week or so later, I received an official-looking manila envelope with a presidential seal. Inside was a letter from President Barack Obama, who could have used help spelling my dad’s name correctly yet expressed thanks for his service to our nation. If only he knew him. If only anyone did.

I phoned the cemetery in Riverside and confirmed that the misspelling would also appear on his gravestone. I arranged for it to be re-created and heard myself request the addition of the Star of David, recognized as the Jewish star, above his name. It seemed the least I could do, a small statement of faith that I honor his memory. 

Deborah Davidson is a writer, clinical psychologist and member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Father’s Day: The allure of fishing

My father and I were fishing a snowmelt lake in the High Sierra, and I was on the shore, deciding whether I should throw back the little trout I’d just caught. 

It was something my father and I had always wanted.

We had vacationed in the woods every summer since I was 3 years old, fishing in lakes accompanied by pine shade and a place to doze off. We weren’t as avid as the anglers who wore rubber waders and inner tubes and treaded into the middle of the lake where the big fish were, but we fantasized about catching a native trout, a breed natural to the lakes, something truly American. 

It was our 23rd summer in the woods. and we had only ever caught rainbow trout, the descendants of hatcheries. Although technically native to the West Coast, rainbows are now spawned in warehouses and reintroduced into lakes and streams to support the region’s sport-fishing economy. My father and I wanted to catch a brown, brook or golden trout, species that, although native to the Sierras, are rare catches. It would be a trophy whatever its size, though we would never have it mounted. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads.

We daydreamed about what it would taste like with slivered almonds and pats of butter. 

We were doing well this particular day, so well in fact that we didn’t have time to net every fish. We stood a few yards apart, reeling in rainbows simultaneously and yelling for the net only when we thought we’d hooked a big one. It was drizzling, and the fish thought each droplet was a resting fly. I pulled in a pan-sized one and gently flung it onto the dry shore, watching it bend and flop in the pumice (local fishermen call this technique “corndogging”). I unhooked it and washed it in the water’s edge, expecting a familiar rainbow flank, but instead found mottled gold with blooms of scarlet. Twisting, it gave me a sidelong glance, as if to size up someone who can’t see what’s right in front of them. 

I knew that, like a rainbow, this too was a trout. My father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and although he has become less observant, he instilled in me the most important philosophy of kashrut: that an animal should not feel the pain of its own death. He would never try hunting, but he also knew fishing was different: There are no rules in the Torah regarding the killing and eating of scaled fish. Thus my father, a thoughtful doctor, learned the sport and shared it with me, his only child. It has long been, and probably always will be, one of my favorite activities. 

On this particular day, however, I found myself regretting my cast. I was holding a thing that needed mercy. Although catching native trout was legal in that lake, I knew that this thing, whatever its species, was one of the last of its kind. I didn’t want my father to suffer the dissonance I was feeling, of choosing between a dream and a feeling, though I know he would have chosen the latter. 

I guided the fish’s snout into the water and felt it sidle out of my hands. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads. My grandfather was a Polish Jew who charged Nazi tanks on his horse. He married my grandmother in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The war was raging, the shtetls were gone. No ligaments tied the couple to the bone. They chose Brooklyn. My bubbe worked a cash register, and my zayde sewed, though he was not a tailor; he made clothes in a room with no windows, but always wore a suit and tie. He took my father to Fourth of July and union parades, and although he didn’t have the time or the means to take his kids on vacations in the woods, he wanted his sons to know that he was equal parts Jewish and American. Although he wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver, he strived to be what he believed was the “all-American dad.” 

My father had been a bookish and queasy kid, but he eventually taught himself to love fishing, camping, wrestling and grilling. He wanted to be the father his father had wanted to be. I now realize that their concept of American fatherhood had something to do with self-reliance, with teaching one’s children that the world was truly theirs. My father and I devoted our summers to the High Sierra, listening to bluegrass and finding bliss in the glacial sting of early mountain mornings. He cleaned the trout himself, slicing open the fish bellies and scooping out their innards with his bare hands. He reminded me that, not too long ago, humans survived this way, and that I should know where my food comes from.

Once, he found a sac of orange caviar inside a female trout. The eggs slid out of his hands and popped and frothed down the drain. With his eyebrows furrowed, he wrapped the fish in foil and put it in the freezer, separate from the rest. He had to lie down and listen to the pines creak in the late afternoon. 

My father could never separate the self from the act. If American fatherhood is about self-reliance, Jewish fatherhood is about reliance of the self, of teaching one’s kids to remember that feelings, not dreams, make a successful person.

A Father’s Day gift of justice

If you ever visit the Vienna campus of Wirtschafts University Wien (WU), one of Europe’s most prestigious universities, you will see a translucent metal sculpture in the shape of a globe, which prominently features the names of 150 Jews. I got to hear the story of that dramatic monument the other day in a little apartment in Pico-Robertson, where Ilse Nusbaum, a feisty 81-year-old grandmother, has been fighting for years for some justice for her father, Karl Lowy.

In 1938, Lowy was a doctoral candidate in economics at WU; he submitted his dissertation in January and expected to receive his degree in June. Instead, he was among the 150 Jewish students expelled from the school immediately after Austria’s annexation into Nazi Germany that March.

The Lowy family was one of the lucky ones, as they were able to get visas to come to the United States. Lowy started over in Detroit, penniless and taking odd jobs, such as unloading crates in a warehouse. To support his family, he went back to school and learned accounting, but the memory of his lost dissertation never left him. He had planned to return to Vienna in the autumn of 1970 to learn its fate, but he suffered a heart attack and never made it.

Meanwhile, Karl’s daughter, Ilse, was going through her own tragic shifts. After studying creative writing in college in the hope of becoming a published author, her husband passed away suddenly. Left alone to raise three young daughters, she had to find work, which she did at a center for people with disabilities.

Her interest in her father’s lost dissertation was muted at first. What intrigued her most was the general trauma of her family’s past. In 1953, while studying at Radcliffe, Ilse traveled to Austria to uncover her roots and, while there, learned about the suffering of many members of her extended family. Amid all this darkness, a lost dissertation seemed insignificant.

This changed after her mother passed away in 2008 and Ilse began to go through old documents. She found something her mother wrote about her deceased father’s lifetime regret: 

“From his viewpoint, even worse than losing his job was losing his doctor of philosophy degree in economics, which he was scheduled to receive in June. He expected that having the doctorate would make our family’s future more secure no matter where we landed.” 

Motivated by her father’s pain, she grew determined to find out what happened to his diploma. 

Sifting through boxes of documents, she found a copy of his application to defend the dissertation, but she still needed its actual title. By then, she had become a self-described “Internet junkie,” so, after months of online sleuthing, she found the title indexed in a bibliography on the history and culture of wine. 

This led her to a friendly librarian in Vienna, who agreed to send her a photocopy of the dissertation. Without missing a beat, she emailed the librarian: “Thank you — don’t you think it would be nice if the school gave him a posthumous doctorate?”

Getting an answer to that question began another chapter in her long saga, with countless emails, phone calls and even a visit to Vienna. She couldn’t convince the school’s administrators that her father’s diploma had been unfairly taken from him. But their tone changed when they did their own investigation and found this statement written on the original copy of Karl Lowy’s dissertation: 

“Denied. Jews cannot be admitted to a doctoral defense.”

This discovery vindicated her long fight and won her sympathy from the school, but, unfortunately, the school’s policy was that it couldn’t award a doctorate if the dissertation wasn’t defended. What to do?

Enter University Rector Christoph Badelt, an Austrian professor with a big heart, who was moved by Nusbaum’s story. So moved, in fact, that he decided to turn the dark, hidden episode from the school’s past into a public demonstration of honest self-reflection and reconciliation.

At the school’s expense, he launched a commemorative project to honor all the Jews expelled from the school in 1938. The initiative included a comprehensive research project on the expulsions, with the results published in a booklet and on a Web site, in addition to a public contest to design the memorial sculpture. To honor her father, Nusbaum was there for the launch event in May 2014. 

As fate would have it, she also saw her father’s name honored last week at a graduation ceremony at UCLA. The name Karl Lowy was on a dedication page for another doctoral dissertation on economics, this one written by none other than Ilse Nusbaum’s grandson.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Father’s Day: The lesson of free speech

Dean Okrand is an Emmy-winning sound re-recording mixer, husband and father of two adult daughters. His own father was Fred Okrand, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California for more than 60 years, and its first legal director. Fred, born in 1917, died in 2002 at 84. 

“My father definitely inspired my own political life. He was extremely fair-minded and socially conscious. When World War II started, he fought against the internment of Japanese-Americans. When he returned from the service, he was able to get citizenship reinstated for those of Japanese ancestry who had lost that during the war. I remember at Christmastime, flowers would show up on our doorstep from Japanese-American people he represented. And when we were in Little Tokyo, people would stop to thank him.

My father took on many unpopular issues. When he walked down the street near his office in downtown L.A., there were people who crossed to the other side to avoid him.

Since the ACLU couldn’t pay him very well, he made extra money by representing gangsters — always in civil liberties cases. When Mickey Cohen was being harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department, he hired my father. Dad said if they wanted to arrest somebody, they needed evidence; they couldn’t just hassle the person. I remember a guy would come to our house at night with a brown paper bag filled with cash to pay my father. My mom would take my brother and me to the back of the house because she was afraid of the gangsters.

I remember Dad working hard at home, writing and doing research for his cases. But he always had time for the family. At my Little League games, he not only rooted for me, but also for kids on the other team, to get a hit.  That’s the kind of guy he was. He just wanted everyone to have a good time.

Through his whole life, my father was fighting for the underdog, and that influenced how I look at things — that people of privilege have enough, and we should make sure others have their fair share.”

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Father’s Day: Sending love from the bimah

Australian-born Janine Lowy is the mother of three daughters and one son. Her father, Chazzan Andre Winkler, was born in Hungary in 1923, and his father, Chazzan Pinchas Winkler, was a protégé of the famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Andre’s parents, three sisters and their children all perished in Auschwitz, while Andre worked in forced labor. When he could leave Europe, he immigrated to Sydney, Australia, where he became a highly respected cantor. He and his wife, Maisie, raised their two daughters, Charmaine and Janine, in Sydney. Andre lived there until he died in 2009 at 85. 

“I didn’t have the same kind of childhood that my friends had. My father was young when he was taken from his parents and sent into forced labor during the Shoah, leaving an indelible impact on him his entire life. My mother died after a long illness when I was still a teenager. Dad became both mother and father, wanting to provide us with a family structure that he himself lost. Despite his giving us a lot of love and affection, there existed an underlying melancholy and heaviness in our home. 

Each year on Yom Kippur, after the conclusion of Neilah, Dad would leave the bimah in tears. We knew the source of his sadness — he missed his family and the traditions of his youth. 

On the bimah, Dad’s beautiful baritone voice and his movie-star looks and charisma made him a presence in the community. I was always proud to witness the congregation being so moved by his rendition of the liturgy. Dad was a shaliach tzibbur [cantor and leader] in the truest sense of the meaning, particularly during Yizkor services, when he sang from the heart and his painful life experiences. 

