Yizkor – A letter to my father
This is the text of a Yom Kippur sermon Rabbi David Wolpe delivered at Sinai Temple on October 12, 2016.
You've been gone 7 years. I remember when you cursed at me.
I remember because I had never heard you curse, and you only did it once in my life, and it was funny. But I didn't dare laugh.
I was 8th grade and I had misbehaved in class, again. Made too many jokes, or clowned around. The teacher called the house. I was upset because you believed the teacher about my misbehavior. Of course, he was 100% right. You probably knew that.
But I was upset you believed him. And I ran away from home. I had threatened to do it once before, when I was five years old, and told mom that the only reason I wouldn’t was because she would miss me too much. But this time I did, and went and sat in the abandoned house down the block feeling sorry for myself.
I didn’t last that long. I called my best friend from a payphone near the drugstore and he told me you were both frantic and I better get home right away. When I walked in the door as the sky was turning dark, you stood on the stairs furious, and told me I had worried my mother, the unforgivable sin, and acted like an “ass.” But you said it in your elegant Boston accent and I almost laughed. An “ahhss.” I was shocked you used such a word and a laugh almost rose to my lips. But I couldn't laugh because your eyes were blazing.
And I remember the first time I saw you cry. I was twelve and we went on a trip to Israel. It was the first time you had been back since the 67 war, and on every previous trip you had only been able to look at the wall from a distance. Now you walked up to it, touched it and began to cry. Many years later I saw you cry again when mom had her terrible stroke. I'm grateful that the first time I saw you cry was out of love.
I am writing to tell you that everyone you love is doing well. Mom is struggling, and will until the day she joins you, a day she eagerly anticipates, when she will be free again of the shackles of this world. A day when I pray she will once again be able to speak, and move easily, and be the woman she once was. Your oldest granddaughter Ariel got married this past summer to a wonderful young man — there is lots of news, but either you know that or cannot hear it.
Each day I have an experience that lets me understand you better. Sometimes I sit in my office and simply think — this is what you did, for years, and I never really knew. A congregant will come to see me and ask me a question about life, or Judaism, or tell me what they fear or hope and I will know you heard these questions. More than a few of them you heard from me.
Now and then when I speak, I hear your voice coming from me, or through me. In the middle of a sermon, I will suddenly hear you. A word you would have chosen, or the way my voice rises or falls. There you are.
And I remember so many things you said.
Most of your stories my brothers and I heard from you in the pulpit and at the dinner table. You stood before the congregation and we sat with mom playing with her jewelry or when we got older, making knots in the strings of each other's tallis. And you would talk, and everyone would listen, and we would feel so proud that even though you belonged to all of them, you really belonged to us. Now and then you would look down and we would know. And we heard your words, and over the years some of them sank deep into our souls.
If you ask what I miss most about my childhood it isn't the field or the basketball court, it's the dinner table. That's when we would get stories– everyone from Samuel Johnson to Rebbe Nachman to your teachers at the seminary. Just the other day I told someone your story about Alexander Marx and Louis Ginzberg and the elevator. How Ginzberg, whom you and your classmates called “the old man” and you always thought of as the greatest scholar you had ever known, invited Marx for Shabbat. And Marx realized that he lived on an upper floor so he asked Ginzberg if it was permitted to use the elevator on Shabbat and Ginzberg said “no.”
So Marx dutifully trudged up all the many flights of steps only to see Ginzberg stepping out of the elevator. “I thought you said it was not allowed!” exclaimed Marx. “But I didn't ask,” said Ginzberg.
You loved that story. But you loved so many stories, relished them, rolled them around your tongue. One would lead to the next. Having told one story about Ginzberg, you would tell another and another. Like about the time a woman at a party was arguing with him — the greatest midrash scholar in the world– about a rabbinic midrash, a legend in the Talmud. And he asked her if she would accept the Jewish Encyclopedia as an authority to see who was right. She agreed. They pulled the volume off the shelf and when it showed Ginzberg was right, he said, “Yes, that’s what I thought I wrote.”
So many stories. About growing up as an only child with a huge family of cousins and aunts and uncles in Boston. Going to NY at 16 to study. How you started off as a golden gloves boxer and almost got kicked out of the seminary for punching someone who made an anti-Semitic remark in a movie theater. And how Louis Finkelstein, the Chancellor, told you “We don't behave that way here.” But he was a little proud, too. How you were engaged when you met mom and she helped you pick out your fiancee's engagement ring. Mom used to smile very wisely when you told that one.
One thing I knew would happen and could not change is that every day there are things I want to ask you. Sometimes I think I might know the answer but would still like to ask you.
I want to know things about life, now that I am at a different stage and so are the people we both love.
I wonder about your sense of isolation. You were a truly present father, but there was also an inaccessible core that I think developed when your own father died one month before your 11th birthday. As you grew older, did that get harder? Given her stroke and disability, it was not possible for mom to be a full partner; so did you find comfort in the fortress or were you lonely? With each passing year I understand you better and understand you less, because you are not here.
