Tomorrow is my father’s sixth yarhzeit.
The morning my father died I called him. He asked me if I would be visiting him that day. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to since I was in New York and he was in Boston. He then slipped into what I called his “ Darth Vader” voice. Towards the very end of his life when I would speak to him he would slip into a morphine induced deep throated mutter. After several minutes of Darth Vader he suddenly said “Excuse me, I need to hang up the telephone now”.
Apparently he was going into his final crisis, my sister got a call about five minutes later that it was time to gather at my father’s bedside for the end. My other sister called me and suggested that I fly to Boston. I chose not to because I assumed that if I did, that my day would be consumed with frantic travel and I assumed that I would arrive too late and be left with the eternal sense of having missed the boat. Instead I stayed home. My family gathered at my father’s beside. My sister called, the family was singing my father out. I had the old songbooks, I had siddurim . So they would start to sing, and forget the words. So I sat on the phone in my apartment singing along with my family reminding them of words from old Zionist songs, or verses from z’mirot and together we sang my father out.
My father was a big man. For much of his life he was fat. He loved food, he loved thinking about it, he loved cooking vast quantities of food and he loved eating good food. I used to ask him what he would have done if he hadn’t become a rabbi, he used to say that perhaps he would have become a lawyer. I don’t know if that would have been such a great alternative career. He adored hearing the stories of people’s lives. he loved hearing what made people tick. He loved those pre-funeral meetings with congregants where you hear the story of the life of the person who had died.
Those stories of how people made big life decisions, how people put food on the table during times of poverty, funny stories, tragic stories were re told at the dinner table and then were crafted into eulogies
My father grew up poor. He loved beautiful things. One of his favorite things to do was to walk down Madison Avenue or Newbury Street to look at beautiful fancy things. Car trips always involved checking out the interiors of synagogues and churches. Finding a great religious space gave him great pleasure.
When my father was dying he planned his funeral. He asked one of the funeral directors to wear a pin that he particularly admired when she worked his funeral.
My father loved davening. He thought that it needed to be done with great gusto. My father was a loud davener regardless if he was the leader or just a member of the kahal. He loved the words in the siddur. He loved the feeling of alliterative piyutim rolling around in his mouth.
My father had a more than slightly subversive sense of humor. Famously, when he was a rabbinical student he stuck his head out the window of his dorm room on 122nd Street and Broadway and yelled
שפך חמתך אל הגוים
and then in English
Love they neighbor as thyself
For those who can’t read Hebrew it’s Psalms 79:6.That story was famous among my father’s colleagues. Rabbis still repeat the story to me, but usually it’s embellished.
That line is also part of the haggadah, We used to sing that line to bandiera rossa.
My father used to sing Methodist Hymns in full voice in the car while he drove us to Orthodox Day school. He also used to sing hit from the 1940’s, some in English and others in Latin. he had an inventive Latin teacher in High school who translated popular songs into Latin and used to sing them with her class. He also sang horribly racist minstrel songs that this third grade teacher taught him in when he was growing up in Florida. And he fought to have inner city kids bussed to our town’s schools. My father also belted out every track from his Paul Robeson album. My father made sure to play the Chassidic records that asked on the cover do not play on the Sabbath or Holidays on Shabbat and Holidays.
My father called a spade a spade. People didn’t pass away or pass on or go to heaven.They died.
On the fourth day of Elul, six years ago my father died.
יהי זכרו ברוך