After my husband, Peter, and I moved from Sydney to Los Angeles in 1990, Dad spent the High Holy Days with us every year. When he was in town, he conducted  services at the Beverly Hills Jewish Community Synagogue — this was fantastic for my kids to experience. 

Many Holocaust survivors understandably moved away from Jewish traditions and observance, but my father fortunately didn’t. Most of my childhood memories center on the seder, Shabbat and observance of all the traditions, especially the songs, which I’ve taught my children. 

Dad was very open about the changing face of traditional Judaism. He took great pleasure in teaching his granddaughters to read from the Torah, learning new liturgical renditions by the likes of Shlomo Carlebach, and listening to new pieces sung in the soprano voices of women cantors.

He was still vital and involved with the lives of all his children and grandchildren until the day he passed away, in 2009. My sister and I talk about Dad every single day. “

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A father’s love: Stories for Father’s Day

My father, Bob Goldhamer, passed away two years ago, a week after his 94th birthday. When he died, my sister, Sue, and I each inherited a large box containing all of our childhood drawings and every letter we sent to Dad from camp or college. 

Dad had apparently lugged these boxes from one apartment or house (or marriage) to the next. He was not a hoarder. This was just evidence of how much he treasured us — and anything we created. Sue and I both idolized and idealized Dad — until we matured enough to notice how controlling and irritating he could be. (Like the time he felt compelled to stop and give unsolicited advice to four women playing tennis at the park.) Nevertheless, we felt a deep love for Dad, and a great appreciation for his love, his wisdom and the fun we had together.

Dad, who was in Ohio, always said, “Even though we live far apart, we are always in each other’s hearts.”  I can still feel him there.

In anticipation of Father’s Day, I asked some fellow adult “children” to tell me about their fathers.

 

 

 
 

Finding my place in history: A love letter for Father’s Day

It is not enough to thank my father privately for the best gift he’s ever given me, because his own humility interferes with my every attempt to express sufficient gratitude. “Dad, I don’t know how to thank you enough for this,” I say. “I tried a new restaurant last night,” he says. His eyes tell me he’s received my gesture, but because he never allows me to lavish him with praise, I’m writing this article instead—for I am equally as stubborn, and I insist on sharing just how much I value his efforts.

Since 1998, my father has been researching our family history. Initially, he gave his parents a hand-held tape recorder, hoping they’d impart the past into an easily preserved format, but when his mother dismissed the idea out of hand, he realized he’d have to do any recordkeeping as he always had: on lined, yellow legal pads with his dark blue felt pens. In addition to interviewing his parents and as many relatives as he could reach, he consulted a wide range of sources, including the National Archives, the Ellis Island Passenger Search, newspapers, genealogists, doctors, translators, websites, court documents, state and school and military records, cemetery markers and gravestones, old photographs and old letters and old tickets still tucked into burlap envelopes, new photographs, emails, voicemails. He transformed our family tree into a Table of Contents, composed a 206-page narrative, and for Father’s Day last year, had it printed and bound, and gifted one copy to me and one to my sister.

At first, I read it looking for evidence of what made us special: the time my father let then-Senator JFK borrow his clipboard to sign autographs, the time my great uncle Max (aka Mackie) spent as an arranger for the Sev Olsen Band featuring Peggy Lee, or playing trombone at a burlesque house with chorus girls known as the Alvin Adorables. Then I became more interested in what makes our family story just like many other immigration tales: one guy in 1907 with few resources and even less money who travelled steerage across the Atlantic looking for a better life; then later his brother, my great-grandfather: first a stevedore on the docks unloading cement ships, then a fruit peddler selling oranges door-to-door from a bushel basket until he could afford a horse and cart, until he could afford a Ford one-ton truck, until he could afford a grocery store.

The family genesis and introductory paragraph is as follows:

There were originally four brothers, Mendel, Samuel (Sholom), Bencha, and Zalmon, and also sisters Reva and Hannah. There was a half brother, Samuel (Schmuel), and another sister, for whom there is no record of her name. The original family name was Metelitza according to some immigration records; however, according to Al Mattenson, a son of the half brother, the original Russian family name was Metelitzi (“blizzard”). Records of Ellis Island, however, state Metelitza.

Dad attempts to offer the facts unfiltered, and yet, just like biblical genealogies, there are gaps and ghosts in the story. Nothing is known of Bencha, Zalmon, Reva, and Hannah, who are believed to have remained in Russia. Was my great-grandmother born in Kluisi, Klency, Klinzcy, or Kleentsi? We’ll likely never know, though the town is believed to be near Kiev, Ukraine. Why did my Jewish great-grandfather, when asked to submit his Petition for Naturalization in 1918, list Christmas as the birthdate for two of his sons, and then change his own birthdate to December 25 in a World War I draft Registration Card, when he was born on January 25, as stated in his Declaration of Intention upon entering the country?

Perhaps my grandfather inherited his father’s sense of humor, because when asked to provide a birth certificate in order to get a job selling shoes, he obtained a fake one and selected Friday the 13th as his day of birth. He never knew his original birthday until my father consulted the Deputy Clerk of St. Louis County District Court, but even after we discovered that he was born on August 23, 1912 (assuming his father didn’t make up that date too), we continued to celebrate on September 13th. We like to call my dad Sherlock Holmes because he is such a thorough researcher, but there are just as many questions and discrepancies in our story as there are moments of clarity.

In school, we are taught to learn history by memorizing names and dates and fixing our understanding of events around something certain. Our family story reads more like the way history actually happens: some of it is recorded and some is not, some is understood only in context and only by the people living it, and everybody has a different view about how and why and even when and where things occur. These tensions are entry points into history. They demand our participation, and offer us a means of knowing ourselves by inquiring after our forebears.

In junior high school, I had to create a family tree in English class, and for the first time found out that my grandmother’s maiden name was Glass. I immediately recalled one of my favorite episodes of The Brady Bunch in which Jan invents a fake boyfriend named George, and when pressed to give his last name, sees a drinking glass on the nightstand. “George Glass! And he thinks I’m super cool,” she exclaims. I thought about my grandmother. I knew her as Sarah Mattenson, so Sarah Glass seemed as fictional as Jan’s George. Her history was not real to me; it was far away, in some other time and place. I was naturally inquisitive and wanted to know more about her life, but she chose to protect my innocence, so she never told me she wore dentures since early adolescence because her family, rather than spend money on dental care, extracted all her teeth instead. She never told me she was addicted to Miltown and other tranquilizers for 28 years until she voluntarily entered a chemical dependency center. She never told me she failed eighth grade three times and then dropped out of school altogether, or that she was traumatized when her family sold the piano, her one source of joy and confidence. Now that I know, I long to talk with her and let her tell her story. She had a lot of secrets.

My grandmother started writing about her life when it was almost over, and my father included those letters, knowing his mother wanted to be heard, and knowing his daughters wanted to listen. Dad included everything: the happy and sad times, detailed evidence and elusive memories, and everyone’s presence from the progenitors to Mr. C, the family dog. Dad regards everyone equally; there are no minor characters. Everyone is part of the story. This family history gives me access to human history in that sense: everyone is part of the story. It’s what my ancestors wanted—to be part of a new story—and American life. Maryascha became Minnie, Dweire became Dot, Gootel became Gertrude, and Metelitzi became Mattenson. Reading about all of them in this manuscript allows me to see them both intimately and from a distance, and thus myself the same way. Who am I and what is my place in history? Is it enough to be part of the story? My ambition drives me to stand out and make a name for myself rather than to fit in.

My grandfather’s ambitions all had a purpose. He wanted to be a dance instructor in order to meet women. He took on jobs in order to make enough money to survive. He polished Ford nameplates in a factory, sold sewing machines and flavored extracts (vanilla, lemon, and orange) and eventually shoes, and once ran away at age 16 to join the Marines. I once asked him, “Papa, why did you decide to be a salesman?” He laughed and said, “There was a job. If there was a job to be a fisherman, I would have become a fisherman.” He dropped out of school before ninth grade because his father died and he had to help support the family. It’s in part because he struggled so much that I have the luxury to choose a career and craft my own ambitions.

I took particular note of my father’s description of Samuel (born in 1873), who came to this country in 1911 and took the Grand Trunk Railway to Duluth, Minnesota to be with his brother and my great-grandfather. He was a tailor, and he executed his Declaration of Intention “by making a mark.” We can only assume he was illiterate and could not read the form, so when asked to sign his Petition for Naturalization, he must have made some sort of X or checkmark. Dad’s phrasing stuck with me and I started to wonder how all these people felt about making a mark in the world. This document itself is one way my father is making his mark. He is keeping our family alive. He even brought some people back to life; my grandfather never knew he had a fifth brother until my father’s research revealed that Louis died at age 5. Since poor families couldn’t afford gravestones, Louis was likely buried along the perimeter of the first Jewish cemetery in Duluth. He probably would have survived appendicitis if he had been born after antibiotics were discovered. His family never talked about him, and there’s only one known photo of him, now included in our collection.

For some reason, as I read, I’d keep turning back to Louis’ photo. He looks so sweet in his little black coat with his soft, golden curls, and his tiny hand resting on his brother’s shoulder. He’s holding some sort of staff and his brother sits upon a tricycle. I think about Louis. He never got to “make a mark.” The phrase reminds me of a moment, years ago, in my grandfather’s kitchen when we were making lunch. He took out a small notepad used for phone messages and drew a few lines. “Here’s the alley,” he showed me, “and here’s where our house was—522 E. 8th St. in Duluth, and here’s where I made my mark!” Apparently he had carved his initials into the cement a few feet from the garage. I’ve always wanted to travel to Duluth and see if the inscription is still there.

I, too, want to make my mark in this world, so I was honored to represent my department in a competition for a distinguished award this year. Many of my colleagues have been nominated but not selected over the years, but I assumed my dossier would be strong enough to transcend committee politics and rise above the other candidates. When I did not win the award, my ego was bruised. How will I make my mark if I’m not on the official high-achievers list?

I went home, made some strong coffee, reread all 206 pages of the family history, and emerged transformed. I’ve been so focused on being the star of my story that I’ve forgotten I’m a part of a much larger narrative, from family history to Jewish history to human history. I’ve started to think more about my life in context as opposed to being primarily distinctive. It’s a relief. I’ve got a lot of angels in these pages sending me messages: think Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. “You’ve been given a great gift, George,” he says, “a chance to see what the world would be like without you.” In the film, it is only when George Bailey sees his life from a distance that he can then reenter it with a renewed enthusiasm. He learns what really matters to him. That’s the gift my father has given me as well. I am merely one entry in the Table of Contents, and I can see the value of my life even as it slowly slips away. I don’t mean for that to sound melancholy. To the contrary, the subtext of impermanence throughout Dad’s offering makes me want to love and learn in as exuberant a way as possible, for as long as possible.