And then there are sudden glimmers. How often since you are gone have I opened a book in my library and discovered your notes or underlining on the pages? It brings me closer to you, although it is agonizing sometimes that I cannot ask — what were you thinking when you wrote this? Why did you read this and did you like it? And now every time I underline a book I wonder as well: will Samara have the same experience one day, open this book and wonder what I was thinking? She's a voracious reader Dad, like both of us, chews and swallows books like bread and loves to talk with me about them. Among my sorrows is that she was not old enough for you to know her well when you left us.
I am glad you lived long enough to see grandchildren and see your sons do well. I remember when Steve turned 13 or 14 and he was uncomfortable that now he was taller than you and what you said to him — Steve, no father is ever upset when his son grows taller than he. I knew you rejoiced in everything we did well and encouraged us when we didn't, sometimes with a stern word or two.
I told my brothers, your boys, that I was writing this letter and asked for anything they remembered that was important to mention. Danny told me that he once found some Playboys in the room of one of his older brothers (which one will go unmentioned) and you walked in on his looking at them. He was pretty young at the time. You said: “Danny, two things. First of all, it's time to wash up for dinner. Second, don't let your Mother see you looking at those.”
I wish I could talk to you about your serenity. You chose to keep your career at a certain pitch and not to grow it. You were Rabbi of a major synagogue and for you that was enough. When they asked you to take national office for the rabbinical assembly you refused, since it meant going to NY and not being home with us for dinner. Dinner — at 5:30 in case you had to go back to shul — was sacrosanct. If for nothing else, you make it into heaven for those dinners.
But I once asked you, are you sorry you didn’t write more, or travel more? And you told me that early on you came to understand your gifts. And you shaped your life so that you could do what you did well and were satisfied with that. You were serene. And you told me you had only one goal in your professional life.
Because when your father passed away, they found uncollected bills and unpaid bills in his dresser drawers. He was a singer, a dancer, a happy man who when he got married was forced by your mother out of show business and into the catering business. In the depression era being a vaudevillian was no security for a family. But he was never cut out for account books. So after his death you heard people in the family talking about him as a failure. A failure — this father whom you loved so deeply. And you told us all that you were resolved that Ben Wolpe’s son would be a success. For him. And you were Dad. You really were.
You tried to help us be successful. Once you wrote us a letter saying the most important quality to success was stamina. You had to do it again tomorrow, and the day after that. And I remember once, in high school when I was a tournament chessplayer, you told me I’d never be an outstanding player.
I was upset and resentful – you didn’t even play chess. And you said something I never forgot. “No” you said, “I don’t play chess. But I am certain that in chess, as in everything else in this world that one can master, there is a part that you just have to learn that is demanding and not fun. And you have the habit of only doing what comes easily to you. Without application to the hard things, you will be good at many things, but you won’t be outstanding at anything.”
You were so right, and so wise. And I never forgot. It was then I started keeping notebooks of words and definitions and quotations to learn more. Because I heard your voice in my head.
All of us miss your voice. At your funeral everyone who spoke about you talked about your voice, its beauty, its tone, the magic you had with a person or a crowd. It is no wonder that when you began in the rabbinate there was a successful lawyer in Charleston, where you started, who offered to put you through law school just to plead his cases to the jury. That is why when the time came for us to put something on your gravestone the choice was clear — “He was the voice of his people.” You were. For me and for many others, you still are.
Of course I wonder where you are, if you are. A few years before your death you and I took a walk along the river in Philadelphia. I reminded you of the first death I had ever experienced, when I was 5 or 6, my aunt Bessie. How I cried and you told me that often, when people cry they are not crying for those who are dead, but crying for themselves, because we miss the people we love.
And I asked you, do you believe in a life after death? And you told me there, as we looked out over the river, that you did not believe that people disappear. That you had faith that something in us was eternal and survived.
I believe that too, Dad.
And I think of a moment years ago, when we were little. We had rented a beach house on the Jersey shore and we were all lying on the floor, reading, playing games. And you looked at all of us and said, “they say when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. This is the moment I want to see.”
I hope you saw that moment.
I think about you every day. The twinkle you had, the teddy bear quality of warmth that was so embracing, the astonishing memory that held more historical facts, nuggets, routes, battles and personalities than anyone I have ever known. How fiercely you cared for mom after her stroke, becoming for years a caretaker of genuinely saintly devotion. How when I called you from California to say I decided to go to rabbinical school, I heard you cry over the phone.
When you were a boy and your father died you told me how your mother used to sit and look out over widows walk, the pier near Boston harbor where so many waited for sailors who never came home. And you both knew that your father was never coming home again.
Thank God, we had you for much longer. But it still hurts that you are never coming home again. That I won't hold you, or hear you, or smell you, or feel your arms around me. You were a wonderful father and a wonderful human being. Just yesterday Paul sent all of us a fragment of a diary you had written to us when you were a Rabbi in Harrisburg, younger then than I am now. Danny had not yet been born. You say that you wrote it out of the hope that when in the lives of your children, “the challenge does appear, I like to think that there is the influence of their father's written word if not the actual sound.”
Yes, the sound too is there, it is here. You taught us Torah, you taught us life, you told us stories, you listened to our stories. You took each of us to our first baseball game and we took you, each of us, to your last resting place.
I heard you speak so many times on Yom Kippur growing up. On this Yom Kippur, my beloved father, I speak to you. For you gave me more than just life. You showed me the way, and gave me the words.
May your memory continue to be a blessing.
David Wolpe is The Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple