Sunday, June 17, 2007

My Father

My father is gentle.

Father's Day cards say that my father is not exciting enough. He is supposed to play ball all the time, to be my coach, to work very hard at sports, to enjoy sweating and manliness and the great outdoors. Fathers are supposed to work and sweat and grunt, lifting very heavy loads and planting gardens and otherwise engaging with dirt and mud. They are supposed to be gruff and uncommunicative and hard to talk to, utterly unable to understand their daughters. Glued to the television, flipping through channels and fighting for the remote, fathers need to like raunchy jokes and stupid laughs to be considered masculine. Oh, and for good measure, they should be addicted to beer.

That's not my father.

My father is a gentle, sensitive, compassionate man, the kind of man who inspires confidences. He is a man who listens actively and attentively, a man who was informed that he would make a very good psychologist. Not only does he listen, but he cares. He is a man who understands the value of trust.

The son of Holocaust survivors, my father did not have an easy childhood. My grandfather was a bitter and angry man. He believed in discipline, sometimes in a manner that was too stern, too harsh, a kind where affection was not freely displayed. He raised his children to respect education, to work hard and make something of themselves. As survivors, my grandparents knew that education was the only thing that truly mattered. No one can take one's education away. You can degrade, hurt and otherwise harm a person, but he retains his knowledge; his mind can be his own. My grandfather was a hardworking, strong man who put his family above himself, who provided them with a house, clothing and food to eat even when he himself could not afford to buy new clothes. He was reliable and dependable. But he was not warm, not the kind of man to freely dispense kisses or hugs, to play with his children, to listen to their thoughts and feelings and deepest concerns.

The black sheep of the family, my father pushed for a full-fledged Jewish education. He wanted to learn, thirsted for texts, for Judaism, for more than the secular. Hebrew school did not fulfill that need. After third grade, he convinced his parents to send him to a Jewish day school. He was the eighth-grade valedictorian at that school. My father then chose to go to a yeshiva rather than the prestigious Magnet schools his brothers had attended. He studied, he learned, he applied himself, and he became one of the top scholars in the class. Declining to follow in his brothers' footsteps, my father did not become a physician. Instead, he attended YU, majored in chemistry and later received his masters in computer science. Today, he holds an important position at a Fortune 500 company.

My father hates labels. At his Jewish day school, he was commonly referred to as a "genius." The problem with the word "genius," to his point of view, is the excuse it provides to others. "Oh, he's a genius," they can think. "He was born that way. We can't live up to him." My father firmly disagreed with this idea. He was not, to his mind, a genius, nor was he brilliant. He was simply someone who worked very hard, a very diligent, very studious person. He believed that if he studied and worked hard enough, he would succeed. And he has.

He once wrote:

    I transferred to a private school in 4th grade. I soon learned I was ‘the smartest’ in the class. “No, I’m one of the smartest”, I pleaded, to no avail. This frustrated me. In public school, even in the primary grades, we were considerate of each other’s feelings, careful not to label one another. We were all one of the smartest. But now in a new environment, I was a freak. Why the need to label?

    I soon learned to dodge labels.

    In my private college, people labeled you by your activities. I remember a senior student theorizing at dinner about the type of people who participated in the upcoming production, “The Grand Tour”. They did not meet his standards. Well, I seemed to him like a sincere young man, a student who spent most of my spare time in the study hall. I looked at him, and told him I was part of the upcoming production, playing violin. I felt this was a good balance to my studies. He was speechless. I defied his label.
My father has always defied labels.

My father's outlook is characterized by a zeal and quest to learn. He learns from everyone. There is no person who is too humble or too low, no one whom he dismisses or sees as less important than himself. He is a man who truly respects and loves other people. He listens to them, is interested by their life experiences, and looks at them as potential teachers. He sees the good in others. Many times, when I have been frustrated and angrily asserted that certain people were fools or idiots, he has gently corrected me. He does not correct me by simply contradicting me; he leads me on a pattern of thought until I reach the conclusion he desires to show me.