At dinner last week, my father made a joke about his own mortality, and my eyes filled with tears at the mere thought. I see him as too youthful to be in his seventies, and similarly, I think he has trouble believing he has two daughters in their forties. He sent us “Happy 29th Birthday!” cards for at least a dozen years. I can’t pass for that age anymore, but the older I get, I understand Dad’s humor and even the denial. I want him to live forever. He will—in the pages titled Our Family—and no doubt, I’ll return to them many times, for my father’s love is in every word of the text. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful gift from father to daughter.

Dad’s last line is excerpted from a prayer book on the page after the Mourner’s Kaddish: As we remember our departed, we perpetuate their presence among us. By remembering them, we confer upon them the gift of immortality.

Immortality is conceptual; the reality is that my father’s father, for example, is gone, and we miss him. But his legacy is alive, and there are things he said and did that remain with us. Every time we talked on the phone, instead of “goodbye,” Papa said, “you’re a good person.” When I was younger, I’d laugh and say, “No, You’re a good person!” Sometimes, I’d say, “I love you, Papa” or “see you later.” And then he’d repeat: “you’re a good person.”

Dad, I get to be the one to bestow Papa’s enduring blessing this time: I love you dearly. Thank you for this gift. You’re a good person!


Mattenson is a Lecturer with UCLA Writing Programs. Her latest work can be found at www.LauriMattenson.com and her new Kindle Single, “Backbone: A BodyMind Breakthrough” is now on Amazon.

Father’s Day: From dad’s art studio to the rabbi’s bimah

I confess. Sometimes when I say from the pulpit, “A great Jewish man once said,” I’m actually just quoting my dad. OK, more than sometimes. Often. I’m embarrassed to say, “My daddy taught me …” all the time. It might make me appear immature and unlearned. However, of all teachings by Jewish men I’ve studied, those of my father, James Grashow, have inspired me the most.

In the beginning, when people would ask why I became a rabbi, I would respond, “My father is an artist …” as if that made perfect sense. But I quickly learned that most people don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a ballroom-sized studio, with 20-foot sculptures towering over you, a space filled with spikes and stakes, a landmine for children — far from childproof. An unfinished plywood floor confettied with wood shavings and razor blades. Chairs thorny with woodchips. Dangling wires, open cans of turpentine, ridges of dried glue. There were no safety locks on the sander or the powerful bandsaw. 

Few people know how, despite the splinters, growing up in such a great space was buoyant with the possibilities of metamorphosis. My brother and I ran through sculpture installations chasing Nerf balls and paper airplanes. The innards of my father’s sculptures were like giant dollhouses for me. Dad often picked us up at school in a pickup truck loaded with cardboard dinosaurs, or a car with papier-
mâché arms and legs protruding menacingly out of the trunk. Every part of our lives were filled with my father’s “work,” so much so that we often didn’t recognize it as work, and my brother once said, “You know all the stuff you did in kindergarten? That’s what my father does for a living.”

I was astounded when a fellow student at Brandeis University asked me, “Isn’t your father ashamed to be creating graven images when the Torah expressly forbids it?” I was angry that this student could imply my father was any less “religious” than he. 

During my interview for seminary, one of the imposing interviewers said, as he thumbed my application, “It doesn’t seem that you were raised in a religious environment.”

He was wrong.

As a child, I would sit in a bin of rags and watch my father work and listen to him talk about the canvas’ void, the fragility of man, the futility of monument, the supremacy of blank space. He taught me that the difference between a good work and a masterpiece has to do with the lines, and whether they breathe. Memory and observance are the basis of art, just as our practice is to remember and observe Shabbat, and Shabbat is the basis of artful living. It allows our lines to breathe. 

After wrestling with commentaries trying to resolve the discrepancy between Genesis 1, in which God creates man after all of the animals, and Genesis 2, in which God creates man before anything else, I brought the matter to my father, who told me the answer is obvious: When a painter begins a painting, he starts with a light source, then he paints the background, and lastly he paints the portrait. However, when a person comes to see the painting, the person first sees the portrait, and only later might notice the landscape and shadows. The first creation story is from the point of view of the artist, of God, starting with a light source and a background for the final portrait, which is man. The second creation story is from the perspective of the viewer, of man, who sees the portrait first, the little grasses and swarming things last. 

Of course I was raised in a religious environment. 

In fact, I have spent most of my life seeking an altar as sacred as my father’s drawing board with its paint flecks, glue and paper shreds entombed in lacquer, moist color drips shed from horsehair trees, where creation constantly decomposed into the rich stuff that churns and nourishes the red clay of process. My father’s fingers are the priestly caste preparing the daily offering on this altar. 

My brother and I were different from most of our friends, because we knew exactly what our father did all day. We always knew exactly where he was and exactly what he was doing.


Grashow installing cardboard monkeys for the “Trash Menagerie” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, 2009.  Photo by Lisa Kosan

We would watch his work develop from beginning to end. Often, when my father was working right up to (or a little past) his deadline, as soon as the piece was finished it would be whisked away. It always seemed a little unfair that we didn’t get to enjoy the finished piece for long, that a stranger would get to take it, and we’d never see it again. The stranger may have paid for it, but we raised it. However, we learned to expect this. To recognize that this was actually healthy. The work that had been so painstakingly birthed was meant to live out in the world. You could hope it would have a good home. You could hope it would be cherished, not exposed to direct sunlight, matted comfortably and complimentarily. Pray that it wasn’t destined for storage. But in the end, it wasn’t up to you at all. 

I joined my father a few times at Pratt, where he taught drawing for many years, sitting with the grad students sketching amid poufs and plumes of charcoal. My father would set a timer and ask the students to fill as much of a page as possible in 30 seconds. He was teaching them to conquer space, and their fear of a void. Sometimes students would come to work with him in the studio. I would slink behind the sculptures jealously, thinking the student wanted to take him as their own dad, or that my father might feel closer to one of them than to me, because they had some special drawing talent. Sometimes they would bring their portfolios for him to review. I would listen to his constructive critiques, and I would wonder what teachings he had reserved for me, had I become a visual artist. 

I wonder still, what would he have taught me about metaphor and movement? Which gallery owners might he have introduced me to? Would he like my work? Then I remember that he did teach me all of those things. 

When I deliver a eulogy in a chapel, I am not so different from him, working alone in his studio piecing tiny shingles on a little house he’s built upon a wood stem. We both work to create something special — he with paper, me with words, we both try to breathe the breath of eternity into something very fragile. There is nothing so beautiful as that which death can touch. 

My father always works with mediums that have breath and fragility — thin rice paper, Swiss pear wood, dyed thread. They age and fade in the sun. Although his works will probably outlive their maker and the collectors who own them now, each piece bears the fingerprints of exposure to sun and air, arguments and agreements and the living breath of countless flawed faces examining it up close. When I officiate life-cycle ceremonies, I always feel as if I am trying to weave something strong out of delicate fibers. At weddings, I try to help build a solid foundation out of very feathery dreams. At a birth, I try to infuse joy and light into an entirely mysterious future. At death, I take the tiny strands of an infinitely complex life and try to weave them into something sacred.

My father believes that what marks an artist isn’t so much the subject he portrays, but the materials he uses. He feels that there is something different about a person who chooses watercolor from one who chooses oil paint. Until recently, he always used paper and wood. With his printmaking, the Swiss pear wood is polished and silky, the rice paper delicate as antique lace.

Countless times I heard my father speak of his choice of materials as a reflection of his fear of mortality. I remember one sunny day, walking with him, both of us holding ice cream cones, the summer trees luxuriating in their greenery. I asked him why he didn’t work in marble. I had never questioned it before, but suddenly it didn’t make sense. If you are so afraid of death, why not choose material that is sure to outlast you, your children and grandchildren? Why use material that fades in direct sunlight, swells in humidity and bears every effect of time’s passing? 

My father nodded. He said, “Maybe it’s about my feelings of fragility. My doubts about self-worth.”

I did understand fear of mortality. We pass to our children our legacies of fear as well as glory, and of my father’s necrophobia, I was the legatee. The panic of death made me tremble and weep in the night. A fallen eyelash stirred deep anxiety that I would someday too fall away, feel nothing, forget and be forgotten. One of my father’s prints hung across from my bed, a work titled “Goodnight Zoë.” It showed me sleeping, with my hands folded under my head, and dreaming of all the animals in the forest wearing pajamas. Even the trees were in their PJs, as was the moon, and the cow jumping over it. That image was the last thing I looked at before falling asleep every night. It now hangs in my office at the temple. 

People deal with fear of mortality in different ways. Some build great monuments of stone. Some drown the sense of foreboding with loud living. Then there are some like my father, who, realizing they can’t outrun death, decide instead to turn around and face it, opening up their hands as if inviting the grim reaper to dance. My father’s work in paper and wood was, to me, courageous and heroic. 

I have my own obsession with wrangling time, bending, transcending and unspooling it, seeking rhythm with the ceaseless metronome of seconds ticking away. I became a rabbi and arranged my career as a sort of life-long exposure-therapy to death — sitting with the dying, eulogizing beside graves. Rather than run, I’ve tried to take up the steps of the dance my father began, moving with the moons and tides, taking solace in the great Sabbaths that stand outside our chronologies. 

So I understood when my father moved from wood and paper to working with cardboard, a valueless material. When his razor carves through the brown sheets, he is tapping into a timeless stream of creativity, extending back to when he built rockets out of refrigerator boxes, a natural force unimpeded by permanence and finish. 


Rabbi Zoë Klein with her parents, James and Lesley Grashow.  Photo courtesy of Rabbi Zoë Klein

Recently, my father created a large cardboard installation at the DeCordova Museum outside Boston called “The Great Monkey Project.” When people saw his cardboard monkeys swinging over the museum’s grand staircase, they laughed with joy and amazement at the sheer multitude of whimsical characters. Some noticed that the monkeys’ eyes were made from toilet paper tubes, and others paused to study the lines and abstract negative spaces of the installation, which make all of my father’s work feel like walk-through living paintings. 

At one point, I found my father moping that people weren’t understanding that the cardboard monkeys were, in fact, empty and impermanent, and that we are their descendants. The whole experience of the work, for him, was edged with solitude and mourning. They were a burst of life born out of the trash bin for which we were all ultimately destined. 

I thought to myself, “If you wanted to say something dark and existential, why did you go and have to make them so darn adorable?”

But the playfulness, for my father, was deliberate. Cardboard was once garbage, but he was giving it a second chance. Out of the dust heap, it became a revolutionary celebration, an acrobatic frenzy of living. My father’s willingness to let the cardboard play is itself an act of protest. 

He decided to create a show that would also walk this beloved medium from rebirth to its end. 

It would be a cardboard fountain, based on Bernini’s famous 17th-century “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Rome, but built from material that water would destroy. Poseidon would rise up from the center carrying his trident, horses riding outward upon corrugated waves, with dolphins and fish, and nymphs blowing long trumpets. It would be triumphant, mythic. And yet, all the power and arrogance of the Roman god of oceans, earthquakes and horses would be mitigated by the humbleness of the material from which it was constructed. The legacy of “Corrugated Fountain” would be its honesty. Unpainted, unfinished, it would be a revelation of its own naked process, a tribute not to the god whose will controls tides, but to the currents of change, the turbulent sea of seasons, whether we will it or not. The fountain would elevate the power and meaning of the moment, which is ever ours, over any glorified eternity.

My father used to tell his students a mythic story he’d made up, about two lovers, Pencilus and Erasemeus. The tragedy was that whatever Pencilus created, Erasemeus was destined to destroy. The story ended with my father holding up a pencil, explaining that creation and destruction are married to one another. Then he would give out awards to each of the students, a golden-winged pencil on a stand, so they’d remember the myth.

My father worked on his fountain for four years, always intending it to be installed in an outdoor location, allowing it to disintegrate over time. When the work was finally installed at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., the curator wanted to put ropes in front of it, so people couldn’t touch or damage the piece, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. The whole point of the piece was to live, and to live is to be touched and risk damage. He wanted the fountain and its audience to interact with one another. The unfinished surfaces invite eyes to supply color. At the installation’s opening at the Taubman, my father gave away wooden coins to everyone there. One side was stamped with a portrait of Poseidon and the name of the show. The other showed a mermaid tail and the coin’s value: “One wish.” On the count of three, everyone was invited to throw their coin into the fountain, and people of all ages instinctively closed their eyes and whispered wishes into their wooden coins. Then, with great cheer, hundreds of coins were aloft, filled with private dreams and hopes, plinking on and around the sculpture, and onto the floor. 

Even so, when the rainstorm finally came and destroyed the fountain, my father fell into gloom. He laid flowers before the mush, as if visiting his own remains.


Grashow’s “Corrugated Fountain,” based on a fountain by the Italian sculptor Bernini, seen here in an image from the documentary film “Cardboard Bernini” by Olympia Stone. 

When I look at images of that fountain, I see the whole evolution of my father’s work and all the lessons I’ve learned from him, some overt and some whose meanings, mysterious and hinted, will continue to unfurl over time. For example, once when I asked my father what his most important life lesson was, he responded simply, “Use sharp tools and change blades often.” 

There are two great treasures I have acquired from being an artist’s daughter. One is the love of process. Growing up, we were constantly immersed in process. Things were always rising up in the studio, paper phoenixes off the plywood floor. I learned to love process and could sit for hours with pen and paper, writing story after story. I remember telling my father that I wanted to be a writer, and he said that he would not call me a writer until I finished one book. It didn’t matter if it was published or not; it just had to be finished. And so, this is the second treasure I acquired: understanding the importance of finishing. It was not enough to love process; there had to be finish. Process was purposeful, leading toward an end. The day in college that I finished my first novel, I was so excited to tell my family. My father said to me, “Now you are a writer.” That book was never published, but I had learned to muster the stamina, passion and will to transform the ideas in my head into creations of substance in the world. 

A great Jewish man once taught me that an artist must listen to her material and pay close attention to its grain and its longing, instead of imposing her will upon it. He taught me that a page or a canvas is pristine and perfect in its natural state, and that we are called to establish a covenant with that original oneness. Revelation came out of the desert, he taught me, which itself is like the blank parchment. The Torah is the creative dance of human and divine. 

A great Jewish man once said: “If you go into a kindergarten class and ask who is an artist, everyone raises their hand. If you go back a few years later and ask who is an artist, everyone points at one or two kids.” But at our beginning, we were all artists, our imaginations lit up. When God created man, God was primarily Creator, yet to be identified as King, Warrior, Friend or any other epithet. Man was created not only in God’s image, but more specifically in God-as-Creator’s image. We are generators, our hands designed to be fruitful. 

A great Jewish man once said, “As we grow older, we unlearn how to dream.” 

During the High Holy Days, I stand in a white robe, a pristine year stretching out before our community. The ark is opened. We open our mouths, and our breath is the paintbrush hovering over the canvas, preparing to mark the first mark. And then we sing Avinu Malkeinu, my Father, my King, calling to the one who sketched us into being. We are all works in progress, and God is the great Animator, breathing into us motion, spirit and mystery. But we are also our own colorists, and by our own hands, we color our days as happy or gloomy, joyful or remorseful, and we choose to dip into the palate of the past, or the promising pinks and golds of tomorrow, elevating our dents and dings into lives of beauty, wisdom and virtue, our masterworks. 

A rabbi once said to a great Jewish man, “Thank you for teaching me, for watching over me, for taking me through your process and encouraging me through mine. Thank you for fathering me, and for being my dad.”


Zoë Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and the author of two novels, “Drawing in the Dust” and “The Scroll of Anatiya.”

My resilient father and the German engineer

At 85, my father is full of optimism and humor. You would never guess that at the age of sixteen he was a victim of the greatest atrocity of the 20th century. In the spring of 1944, he and his family were sent to Auschwitz. When they arrived, he was separated from his mother and two sisters. He and his father stood in line with the other men, eventually reaching SS officers who sent my father to the right and his father to the left. The next day, my father learned from a long-time prisoner that his father had surely been killed in a gas chamber.

My father was sent to a slave labor camp where he was forced to work on a railroad construction site. He spent most of his days carrying heavy steel rails up a hill, over and over again, from the first light of day until sunset.  By the end of the summer he found that it took more strength to keep going than he thought he might have. He saw his struggle to survive as a battle he was fighting with the SS. If he gave in, then the Nazis would win. He did not want to give them this victory. If he stayed alive, then he would win. He was also resolute about returning home to his family. He worried about what would happen if his mother and sisters came home and he didn’t. This concern got him up off the cold ground every morning with his mind set on making it through another day.

This ability to turn a threat into a challenge is at the heart of resilience, and research in psychology finds that one’s mental attitude in the face of adversity has a significant impact on physical and mental well being. Of course, a positive attitude was not nearly enough to survive a death camp, and many strong, resilient people perished in the Holocaust. Luck was necessary as well, and a lot of it. A helping hand was also essential. For my father, this help came from an unexpected source.

One morning during roll call an SS sergeant walked up to my father’s section and yelled, “Which one of you young inmates speaks German?” Acting purely on instinct, my father raised his hand high into the air. He followed the officer, and saw a man waiting for him in a long leather coat. He panicked. What have I gotten myself into? The man had the dark and neatly dressed look of a Gesta po officer, and my father was sure he had made a very bad decision.

The man introduced himself and said that he was a civilian engineer who needed an assistant for his work. He explained that his job was to conduct a survey for a new road through the forest, and he wanted someone to help carry the equipment. My father immediately understood that this job would be much easier than his usual daily toil.

During their second day of working together, the engineer said to my father, “I can see what a horrible situation you are in, and I want to do something to help you.” He went on to say that he couldn’t help him outright because of the SS guards, but that he could obtain some food for him. He explained that there was a barracks in the woods, where he ate his lunch with the SS officers, and where he had hidden some food in a corner, under a bench. The building would be empty in the late afternoon.

At the end of the day, as they neared the perimeter of the camp, the engineer indicated the barracks. The building was dark and empty, and my father hurried to the far corner and looked under the bench. Chicken! Rice! He took some bites of the food and put the rest in his pock ets to share with his friends in the camp.

For the two extraordinary weeks that he worked with the engineer, my father supplemented his daily intake of stale bread and watery soup with food from the SS kitchen. As the days passed, he grew sturdier. The boost to his well-being was more than physical: the fact that this German cared about him, and was willing to take great personal risks to feed him, restored some of my father’s faith in other people.

When he was a sixteen-year-old prisoner, he knew full well that being assigned to work with the engineer was a tremendous stroke of luck. But it took some time for him to realize just how pivotal a role his benefactor had played. Af ter my father was liberated and could better weigh the impact various events had had on his ability to survive, he credited him with saving his life.

On Father’s Day, I am thankful to the brave man who became a temporary father to a teenager in a desperate situation. Further, I am thankful to have such a strong, resilient father who somehow managed to emerge from that terrible darkness to live his life with generosity and love.

I have watched my father talk to audiences about his Ho locaust experiences many times. He holds up well dur ing these talks, even though the events he is speaking about are very distressing. As soon as he is done, he bounces back to his usual good humor and wants to discuss dinner plans.

In every speech my father gives, he tells the story of the civilian German engineer in the long leather coat. He speaks of the cattle cars, the cruelty of the SS officers and the murderous selections without flinching. Decades after their final walk in the forest, it is the kindness shown to him by one man that forces him to stop speaking, lower his eyes and weep.


Dr. Jill Klein earned a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan and is currently a business professor at Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne. In We Got the Water, Dr. Klein shares her family’s harrowing experience as prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp. We Got the Water (April 2013) is available at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.wegotthewater.com.

What I want for Father’s Day

If you’ve never had a tooth extracted, I can assure you that it is everything you’d imagine and more, especially since I opted out of the general anesthesia that would’ve rendered me unconscious during the procedure. Turns out, I didn’t need it. You can imagine the surprise of the oral surgeon and his team of assisting nurses when my arm twitched involuntarily, exposing the fact that I’d fallen asleep in the chair while they all worked in my open mouth.

What’s worse, the offending arm twitch also woke me up. As I reluctantly drifted back to consciousness, I heard the oral surgeon ask, in amused amazement (or was it “amazed amusement?”), “Did he fall asleep?!”

It seemed this was a first for them. One of the nurses responded, “It shows how good we are.”

Not that they weren’t doing a good job (at least, I hoped they were), but I felt compelled to correct her, “Uh bwuh bwuh bwuh.”

Being fluent in the language of people who have surgical equipment in their mouths, the oral surgeon knew that translated to, “I have a 15-month-old baby at home.”

“That would explain it,” he laughed. “This must be a break for you. I love it!” Then, turning on the drill, he added, “You can go back to sleep now.”

And I did. Not really. But I do confess that, sometime later, I was actually looking forward to an ultrasound I had to have performed because I thought that it might present the opportunity to catch a few winks.

To my horror, I have become a cliché: the sleep-deprived parent.

When people found out that my wife and I were expecting our first child, they all warned us to enjoy our sleep now because soon we weren’t going to be getting any. And I mean, everybody. That was the first response of every single person we told, at least the ones with kids.

Everything they say about the effects of sleep deprivation is true. Remember, it is an accepted form of torture in many countries, none of which, to my knowledge, is cruel enough to administer it in conjunction with forced diaper changing.

Since our son, Gabriel, came to live with us, both my wife and I have experienced the phenomenon of entering a room and being unable to remember what we went in there for. We fail to find things that are right in front of us. We have a sense that there are people we should be holding grudges against, but we can’t remember who they are, or what they did.

On one occasion, I refilled the humidifier with water and turned it on, only to be baffled as to why I couldn’t get any steam to come out of the spout, no matter how high I turned up the dial. I fiddled with it for several minutes, until my wife, in a moment of clarity, suggested that I plug it into an electrical outlet.

Hopefully, none of my current employers are reading this. If they are, I can assure them that my work is the one thing that, for some reason, has not been affected at all.

