Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fathers & Oaths

What does Herman Wouk's Inside, Outside, crinkle cookies and the command not to stray after one's heart or one's eyes all have in common?

They all remind me.

Here's the scene from Inside, Outside.


So Mother was talking to me, or else we were both sitting quietly, dreaming our dreams. Suddenly the door opened, and my brother Elya came running in with a great cry. After him came my father with a belt in his hand, hitting him and shouting, "My boy sleighing on Shabbess, and on a cake of ice! You, Elya, about to be bar mitzva! And to enter as a clerk in Oskar Cohen's lumberyard! You the best choir singer of Reb Mordechai! What will Reb Mordechai say when he hears it?"

With every sentence he belted Elya. They were both crying, and I cried too, and Mama cried. Never had I seen anything like this. It took Mother some time to calm Father down, but then he put his belt away, and went back next door to the shule. My brother Elya, after crying some more, also left for shule. Nothing was ever mentioned by my parents afterward. At least not in my presence. Only Mother said that she never before saw my father so excited, or striking one of his children.

As the years passed, and I grew up and began to understand things better, this incident kept coming back to my mind. I kept asking myself what made my father get so aroused. Was it the sin of sleighing on Saturday? I could hardly say so. He was not a fanatic; a believer in tradition, but I cannot imagine him punishing his son so severely for this sin. He would have admonished Elya and that would have hurt him more. No, that was not the reason.

Was it fear of losing his job? He did all the manual work of a shammas, taking care of the place and keeping the building and courtyard in order, also chanting the Torah, the haftoras and the megillas. My father did not have a strong voice but it was melodious, and he had a great ear for music. There was nothing but praise for his chanting. Still, there were some who were jealous of him and always looking to find fault. Father knew who they were. Perhaps he feared this act of Elya's would stir up a tumult, and cost us our livelihood.

But there was something more. He deeply loved his children. The mere thought of an accident, of Elya getting crushed by a cake of ice which overturned, or skidding into a hole in the ice and drowning, probably threw him into a frenzy. Never again did he strike one of us, for no matter what cause. This was probably the real reason.


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