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Remembering My Father’s Pain, and Joy

This week I will light the 31st yahrzeit candle for Dad. As the years go by, I remember him less for his emotional pain and more for his special qualities.
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July 3, 2024
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My father was big-hearted, laughed loudly at his own jokes, and was crazy in love with my mother from the day he first met her when she was 16 until his dying day 48 years later. He was a UCLA Bruins basketball fan zealous enough to follow the team on the road during their championship seasons during the late 1960s. But my older brother’s death at 17 from a car accident broke him emotionally.  

Born with a near total hearing loss, my father, Jack Rosenfeld, also struggled to make a living. He came of age decades before computers revolutionized our lives and before society found ways to include the disabled. His old-fashioned hearing aids dangled skinny cords from his earpieces to battery packs in his shirt pockets. The hearing aids often whistled loudly, which everyone could hear — except Dad.

As his daughter, I learned patience. I had to look directly at him when speaking, a beat slower and slightly louder than normal. I learned to love mysteries, too, because his favorite TV shows were “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote.” In our very small house, everybody else got to hear the shows too, whether we wanted to or not. I loved Columbo, too, so I didn’t mind.    

The death of my brother, Allan, engulfed my father in grief, a grief that sometimes erupted in explosive anger. His anger frightened me — a 9-year-old child — especially as I was often alone in the house with him while my mother was out. I’d wait in another room for the episode to pass, but sometimes I felt I had no choice but to try to calm him down. I looked up at my tragically sad father and spoke to him as calmly as possible. 

This personal history makes me a bit impatient when people use their own family dysfunction as an excuse for not achieving certain life goals or succeeding in relationships. Whose family is trouble- or trauma-free? We need to process pain, but often, the parents we blame most often may never have had a chance to heal their own emotional wounds. We are responsible for our own lives.     

I knew my dad loved me, as well as my sister and our mom, which made it easy for me not to judge him. His unstable employment, and inability to hear so much of what was happening around him, must have added to his frustrations. 

After Allan died, my dad refused to set foot in a shul except for special occasions, such as bar or bat mitzvahs and weddings. But he mellowed over time. Dad never uttered a word against my choice to become Torah observant when I married Jeff. He graciously accepted our having an Orthodox wedding (and paying for half of it) and our new, religious lifestyle. In fact, I was stunned — and admittedly alarmed — when Dad asked for everyone’s attention during the Kiddush at our shul in Venice, the Shabbat after our wedding. It was unprecedented for Dad to ask to speak publicly. What in the world was he going to say? 

I stood next to Jeff, holding his hand and my breath. I listened in awe as my father, who had spent years being angry at God, expressed heartfelt admiration for our community, a group of Orthodox Jews he had never met before, but who had celebrated his younger daughter’s wedding with unbridled joy. I was moved to tears. After he finished, the men gathered around to shake his hand, embrace him, and offer hearty mazal tovs. I treasure this memory of seeing my father filled with happiness. 

This week I will light the 31st yahrzeit candle for Dad. As the years go by, I remember him less for his emotional pain and more for his special qualities: The scrupulous honesty that led him to always count the change the waitress brought to the table, returning as little as ten cents if he found an error had been made in his favor. He was inadvertently funny, not understanding that you didn’t ask the hostess of the party you were attending, “Your hairstyle is so becoming. Is that a wig?” At moments like that, Mom wanted to fall through the floor. He often took me with him to visit an old friend of his who was paralyzed and could not leave the house. 

Touchingly, he’d plan my mother’s surprise birthday party — every single New Year’s Eve. It was hilarious hearing him shout on the phone to Mom’s friends about the party, friends who waited for the annual call with the party details and warning them, “Remember not to tell Libby! It’s a surprise!” Every year the friends played along, and every year my mom would act surprised. 

When Dad was losing his fight with cancer, he tapped into a spiritual reservoir and emotional calm I never knew he had. Privately, he urged me to encourage Mom to remarry, and gave me the list of pallbearers he wanted. He spoke of these things philosophically, with no self-pity or tears. I had not known he had this inner strength, and it moved me.

When Dad was losing his fight with cancer, he tapped into a spiritual reservoir and emotional calm I never knew he had. I had not known he had this inner strength.

One day as my mom and I sat at his hospital bedside, he predicted that I would soon have a daughter. He even had names picked out! This was remarkable, because the youngest of our three sons had just turned one year old and Dad had directly questioned our family’s rapid expansion. But he really must have known something I didn’t know, because exactly 48 hours before I got the call saying he had passed, I learned I was pregnant. The little girl he had prophesied arrived on time nine months later. We didn’t name her Muriel, though. (Sorry, Dad.)

Today, I believe that up in heaven Dad has peace and contentment. He’s long been reunited with my beautiful mother. They have six grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, three of whom carry the name Yaakov or Jacob, keeping his memory alive. 

May the memory of Yaakov ben Herbert have an aliya.


Judy Gruen is the author of “Bylines and Blessings,” “The Skeptic and the Rabbi,” and several other books. She is also a book editor and writing coach. 

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