Everything they say about the effects of sleep deprivation is true. Remember, it is an accepted form of torture in many countries, none of which, to my knowledge, is cruel enough to administer it in conjunction with forced diaper changing.

There is a flip slide to this coin. The truth is, I enjoy sleep now more than I ever have before; it’s just not my own. There’s no accomplishment more satisfying — at least in my life thus far — than finding the perfect combination of soothing techniques necessary to lull a crying baby to sleep in your arms. The moment is thrilling and never ceases to amaze. You cannot believe what you have just achieved, even though you witnessed it with your own eyes. And although Gabriel is always adorable — if you don’t believe me, just ask my wife; she’ll tell you — when he sleeps, he is absolutely angelic.

Who cares that we never get to the movies anymore? I can watch Gabriel (sleeping or waking) for hours on end, completely transfixed and entertained, which is lucky for me as we now attempt to wean him from breastfeeding. When he wakes at 3 or 4 in the morning, expecting to nurse, it is I who must deal with him, as there is no way for my wife to distract him from what he really wants.

As I yearn for my pillow, it would be easy for me to curse my fate, but, eventually, Gabriel will rest his head against my chest, and I’ll feel his little muscles twitch in my arms as he relaxes into slumber. And I know that, one day all too soon, these moments will be cherished amongst the most memorable and meaningful of my life.

What do I want for Father’s Day?

Sleep. Or not.


Howard March is a writer and producer in film and for television in Los Angeles.

Honor trumps love

Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a good time to return again to the fifth of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.”

The Ten Commandments are the most important demands God makes upon the Jews (and upon members of any religion based on the Jewish Scriptures). These are the commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

Even those who do not believe in God would acknowledge that any society whose members adhere fully to the Ten Commandments would be a very decent society, undoubtedly the finest that ever existed. They would also have to acknowledge that whoever wrote the Torah deemed the creation of such a society as dependent upon honoring parents as it is dependent upon banning murder, stealing and adultery.

Of course, there are exceptional instances when honoring a parent is morally impossible. The Torah itself notes this in another verse: “A man shall fear his mother and his father [note that mother is listed here first, as the equality of parents is assumed by the Torah] but you shall observe my Sabbaths.” 

This has always been understood to mean that if one’s parent demands disobedience to another of the commandments, God’s commandments take precedence. And there are times when honor becomes morally impossible when the parent him or herself is truly evil, just as there are evil times when lying and stealing and adultery (consider the case of Irene Opdyke, the Polish Catholic woman who became the mistress of a Nazi in order to save Jews) become morally acceptable, even necessary. 

In our time, however, the connection between honoring parents and maintaining civilization is not widely recognized. Indeed, many of the best-educated parents do not believe that their children need to show them honor, since “honoring” implies authority figure, a status they reject. 

In addition, many parents seek to be loved, not honored, by their children. Yet, neither the Ten Commandments nor the Torah elsewhere commands us to love our parents. This is particularly striking given that the Torah commands love of our neighbor, love of God and love of the non-Jew who resides among us. 

The Torah understands that there will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, do not love their parent(s). Therefore, the Torah does not demand what may be psychologically or emotionally impossible. But the Torah does demand that we show honor to our parents — and it makes this demand only with regard to parents. There is no one else on earth whom the Torah commands us to honor (the rabbis later added teachers).

So, then, why is honoring parents so important? Why does the Torah believe that society could not survive if this commandment were to be widely violated?

One reason is that we, as children, need it. Parents may want to be honored, but children need to honor parents. Children who grow up without honoring their parents grow up, for all intents and purposes, fatherless and motherless. A father and a mother who are not honored are essentially adult peers of their children who happen to live in the same house and pay the bills. But they are not parents. 

No generation knows better than ours the terrible consequences of growing up without a father. Fatherless boys are far more likely to grow up and mistreat women, commit violent crime and act out against society in every other way. Girls who do not have a father to honor — and, hopefully, to love as well — are more likely to seek the wrong men and to be promiscuous at an early age. 

Second, honoring parents is how nearly all people come to recognize that there is a moral authority above them. Those who resent the idea of acknowledging a moral authority over themselves reject this and often reject the commandment as well. There are many such people.

But those who understand the moral necessity of people honoring a moral authority above themselves understand that this begins with children — and society — honoring parents.

Of course, for Judaism, the ultimate moral authority is God, who is therefore higher than even our parents. But the Torah, the Ten Commandments and later Judaism all understood that it is very difficult to come to honor God without having had a parent, especially a father, to honor. Sigmund Freud, an atheist, theorized that one’s attitude toward one’s father largely shaped one’s attitude toward God.

There is one more reason why honoring parents is fundamental to a good society. Honoring parents is the best antidote to totalitarianism. One of the first things totalitarian movements seek to do is to break the child-parent bond. Thus, under communism and Nazism, the importance of reporting one’s parents to the authorities was instilled in young people from a very early age. 

For this reason as well as all the others enumerated here, I worry for our society. Child-parent bonds, especially child-father bonds, have been weakened, and are often nonexistent; the parental role is increasingly usurped by the state; and parents increasingly seek love rather than honor.

Only one of the Ten Commandments — honoring parents — provides a reason: “So that your days will be lengthened in the land I give to you.” 

Why? Because without widespread fulfillment of this commandment, society will not long endure.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

The day you become redundant

Parenthood is ultimately about becoming redundant in your child’s life. It’s difficult to comprehend as you hold your newborn baby in your arms, but if you do your job as a parent correctly, your services will ultimately no longer be necessary.

The art and the joy of parenthood is how to raise a self-reliant child who grows to become a self-reliant adult. How do we pass on to our children the knowledge, skills, values and beliefs they will need so that the teaching will remain with them when we are no longer ever-present?

Toward this end, Jewish fathers have particular obligations. The Talmud instructs that a father is obligated to provide his son (child) with Torah, a trade and, some say, to teach him how to swim (Kiddushin 29:A). This formula is interesting, because when the Talmud makes a list, it is meant to be all-inclusive; if something else was needed, it would have been on the list. Thus, our tradition instructs that a father has three sacred obligations in raising a child.

Torah is perhaps the easiest to explain, even if it may seem the most remote to many a Jewish dad. The mindset of the rabbis of the Talmud was focused on Jewish education and the importance of Torah within that framework. Torah, in their view, was not merely knowledge and education, and it was much more than holidays, rituals and stories. Torah serves as the cornerstone of Jewish life — it is morals, ethics and values. Its focus is how to be a good person and, particularly, how to be a responsible Jew. This responsibility is not taken lightly at all; if a Jewish father could not teach his son, it was his responsibility to find his son a teacher to perform the task. What Torah will you teach your child, and how will you teach it?

Teach your child a trade? This may seem far more applicable to our lives today. The ability to support oneself, make a living, plan for the future and support your community has often been stressed in Jewish fathering. But this commandment is about more than finding a good job — it is about legacy and tradition, about knowing the value of things earned and their value in years to come. To teach a child a trade in our modern 24/7, 60-hour workweek world is to teach your child not only to work, but how to work. It is to model the importance of the work/life/family balance. The question then is not what will they do when they grow up, but rather how will they do it? What can you teach from your lifetime of working so they remember that we work in order to live, not live in order to work?

And last is swimming. This concept is perhaps the most important of all, because at its core swimming is about survival. One learns how to swim so he or she will not drown; how fitting that the rabbis entrust this small and somewhat minor task to the Jewish father. To swim, or survive, so to speak, means to have courage and perseverance to navigate the rough waters that lie ahead in life. To swim is to let go of the side of the pool and wade purposefully into the unknown and come out safely on the other side. How will you teach your child courage and perseverance?

In all the roles a Jewish father plays, there is an essential element that is constant: time. How can a father properly introduce his child to Torah, a trade, teach courage and perseverance if he is not around? All of the above seems daunting in the abstract, but when your life is the lesson, the teaching happens for good or for ill whether you are present or not. So the most important task commanded to a Jewish father is: Be present!

Even the simplest task, when done with child in tow, can reap invaluable experience. Leading by example, being a trainer for life, is not easily done in a world of busy schedules, but it can be done. The interaction between father and child during those times provides a lesson in living. It is during these moments when Torah can be passed along. It is also during these moments when a child can learn what it means to be a father and provider, who his/her father is and what priorities have been set in life. It is in all of these moments, as your child watches you live Torah and ply your trade, that they learn from your courage and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity.

If you can do these things, there will come a moment when your child will turn to you and say, “I got it, Dad,” and you will know that he/she truly does. At that time, maybe say the “Shehecheyanu,” the blessing for having survived and been given strength to bear witness to a joyous occasion — in this context being told you’re not needed truly is a time for blessing. Oh, and one more thing, you might cry (yes, men do cry). But know this: Those tears will be bittersweet, the day you become redundant.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana. Visit his blog at

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Getting to know my dad, again

My 93-year-old father emerged as a different person when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago. He became independent, assertive, interested and engaging. When my mother died in October, he even became a bit spiritual. He’s certainly not the exhausted father with whom I grew up, who often didn’t know what to say to me. As a teenager and young adult, I never thought we would have much of a relationship. But now, as I approach 60 and he nears 94, the engagement between us has blossomed, as it has with my brother and all our children. The relationship he now has with my wife has become his most significant. She handles his money.

At 93, my father takes almost no medication. He doesn’t use a cane or a walker. And his mind rarely skips a beat. Until he was 88, my mother made just about every decision for them. All the family’s relationships with him were tracked through her. I realize now we had almost no idea who he really was.

Last year, when the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries about the World War II battles in the Pacific was being shown on TV, my father came forward with stories we had never heard. During the segment on Guadalcanal, he excitedly said to us, “That’s my regiment. Boy, they got that perfect. That’s exactly what it was like.” Then he recalled his fears hearing the Japanese soldiers talking above his head while he was hiding in a fox hole, seeing his friends’ body parts being blown off and suffering more than 10 bouts of malaria. When the segment aired about the regiment being taken on furlough to Australia, he told us about the women greeting the soldiers at the boat and their nights out on the town after unrelenting months in the jungle.

When I watched the young soldiers each week, I tried to see my father as one of them, and through it I saw a whole different person. It is painful to accept that his entire generation is almost gone, including my father’s four siblings, all his friends and his unit. He used to see his Army buddies at reunions, but that ended about seven years ago. He tells me often, “Everybody is dead.”

One of the most difficult realizations is that there is no one alive who was a witness to his life before my generation. He no longer has anyone to gibe with, sharing the particular Yiddish expressions that he, his brothers, sisters and cousins grew up with, contorting into their own vernacular, and mimicking specific uncles’ intonations that came from the Lithuanian shtetl. “Ahh, ich hawb a hejhek — I could give a sh__” and “Zhesh tu? —Take a look at that … you get it?”

True to his generation of Chicago soldiers, one of his favorite foods is still fried shrimp. I sometimes take him to Malibu Seafood, where I order salmon and he loads up on all the treif I stopped eating years ago. Once he said to me, “I’m going to take the leftovers back to the place, so they can heat them up in the microwave.” The place is the Jewish Home in Reseda. 