My father sees each person as unique, an individual who must be respected and understood for their own particular strengths. He prefers people who are out of the box, individuals who are able to think creatively and who prefer to advance solutions rather than merely state and restate the problems. My father is an excellent problem-solver; he is very good at math. He is very analytical, very good at understanding situations. He is also very patient. It is his patience that constantly surprises me. I do not understand how he is able to be so patient with people who take up his time, repeat themselves and must bore him. But he is always courteous, always polite. He sees people for what is good in them, not what is flawed.

My father is respected by our community. He is the Ba'al Korei at the shul we attend and has been since the time I was very little. I remember that I proudly thought of myself as "The Ba'al Korei's Daughter." It was a title, an honor, a privilege that I had that no one else could claim. It was my father who was able to read from the Torah, my father who would have me test him to see if he knew the leining, my father who always wanted my feedback and smiling, asked me whether I had caught any mistakes. My father has never treated me as anything but an adult. As children, our parents addressed us as legitimate human beings, addressing our needs and thoughts and grievances in a manner that did not hint at being condescending. My father has always seen what I have to say as important and has never dismissed any of my thoughts. It does not matter whether I was telling him about my day at kindergarten or a new and original thought that I had come up with; my father had time for me and was always interested in what I had to say.

My father is honest. He radiates honesty; one can look at him and see that he is an honest man. This is a quality that was taught him by his father, an accountant. My grandfather saw many Rabbis who cheated on their taxes, who stole from the government and professed themselves to be holy people. He was disgusted by this, would tell my father, "These Rabbis you respect? Look at them! Look what they do!" My father did not know what to do; he needed to find a role model, a person who was honest and trustworthy and religious. He did eventually find such a person and resolved to be one himself. My father is scrupulously honest. Cheating on his taxes is the least of it. If my father finds that he received more change than he deserved from a cashier, he will go back to the store to return the money. He does not do anything other than his work while he is being paid to work; he does not check his email, browse the web or in any way deviate from his responsibilities. He does not use company appliances for his own personal use; he will not print a paper that he wants to read off of a company printer, even if it is only one page.

My father considers trust to be the most important quality in any relationship. Trust must develop over time; it is the fragile bond that grows and becomes strong. He is very careful with his words; he is very particular about what he says. He never promises to do something. He never lied to us as children. My father would not even make joking remarks that would mislead a child. He takes trust very seriously; he would never give his children reason not to trust him. If they believed that he had lied to them, mislead them, mocked them or otherwise hurt them, they would have had that reason.

My father tells the truth.

My father has always told the truth. He and my mother present a united front; they do not lie. I remember coming home from a sleepover in sixth grade, which is when I found out about sex. I found out about sex, strippers and lots more from my worldly classmates. Confused and conflicted, I came home and sat down with both of my parents. "This is what they told me," I presented. "What does it mean? Is is true?" My father and mother presented a very clear, factually accurate but understandable explanation of what sex, and more importantly, making love, was. An eleven-year old, I listened attentively. As a nurse, my mother would hardly have told me that babies "come from the belly," anyway.

My father is the master of textual Judaism. My mother, with her background, understands practical halakha. She grew up in a society where she brought the chickens to be schechted, after all. My father understands the texts. He has an incisive and penetrating knowledge of the Torah; he attends Daf Yomi, has his daily learning at a set time. Whenever I had questions about Chumash or Navi, I would go to my father. He was the one who would explain everything to me, who would teach me, who would help me with my homework. He was the one who helped explain the different ways of conjugating Hebrew, the one who had the patience to explain math homework to me. I vividly recall disagreements with my father revolving around texts or my understanding of texts. I asserted that there was such a word as "drunkyard," basing that assumption off of a typo in The Little Midrash Says series. Needless to say, I lost that bet. I also recall blithely stating that such-and-such idea could be found in The Little Midrash Says, running upstairs and proving my point. My father was always happy to be proven wrong. He preferred me thinking, reading, devouring texts, able to find him passages and sources.

My father is my protector. When I was little, he read me bedtime stories, ranging from the requisite "Goodnight Moon" to fairytales. He would always engage me in discussion, especially when I would ask wide-eyed questions about the characters. His answers were meant seriously; he would think about what I had asked him. When I had nightmares, I would sob and bang on his door or run into my parents' room. My father would take me back to my room and cuddle up with me until I fell asleep again. He would let me sit on his lap during bentching, even though I was mischievously tossing my hair in his face so that he would sneeze. I stole his kippa all the time; I had a strange affinity for wearing it on my head. "Ganif," he would call me playfully as I pranced around the house. He was my Horsie, letting me ride on his back, allowing me to tell him to "Giddy-up!" He played hide and seek with me. On Sunday mornings, all of us would go to my parents room and wake them up by jumping on their bed. Then we would assemble behind Daddy and roll him out of bed and onto the floor, where he would fall on the carpet. He would get back into bed and we would repeat the game; he was laughing all the while.

Daddy's the one who would turn on the sprinkler outside as we danced around in our bathing suits, picking tomatoes. He's the one who took us bike-riding, who drove us everywhere, who drove carpool in the mornings. He's the one who told me that "he missed talking to me" when I joined someone else's carpool in high school. Equipped with a wonderful sense of humor, Daddy will sometimes misbehave, especially when we have determined our mother is in one of her more unreasonable moods. "Yes, Boss," he'll agree, winking at us. He'll take us to the park and play with us, bring along balls and bats and catching mitts and make it a family outing. He drives us downtown, to the mall, to the grocery store, birthday parties and picks us up from our friends' houses after Shabbos.

My favorite game was the one that only Daddy and I practiced. I accompanied him to shul ever Friday night. I was fascinated by the snow, firstly, because it heralded the coming of my birthday, always a wondrous event, and secondly, because of its whiteness and the way it glittered in the moonlight. I decided that Daddy and I were players in my favorite fairytale, "Hansel and Gretel." I was Gretel and he was Hansel. We would walk home from shul in the dark and I would pretend we were looking behind us for the breadcrumbs we had scattered. "Hansel," I would say, my voice low, "look at all the wolves in the forest!" This while looking at the dark cars that whirred through the night, their headlights illuminating the street. My father would play along. "What are we going to do if we're lost?" I would ask, my voice high. "We'll find shelter," my father would assure me. When we came home, my mother was inevitably the Wicked Witch in the gingerbread house, although she soon became Mommy again.

My father presided over many tests and goings-on due to my stubborn nature. I determined that there was a difference between Kedem purple grapejuice and Welch's grapejuice (while it was still kosher.) I said that I could tell the difference if he were to give me each to taste with my eyes blindfolded. My father decided to test this theory, pouring cupfuls of each of the different types of grapejuice, then telling me to come out and drink them. Of course, I decided the Welch grapejuice was the Kedem type and the Kedem type was the Welch's type...

My father's voice is very soothing, very calm; there's a hint of humor that hides in it as well. "Chanaleh," he would call me, and excited I'd dash out of my hiding place and see that he was standing there with his big oversized black video camera. I'd wave at the lens frantically. "Can you see me?" I would ask, wondering. "Daddy, am I in the movie?" He would nod his head or otherwise answer me. Usually I would perform for him, giving him renditions of my songs and dances or sweeping the bathroom until I shut the door because, I informed him, "I need my privacy." Yes, I needed privacy to sweep the bathroom floor. I would hum as I worked, happily playing with my broom.

My father has always been reassuring and strong. Since the time I was little and cuddled up with him, he would catch me in his arms and swing me up over his head and carry me around the house. I remember him carrying me, me squealing and laughing and trying to get down, and holding me upside down over the garbage. "Shall we throw Chana in the garbage?" he would duitfully ask my mother, who was also laughing. She would say his name half-disapprovingly as he would dangle me over the bin. I was shrieking with laughter. It was all a game, I knew. My father wouldn't really throw me in the garbage. He loved me. I was safe with him. I am safe with him.

My father very rarely raises his voice. His whisper is enough to instill fear in me. As a child, I was terrified when he simply said "Chana," in his disapproving, disappointed tone of voice. I knew that I had done something very wrong.