I said to him, “Dad, they’re not going to heat up shrimp in a microwave at the Jewish Home.” 

“Sure they will, if I ask them to.”

“No, Dad, they won’t.” And I threw the bag away.

Food has become one of his obsessions. He misses my mother’s cooking terribly. Recently, my son opened a restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. The style is shared, small plates, where many dishes make up a night’s experience. After my father’s first visit, he called the next day: “Listen, don’t they serve a full meal at Micah’s restaurant? How’s he going to make any money?” And then he added, “I sure wish your mother had been alive to see this.” On his next visit, Micah had put on his contemporary Middle Eastern menu an appetizer of “challah and Gramma’s chopped liver.” My father lit up with a huge smile … and ate it all.

He now often asks me about my work. I travel for business. Each time I tell him that I am leaving, he begins to rant and rave: “Again, you’re going? Jesus … how many times can you get on a plane? You need to stay home once in a while.” I realize he misses me. It’s a strange feeling. When I was growing up, I think I could have disappeared for months and he would have never noticed.

Recently I began a blog, called 60DaysTil60, about the 60 days leading up to my 60th birthday. One of the posts was about my mother. Somehow, someone with a computer at the Jewish Home must have been forwarded what I wrote, and they mentioned it to my father. He called and asked where it was published. I attempted to explain a blog to him. That opened up a whole conversation about technology, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. In the end he said to me, “But if it’s not in a newspaper or a magazine, how can someone read it?” Try explaining that to a person turning 94.

The next time I saw him, he said something that really shook me. I told him I had a dream about my mother and that she was shuffling business cards when she said to me, “Gary, I just can’t seem to reach anybody.”

My father, always very rational, responded, “She’s not really gone.”

I took a deep breath. “Tell me.” 

“The other night, I was lying here on the bed. I heard her call out to me, ‘Herbie?’ It was just the way she always did. She was in this room.”

I believe him.

My father doesn’t ever like to be the center of attention. When I told him I was asked to write this article, he responded, “About me? What’s there to say about me?” Everyone at the Jewish Home reads The Jewish Journal. As he said to me, “No one in this place ever stops talking. There are no secrets.”

I hope he comes out of his room.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I know you’re reading this.

Gary Wexler is turning 60 and blogs about his impending irrelevancy at 60DaysTil60.com. He can be reached at Gary@GaryWexler.com.

Exchanging Gifts on Yom HaDad

Does it take a special gift to be a Jewish father?

Father’s Day is coming, Yom HaDad, and while we are unwrapping the heartfelt gifts made by
our school-age children, or opening the card or tie from our wives, it’s a good time to think about what it means to be a Jewish father.

I mean a real Jewish mensch dad. Not a Coen brothers black comedy “Serious Man” Jewish dad, or a Krusty the clown Jewish caricature rabbi dad on “The Simpsons,” but a real life, change-the-diaper to off-to-college kind of Jewish dad. What does it mean to be one of those?

A Jewish dad, an abba, being a fraternal member of an order that has survived by questioning everything, turns the gift ritual around and asks: What gifts have I given?

According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first-born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade.” Others say: “teaching him how to swim,” as well.

For a daughter, modern obligations for most Jews include most of the above, minus the “redeeming,” and a simchat bat, or baby naming, instead of a brit. And don’t forget the Code of Jewish Law’s “A father must provide his daughter with appropriate clothing and a dowry.”

For a Jewish man contemplating fatherhood, or already there, this is a daunting gift list.

So, considering my three sons, and taking the Talmud as a Jewish father’s gift list, I am going to review past purchases to see how I have done. Have there been any bargains or returns? Besides my eternal wisdom that black cherry soda goes great with latkes, what Jewish gifts have I given?

Gift No. 1: the brit. There was a shaky moment of indecision when the mohel asked me, “Would you like to perform the mitzvah yourself?”

Now there’s a gift.

At the time, I was working extensively with creating the paper mechanical workings of children’s pop-up books. It was exacting work, requiring dexterity with very sharp cutting blades. In a morning full of great expectations and Jewish life-cycle buzz, I remember thinking: How hard could this be?

Fortunately, I listened to a still small voice that said something like, “Get real. Set up a college fund instead.”

Gift No. 2: the redeeming. Our firstborn was one half of a duo of fraternal twins. He is proudly six minutes older than his brother. At the pidyon ha’ben, the redemption of the firstborn, I get asked another question, this time by the rabbi: “Which do you prefer, to give me your firstborn or to redeem him?”

Though asked rhetorically, I briefly considered the proposition, and then handed over five silver dollars. One month in, I was a much-invested Jewish dad.

Gift No. 3: teaching him Torah. Here’s where the long journey into the heart of abba-ness begins. Sending our kids to preschool at the local JCC was the first step. We still use the menorahs they made from large metal hex nuts.

Later we decided to send our sons to an after-school Hebrew program at a nearby synagogue. The gift included occasional chats with the principal on their progress and “exuberance,” as well as occasional “groan and moan” commentary from my kids.

But they learned, and all three had bar mitzvahs in a smaller, minyan setting, where things like the importance of showing up, listening and leading are much more pronounced.

They graduated to a unique citywide Los Angeles Hebrew high school program where students examine Jewish values, study Jewish stereotypes in the media, and are encouraged to learn and lead services; all gifts with a lifetime guarantee.

Gift No. 4: finding him a wife. For anyone who has helped someone find a wife or husband, this is a true gift. Though I don’t plan on finding any of my sons a wife, I have supplied a certain amount of commentary on what religion that wife should be.

What’s my argument? Basically that sharing my life with a Jewish woman has brought compassion and a sense of “shalom bayit,” peacefulness, into my life.

For my kids, only time will tell if this is a gift that will keep on giving.

Gift No. 5: teaching him a trade. Colleges, trade schools and the armed services already do much of the work here. That leaves the Jewish dad with giving his children, I think, the greater gift: teaching them once a week not to punch the clock.

Call the gift “applied slackeristics.” On Shabbat, our kids saw us stop for a day, not answer the phone, and just hang out. The “trade” here is learning to leave time not just for the sayings of the fathers but the mothers, daughters and sons, too.

As for that last item — teaching them how to swim — a JCC swimming instructor performed those duties.

As for me, the Jewish dad, swimming against the cultural tide — I’m still taking lessons.

ˆ

Dad’s drive

My father, Milt Freudenheim, retired a couple of weeks ago from a job that he couldn’t let go of. Despite the fact that he is 81, he said he still plans to
go on working for as long as he’s able.

I bring this up not only because it’s Father’s Day this weekend, and I feel that anyone who works for 60 years in the same profession probably deserves more than a gold watch (he didn’t get one, actually), but also because I have followed in my father’s footsteps in ways that seem to exemplify all that is Jewish in our family — caring about the world, a need to prove oneself and, of course, guilt.

My dad is a journalist, too. For the past 29 years, his byline ran in The New York Times, mostly on articles covering the intersection of business and health care. Before that, he was a national and foreign correspondent for 25 years for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and he also wrote for several other smaller papers across the country. When he left The Times, he was, we think, the oldest person working there, and on his last Sunday on the job, he had a byline on the lead story on the front page of the paper. I was proud; his response: “I guess I don’t have to please them anymore.”

It’s that perpetual striving to please that stops me in my tracks.

Dad has always been reaching — not just to satisfy himself, but also to prove himself to the big guys, the great newspaper people in his head who might, somehow, in their wisdom, someday give him their blessing of approval. I have often thought it odd that one would want to stay in the game — any game — so long. That as he got older and his colleagues younger (isn’t that the most disconcerting aspect of aging?) — he should continue to worry whether he could reach the top of the heap. But Dad loves his work; he loves digging around for stories. He loves the potential of unearthing wrongs and of defending the little guy. He’s an old-school investigative reporter with a Rolodex (remember those?) to die for and a tenacity that is matched only by the best of them.

He’s also driven by that funny kind of unsettled feeling that he’ll never do quite enough, that the powers that be might require one more insight before they’ll let him rest. I don’t know whether this kind of self-questioning is justified in his case(I suspect not), but it does seem peculiar to the Jewish character, or at least it’s common among many of the Jews I know.

We’ve got 613 commandments to keep track of, the Torah tells us, and we can all think of a whole lot more we need to do to please everyone else (and ourselves). Although my father is a mostly secular guy, he’s got that particular bug that keeps him always working harder. And, for those of us who are in his sphere, it’s a trait that is both lovable and very annoying.

There’s never been a Sunday when he wouldn’t take a call from “the paper.” There’s never been a morning when he didn’t rush out to read “the paper.” There’s never been a day when I didn’t know that his love was divided between his family — including first my sweet and undemanding late mother, and now my similarly driven and much beloved journalist stepmother, art critic Grace Glueck — and “the paper.”

The nobility of Dad’s calling was never in question when my three siblings and I were growing up. In those days — the 1950s and ’60s — journalists were not seen as “the media,” with all the negatives that implies today. The authority of solid reporting generally went unquestioned, and the lofty goals of the crusty typewriter-toting newspapermen (and women), as they called themselves, were seen as a high calling. I’m sure there were lapses in the field — power plays, inappropriate moves, just like today — but my father was always enormously principled and was willing to earn less money than many of our more business-minded neighbors just for the pleasure of interviewing some of the greatest people of his day.

I followed him into his trade, through different channels — as an editor (the enemy, in his eyes), at the competition (for many years, the Los Angeles Times) and in the arts (soft!), and since coming to The Jewish Journal, my taste in writing for a small community (relatively) that I can address in a very direct way has grown, where he’s looked for the big impact that perhaps only The Times and very few other newspapers can hope for. But from him I’ve learned never to willingly settle for less than the best — deadlines permitting — and never to trust only one authority.

I’ve learned that revelations in the press, small and large, can change the world. That one person’s willingness to listen to other people’s concerns — and then share those concerns — can affect how we all live. Dad’s dedication to unearthing bad business practices in the health care industry has, I know, affected national policy on some level, if only to remind the powerful that they are accountable.

I went back East for his retirement lunch and listened to his colleagues laud and cajole him a bit, and then listened more as he told his own war stories about meeting the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and others decades ago. It’s hard to imagine the time span that such stories transcend, but the pleasure he got in talking about those highlights was shared by his many friends.

For me, Dad remains an inspiration: Never to rest on my laurels. Never to imagine that the job is completely done. Never to lose the curiosity to ask more questions, to wonder who, what, when, where and how something came about.

But I also have earned my own bit of wisdom that didn’t come from Dad. I’d like to see my octogenarian father feel comfortable that, even if he wants to go on writing — and we know he will do it — that the powers-that-be, if not some Power even higher than that, already are looking down on him and saying, “Good job, Milt. Enjoy your retirement.”

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

The figurative father

Every year, as the third Sunday in June approaches, it happens: along with the ads for neckties and iPods come the endless conversations on single-mom blogsand parenting sites about what to do on Father’s Day with kids like mine who don’t have fathers. One mom wanted to honor her daughter’s anonymous sperm donor with a “family picnic” comprised of half-siblings also conceived from that donor — a sort of thanks for the DNA, if not the memories. Other suggestions ranged from volunteering at a soup kitchen (you don’t have a dad, but at least you have clam chowder) to going on a camping trip (you don’t have a dad, but at least your mom kills spiders).

This year, though, the whole discussion bores me. Because after raising a kid on my own for the past two and a half years, now I have a man in my life. And this has made handling Father’s Day without a father feel like small potatoes compared to handling the other 364 days of the year with one.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve wanted, even craved, a male presence in our family. In fact, as soon as I found out I was having a boy, the first thing that occurred to me was, how could I teach him to be a man if I’m a woman? I know it sounds silly — as one friend pointed out, you don’t need to have cancer to be an oncologist. But an oncologist thoroughly understands carcinomas. I, on the other hand, never quite understood the male species. If I understood men better, I told my friend, I’d probably be living with one more than 20 inches tall.

Even worse, after Zachary was born, I noticed that I couldn’t fill in my knowledge gaps with Google. Sure, I could easily learn what an excavator truck looks like, but I did not find information on whether wielding a blow drier as a surrogate penis to help show a flummoxed toddler how to urinate while standing would result in his college fund being diverted into a therapy fund. Nor was Google helpful on the subject of what to do when your 1-year-old calls his female nanny “Daddy.”

Meanwhile, the fathers I knew seemed loving, involved and willing (if not proud) to carry a Diaper Dude bag — despite my married friends’ complaints about their husbands not helping with the kids enough, or doing things “wrong.” I don’t know all the details, because just like their husbands, I’d completely tune them out the second I’d hear a whiney tone of voice that began with, “Can you believe he…?”

I didn’t get it: What could possibly be so bad about a “he” who changed diapers and walked around wearing a Baby Bjorn?

I imagined it must be nothing short of fabulous.

Then, six months later, I found out. Or, rather, I got a boyfriend, and he and Zachary hit it off in a testosterone-fueled love-fest. Suddenly, there was a father figure around, and let me tell you, be careful what you wish for. Oh, sure, it was fabulous — at first. While I got an extra hour of sleep in the morning, my boyfriend would dunk Zachary in the hamper, “fly” him around the house and “read” the newspaper to him at breakfast. On weekends, he’d kick a soccer ball with him at the park or shoot baskets with him in the yard. Mostly, though, Zachary would chortle and yell, “Again!” while my boyfriend tossed him up and down, side to side, and in dizzying circles.

But the more involved in our lives my boyfriend became, the more I discovered definite downsides to having a dad-like presence around. To my surprise, unlike the mythical fathers I’d conjured in my mind, my boyfriend wasn’t, shall we say, on the same page with my parenting style. My boyfriend, who boxes at the gym and talked about teaching Zachary one day, didn’t understand why I felt boxing was too violent (Me: “How can you not understand the difference between boxing and karate?”) and he, in turn, didn’t understand why I’d exclaim, “Good job!” whenever Zachary made the slightest move (Boyfriend: “What does ‘good talking’ even mean? What’s ‘bad talking’ — silence?”).

When Zachary asked why he couldn’t stand in front of the microwave, I was taken aback when my boyfriend said matter-of-factly, “Because you’ll get cancer” — leaving me to explain what the heck cancer is — instead of just saying, “Because microwaves aren’t safe.” (Cancer, in case you’re wondering, is “a really bad cold.”) As I told my boyfriend later, not only did I think rampant cell division was beyond the typical toddler’s comprehension level, but I wondered why we couldn’t keep the world a safe place for his tender young soul.

“But if we’re not honest with him,” my boyfriend said, “how is he ever going to trust us?”

Us?

Wow. When I was single, there was no “us.” With just a “me,” I had the luxury of raising my child my way, without third-party interference. Now, everything had changed. Unlike bumbling sitcom dads, who are annoying but innocuous, my boyfriend wanted to be an equal, adult partner. Which sounded great in theory, but in practice, it meant that while he’d be acquiring some of my more unpleasant responsibilities (like running out to buy Pedialyte at midnight), he’d also be taking away some of my more pleasurable ones (like having final say in the gazillions of daily issues that arise).

Juice or water? TV or no TV? Time-outs or no time-outs? Private school or public school? Now, instead of dismissing my married friends’ gripes about their husbands, I totally sympathized.

“Can you believe he…” they’d say, and I’d answer with a raucous and supportive, “Ugh! How frustrating!”

But unlike them, I’m done complaining. I’ve wanted a guy around for a long time. It’s just that it’s been a little like trading in one set of problems for another.

Meanwhile, I still don’t know what we’re doing on Father’s Day. Maybe we’ll just go iPod shopping and call it a day. Or maybe I’ll let my boyfriend decide what to do.

Now that’s a gift he’ll appreciate.

Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and she is currently writing a book based on her recent Atlantic piece, “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

Kids Page

Aaron and the Almond

Moses’ brother Aaron, our first high priest, had a staff. One day, it grew almond flowers and fruit. It was God’s way of showing the Israelites that Aaron was personally chosen by God to be their spiritual leader. He became like a father to the Israelites. Almond in Hebrew is shaked, which also means diligent and fast. Aaron was very fast at one particular thing — stopping arguments and bringing love back to people who were angry.
Find the Aaron who lives inside you. Use him this summer when you are at camp, or meeting new people on vacation. Greet friends with a smile and with affection — and it will come back to you really fast.

Present Time

What You Need:
1. Plain white paper
2. Pair of white boxer shorts that will fit Dad
or Grandpa
3. Fabric crayons (these are special crayons labeled
for fabric)
4. Iron
5. Hard flat surface (such
as a countertop)
6. Scissors

How To Make It:
1. Draw a picture or design on the white paper.
2. Cut around the picture once it is complete. If you need to, darken in some of the lighter areas of the drawing so that it will transfer well.
3. Have Mom (or another grown-up) iron the design onto the shorts according to the instructions on the back of the package of crayons.
4. Wrap it up and give to someone special.

Father’s Day, Hooray!

Fill in the blanks to learn the history of Father’s Day:
birthday, June, Spokane, 1910, honor, five, Mother’s.

Sonora Louise Smart Dodd lived in _________, Wash.
After her mother died, her father raised her and her _______ siblings.
One day, in 1909, while listening to a sermon about _________ Day, she decided that she must create a day to _______ fathers.
She chose ________ 19, because it was her father’s _________. She gained national support and Father’s day was first celebrated in ______.

The Salesman

A few months ago, I asked my father, now happily retired, what profession he would choose if he were starting over again.

"Oh, I’d do the same thing," Dad said. "I’d be a salesman."

"A salesman?"

"Yes. I’m good at it."

It’s Father’s Day, and I am so glad that Dad is around to read this: Dad, I had you wrong.

Do we ever really know our parents? Even if we’re giving their lives close scrutiny, can we understand the choices they made? Maybe no better than our children understand us.

I was certain my father regretted the limitations of his options that landed him selling industrial supplies, before starting his own small business catering to the booming Long Island aviation industry.

Where did I get that idea? He made more than a decent living, bought a home, and had the satisfaction of leaving a business someone wanted to buy.

Yet, he did give a certain impression. Some of it was his own griping each evening at dinner, sharing with my mother about the late-paying clients and the late-arriving employees. Right up to the day they sold the business, he had a word to sum up his rounds of calls and billing: "aggravation."

From a child’s view, adult life seemed so hard. I could measure his fatigue by the metal click of the key in the door each night, announcing he had come home. I heard the pounding of his shoes, ka-clump, ka-clump, ka-clump. He climbed 12 stairs, each footfall heavier than the next. Had he worked in a mine, he’d have been as weary.

I waited for his ascent in the living room, sitting on the couch in front of the green, wooden fish tank my father had designed and constructed with saw and paint. The fish tank revealed everything in Dad that selling did not: patience, tenderness and love. He never got angry when the fish died, or when the filter clogged, even if it was because I overfed them. He let me open the top of the tank, scoop out the latest victim. Then I opened the plastic bag and sent the new, fresh mollies, guppies and angel fish to swim free.

This was the world my father should be in, I thought. My mother liked working in insurance. But my father was an artist; he should be making fish tanks for a waiting world.

Little did I know that Dad had his own ideas about what life could offer. He had long ago made his peace with "aggravation" and the cost of making the most of one’s opportunities. And he, to my amazement, didn’t seem to mind.

I am at that age now — daughter left home, parents retired — where the last word has been said. Whatever attitudes toward work a parent can give a child, it’s well been expressed. I ask myself now, what will she make of my advice?

Stick around and see, is the best answer that life provides.

Parents have only so much influence. The world takes care of the rest.

One night in 1966, my family gathered in the playroom to watch Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" on television. We sat on the couch, silently. For more than two hours, we did not move. I thought I saw my life go by.

In my memory, it was as historic event as the assassination of JFK. Lee J. Cobb played the tragic Willie Loman, being laid off after 34 years in sales. Mildred Dunnock played his wife, Linda. Biff and Happy might have been played by my brother, Alan, and me. We were so caught up in the struggle of the Lomans it was as if all of America was watching us.

That was when it came together, my father’s profession and my American legacy.

In some Jewish homes, "Salesman" is more than a Broadway classic — it is a family saga, played out in our dining rooms and in our hearts. The play captured the economic euphoria of the postwar expansion and the anxiety that growth was somehow based on sand. I read somewhere that during the postwar decades, ‘salesman’ was America’s No. 1 non-agricultural and non-industrial job description. Here was Miller telling America, attention must be paid.

A playwright oversold the salesman’s tragedy. It’s taken me years to get the point. There is book-smart, and there is street-smart, my dad tried to teach me. One tells a story. The other lives a life.

Dog Days of Summer

This year, Father’s Day is time for hyper-fast food, as Nathan’s Famous hot dogs hosts the second annual Los Angeles Hot Dog Eating Contest on June 16. The winner goes on to the big dance: the world championship Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating contest, July 4 at Coney Island.

Last year’s Los Angeles winner scarfed down 22 dogs in 12 minutes, so start noshing if you want to be in competitive eating shape in time. The record in this event belongs to worldwide champion eater Takeru Kobayashi, who shattered the old record of 25 hot dogs at last year’s contest, when he put away 50.

Nathan’s Pico Boulevard location is one of only three Glatt Kosher Nathan’s (the others are in Israel and Brooklyn, N.Y.). Owner Barry Syntner promises that if the L.A. winner needs kosher dogs for the Coney Island championship, kosher dogs he shall have.

A word of warning, though. When you sign up, you must promise not to sue Nathan’s, the International Federation of Competitive Eating or "their respective owners, directors, officers, agents, attorneys, employees, fiduciaries, parents, subsidiaries, divisions, partners, joint ventures, affiliated business entities, predecessors, successors, heirs and assigns, jointly and severally."

In other words, if your belly aches after 20-plus dogs in 12 minutes, you have no one — no one — to blame but yourself.