As a child, I knew which parent to approach depending upon the reaction I wanted. If I wanted someone to take immediate action, I would go to my mother. My mother was the one who wouldn't stand for nonsense and who would do whatever was necessary to fix a situation. If I wanted a calm, gentle response, however, I would go to my father. I would talk to him and explain a situation and wait for his words of counsel and guidance, sure that his advice would help me.

My father is the one who helped me through situations that hurt me, that made me very angry and unhappy. He is also the one who suffered the most because of what happened with me and high school. When I switched schools, people called him up to find about me, made insinuations about his parenting. There were people who wouldn't speak to him anymore, something which he found very hurtful. But, in his calm, reasoned, logical manner, he had determined that the reason for my switching schools was legitimate- more than legitimate- and that I would be fine. I remember thinking that something was very wrong when my father not only raised his voice but yelled at a certain administrator at my former school. My father never yells...My father believes that people are good, you see, that in the end they want to help and to do what is right. He thought that if only he could argue persuasively enough, demonstrate rationally why his position was correct, people would listen. It never occurred to him that people would act in a certain manner because it benefited them, completely ignoring what was correct and decent...

This is not to say that my father is naive, sheltered and protected. My father has met his share of ugly people, people whose motives and actions are impure, who are cruel and inconsiderate and insensitive. He knows how to deal with such people. It simply never occurred to him that an otherwise kind person would deliberately ignore the truth because he did not wish to see an honest person, this is not how my father would react, and not the reaction he expects in those he sees as being similar to himself.

My father is my confidante. I have always gone to him and still go to him with my thoughts and feelings, whatever is on my mind. We have late-night conversations; I pad down the stairs at 12:00 AM and interrupt his learning in order to tell him my newest brilliant idea. Sometimes he simply laughs when he sees me; "It's 12 AM, Chana, and now you want to talk?" But he always makes time for me. My father helps me sort out what is troubling me, through talking to him I understand my own thoughts. He also offers alternatives to my sometimes black-and-white view. I think the thing that is hardest for him is that he has to stand by and watch me make my own mistakes and learn from them, because I am too stubborn to take the advice that he offers. He does not like that I do this, however. He takes no pleasure in it...he is always there to comfort me when I come crying to him, having been burned.

My father sees many viewpoints and many ideas as legitimate. I am very stubborn, very adamant; I like Modern Orthodoxy and see flaws in everything else. My father disagrees with me- my father's viewpoints are always very well-thought out, very well-considered, very reasonable. If he does not know something, he admits that he does not know and explains that he has to look into the matter. He is very considerate of others; he is able to understand people's different paths and outlooks in Judaism. He is very understanding, very tolerant, very giving. And all of this is not something that came easily to him, came naturally, but something he learned, something nurtured in him by my mother and through the very many books he read on parenting. He did not have father like this; he created himself as he wished his father had been, modeled himself off of the people he respects.

My father does not crave recognition or honor from others- in fact, he avoids it.

He is a very humble man. He does not see himself as anyone very special; he sees himself as another Jew making his way through life. He often wishes he could have been a teacher or a Rabbi; the people he most respects are those who give over love, care and nurturing within those positions. He always sees what else he could have done or could be doing rather than what he has done- he does not realize how much those who truly know him respect him.

At work he is respected for being competent, efficient and effective; outside of work he is respected for his gentle, positive, understanding nature. Within our home, we love him for all his many abilities- he's the one who first took us ice-skating, the one who barbecues for us, our chaffeur and confidante and the Daddy who played a Sleeping Beauty routine with me since I was little, claiming that he wouldn't wake up until I gave him a kiss. He is a very knowledgeable man, though he does not consider himself as such; he always sees what he has yet to learn rather than what he has learned.

I love my Daddy far more than words could ever say.

Thank you, Daddy. I love you.

Happy Father's Day.


the sabra said...

baruch hashem

laughingwolf said...

great tribute to your dad, m'dear sil, brava!

Jewish Atheist said...

Beautiful. What an amazing family you have.

D'varim P'shutim said...

WOW You are very lucky to have such a great father - and it is really impressive that you realize it and express it so beautifully. B'hatzlacha....

haKiruv said...

Your father sounds like a very good person and role-model.