Pick up an application at Nathan’s, 9216 W. Pico Blvd., or apply online at www.nathansfamous.com

Dad Speaks Out

My Dad is hard to shop for. Whatever gift we come up with is usually met with the phrase “You kids shouldn’t have spent the money,” followed by “Is this returnable?” In honor of Father’s Day next week, I thought I’d give him about 800 words to say whatever he wants. What follows is what he wrote.

Teresa Strasser

I used to denigrate those men who began new families in their 50’s. Lo and behold, at 57, I became a father again. Did I have the stamina to be dad a third time? After all, Teresa and Morgan, the first two, had set impossibly high standards. But Teddy was irresistible.

True, he wasn’t perfect: his ear and cheek were wounded, and he had one bad eye. We had to return Teddy, who, by the way, is an opossum — one that had apparently just met up with a dog.

That night we put Teddy outside the front door. In the morning, he was still there, making weird sounds, pathetic and helpless. We brought him in and got on the Internet to discover possum facts:

  • They are the only marsupials in North America.

  • They eat everything from fruit to rats to dog food.

  • They cleanse the garden of snails and slugs.

  • They are nature’s garbage disposal.

  • They have been around for at least 70 million years.

    We learned that Teddy must get formula through a dropper, every four hours, or he would not survive.

    Teddy did survive.

    He lay in his box for a few days, weak and near death. Then, one night, he escaped from his cardboard box and began to circumnavigate my bedroom. Using the fingers on his little paws, he grabbed the spokes on my bicycle, hoisted himself up the chain, and then tightroped to the end of the chain, before he fell to the ground. The little daredevil had a touch of the klutz.

    He finally made it to the top of the wastebasket, leaned his front paws against my bed, and climbed up. He slept with me the next several days, waking up to make his rounds about my room. He ended his foray by climbing over my head and then snuggling under the comforter for the evening.

    One evening, I woke up with a shock. Teddy was nibbling on my ear. Startled, I moved him to the other side of the bed and wondered: Should I have named him Tyson?

    I so loved fawning over this little guy. I loved nurturing him. But these good times were always shadowed by a vague, unsettling feeling, and that feeling came into focus with the words of my stepson, Aaron: “Dad, let Teddy be a possum.”

    So we found a possum-rescue person only a mile away from our house. We brought Teddy to Sharon. Sharon would prepare Teddy for his ultimate release in the wild.

    I knew I had done what was best for Teddy, but it was still heartbreaking to leave Teddy in the hands of a stranger, knowing that I would never see him again.

    The experience with Teddy evoked those sweet memories of early fatherhood. One of those memories was the Father’s Day poem Teresa wrote for me when she was just 5. And the day Morgan, age 11, playing in Little League majors, “touched them all.”

    So why would a man so blessed bemoan the loss of the love of a rat?

    I could pick him up and kiss him on the nose and just generally kvell over him shamelessly. That is how it was with the kids when they were young.

    Things are different now. The nurturing has been done. The kids are now friends. Sometimes they ask for advice. Sometimes I even ask them for advice.

    The great times continue when we get together, sharing a bottle of Hennessy, some good cigars, and conversation that lasts long into the night. Movies, sports, philosophy, career, gossip — all the fun topics. And we almost always find bagels and a gym on mornings when we get together, wherever we are.

    Still, I miss Teddy.

  • Dear Dad

    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

    Dear Dad,

    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.

    Love, Steve.


    Rabbi Steven Z. Leder has served Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 1986.

    The Family Man

    The restaurant billboard advertised its Father’s Day brunch in letters too large to miss.

    “If I had a father, we could take him out to eat,” my daughter, Samantha, said, as we drove by.

    Samantha’s voice held no accusation; she was entirely matter of fact. But I took it personally anyway; her words signaled that my severed ties with Jim could hurt her as well.

    I squirmed helplessly. I can squirrel and save for her hiking boots, singing lessons, the dress for the family party; I’d move the world for my girl. But there’s nothing I can do about getting her a dad.

    My friends get angry with me when I turn on myself.

    “So what,” says Nessa, her voice growing tight. “So you couldn’t get her a dad. She had her own dad, and she’ll remember him.”

    And Arlyne, newly single, gets practically frantic at my self-castigation.

    “Listen,” she says as we sip our lattes, “I can’t stand it when a guy uses my children to get to me.”

    If that’s what happened, I was a willing co-conspirator.

    It is true and can be said without a trace of shame: No mother can resist a family man. I loved the man who loved my daughter. I couldn’t help it.

    I had relegated Father’s Day to the ranks of unobserved customs, like Christmas or Chinese New Year, one that others might honor with full regalia but that we, in our family, spent at the movies or otherwise ignored.

    And then came Jim. Whatever a dad could mean, he was it.

    Last Father’s Day, Samantha and I took Jim to the Getty Museum and then out to dinner. We each felt audacious, risky. Jim had never been a dad. Samantha hadn’t had a dad in a long time. And, after so many years going solo, I no longer knew what a dad to my daughter might be.

    “You’re not my father, and you never will be!” Samantha screamed at him outside the Getty parking garage.

    “You’re right,” Jim said. He didn’t want to be her father, full of fearsome duty and overweening expectation. But being her dad — authoritative, respecting, care-giving in a benign sort of way — this was something he might be able to do well. He assisted with her homework, discussed her music, attended her concerts and singing lessons. He bought her a guitar. There was no “we” without her; wherever Jim and I went, Samantha was expressly invited to come.

    “Don’t you two want to spend more time alone?” she asked. “Don’t you need some personal space, some private time together?”

    If only we’d listened.

    Our three-way connection seemed preordained, like a trinomial equation set into motion long ago; he was the kind of man I’d promised Samantha years before, one who could love us both.

    At the Getty, Jim showed Samantha the red figures painted on black fragments of Greek urns, the remnants of a great civilization that had come and gone. At dinner, he let her taste his wine. I watched them from my side of the triangle and felt myself begin to breathe. We were a threesome; the number three, in Hebrew, is gimel, meaning full and ripe.

    He was among the few “dads” to attend the high school parent meetings. He knew the dean, the music coach and her instructors by sight. He e-mailed the math teacher on her behalf, arguing that Samantha understood more algebra than her grades indicated. Sometimes, he spoke for me. Samantha judged her success by his approval and was crushed by his criticism. He was a dad in every way.

    We were a family, but not a couple, and that’s why we hung on so long.

    Now comes the sad part. The end.

    When love fades, is it God’s error? Our own fault? Or just a fact of life?

    I give the three of us this much: We meant it for good. Jim loved being a dad. Samantha loved having a dad. He loved being part of “us.” She loved having a larger “us.” And, among everything else, I loved saying, “Table for three.”

    Even when things grew bad between Jim and me as man and woman, when our conversations became increasingly about Samantha and less about ourselves, as a dad, he kept at it. Up to the last minute, he judged her party dress for appropriateness, escorted her to family dinners, and gave her guidance on hiking gear; Samantha was still telling her friends about going to the movies with her “parents,” taking great pleasure in an extra “s.” She didn’t lose faith.

    “I only want what makes you happy,” Samantha said.

    “But Jim…” I started to say.

    “I’ll get over it,” she said. “I’m stronger than you think.”

    But what about me?


    Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com.

    All rights reserved by author

    Families, Then and Now

    Joel Grishaver.

    The Bible is rich in stories of passion, plagues, miracles and betrayals, but what about good parenting?

    “In truth, there is no good fathering in the Bible,” said author and Jewish educator Joel Grishaver.

    Grishaver, who was asked by the Skirball Cultural Center to create a Father’s Day workshop centered around the topic, said that in the Bible, “the focus is much more on husbands and wives, or the relationships among brothers. Childhood is not the focus. People go from birth to adulthood in one sentence.”

    So, instead, Grishaver, the creative director of Torah Aura Productions and a popular speaker on the family-education circuit, has created “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages.” The June 15 workshop will be a lively and provocative mix of role-playing, art, debate, discussion of Jewish texts and, ultimately, an exploration of family issues closer to home.

    Grishaver is an accessible and witty storyteller, adept at weaving traditional Jewish sources into contemporary discussions. In conversation, he illustrates points with references to everything from Rashi to Rod Serling, Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe. His facility with pop culture, combined with an unflagging enthusiasm for Torah study, makes him a provocative discussion leader for second-graders and seniors alike.

    One segment of his Skirball workshop will be a “paper-tear midrash,” a concept first developed by Jo Milgrom. Grishaver presents a story, a midrash that may deal with anger and forgiveness, for example. After discussing any parallels to their own experience, family members then create their own visual midrash, using torn paper as the medium.

    “Tearing the paper is a way to free people from the constraints of worrying about whether they can draw or not,” Grishaver said.

    Another segment will be devoted to what he calls “biblio-drama,” a form of role-playing first developed by Peter Pitzele. To spark discussion, Grishaver will present several stories that highlight the emotions, ethical conflicts and risks faced by biblical parents. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, for example, had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to place their endangered male infant in a basket hidden among the reeds in order to save him. Later, an adult Moses faced the dilemma of whether to bring his family to Egypt or to send them home. Jethro was charged with the task of taking care of his own daughter as well as his grandchildren — Moses’ offspring.

    “With biblio-drama, people voice the feelings of these characters in sort of a self-created midrash, and, obviously, several layers of thought and feeling emerge during discussion,” Grishaver said.

    Another session of the two-hour workshop is “family beit din,” a sort of mock court in which family members are separated and placed into two or three groups that serve as tribunals for cases presented to them by Grishaver. The scenarios are thoroughly modern. The sources he cites are from centuries ago. The essential conflicts are timeless.

    A case in point: Mom and Dad are divorced but have good custody arrangements. Both, however, want the child for an upcoming vacation that each is planning, respectively. The child is asked to choose between them. What to do?

    A similar scenario was pondered by Jewish sages ages ago, Grishaver explained, in the form of this question: Mom and Dad both ask for a glass of water. Who should the child serve first?

    “In the Talmud,” Grishaver said, “the conclusion is drawn that the child should serve Dad, since, anyway, it’s Mom’s obligation to serve Dad too. These were, after all, pre-feminist times.

    “In the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ it’s decided that the child should serve whomever s/he chooses. It’s the 16th-century commentator Marashal who comes up with a pretty enlightened response. The child should put the glass of water on the table and let the parents work it out between them. In essence, Marashal concludes that it’s an unfair question to ask kids. It’s the parents who should decide.”

    The Father’s Day workshop dovetails with the publication of Grishaver’s most recent book, “The Bonding of Isaac,” a collection of short fiction and essays about gender’s connection to spirituality. He described the book’s central theme as an exploration “of the dysfunctional myth of the functional family.” Using Torah as his framework, he makes the case that conflict is organic to family units, not some aberrant sign of failure.

    Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., on Sunday, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s free with museum admission and designed for participants 7 and up. Space is limited to 50 people. Advance registration is recommended. Call (310) 440-4647.

    “The Bonding of Isaac” (Alef Design Group, $21.95) may be ordered by calling (800) 845-0662.