I Am A Jew and My Father Was A Jew

My father described his father as mildly anti-Semitic, "not an Archie Bunker type" but not without his prejudices either. Dad was born in 1920 and grew up in the New York area, spending some years in New York City. He would later write of his early curiosity about "the people my father spoke of with such contempt."

My father? Picture a cross between Albert Einstein and Captain Kangaroo, and you begin to get the idea. I remember him as a kindly man, soft-spoken and very precise in his speech. He recalled the Depression years vividly, and spoke bitterly of the humiliation of watching his father search desperately for work. During World War II he served in the Army, in Battery A, 136th Field Artillery, 37th Infantry Division. He spoke of the war occasionally, but only occasionally.

Like my mother, Dad grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home; like her, he started looking for answers on his own as a young adult. They met in a Unitarian Universalist church in Connecticut, and found they shared a fondness for the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson. They were married in 1959.

My father held a master's degree in literature from Wesleyan, and taught high school English for many years before moving on to a new career on the editorial staff of Choice Magazine - a position he held from my early childhood until very late in his life. He had an unappreciated gift for oratory, I think, and enjoyed reading aloud. When he spoke, he always chose his words carefully; losing this gift with the onset of Alzheimer's must have been a very cruel fate for him.

Both of my parents were liberals, but I think Dad was more of an idealist than my Mom, in the sense of being a perfectionist about the future. He didn't share my mother's driving rage (which could be directed against anyone, at any time), but he did have a deep-seated mistrust of anything that smacked of snobbery or elitism. He respected Senator Lieberman, but found him too conservative: "He votes like a Republican," Dad once grumbled.

Curious about traditional religion, I began studying Hebrew in my mid-teens. After a year or two, I started attending services at the synagogue, and so did my father. When I left home to join the Air Force in 1981, neither of us had officially converted but we were both leaning in that direction. I converted with a Reform congregation in Tucson in 1984, and eventually had an Orthodox conversion in San Francisco in 1988.

What we both saw in Judaism was a balance of opposites: nationalism and universalism, feeling and intellect, mysticism and rationalism, tradition and growth. For both of us, too, it was a gateway into a community, an older and richer one than we could have known otherwise. We liked the way social activism and Jewish values went hand-in-hand. My father was also interested in the theological debates: the encounter with modernity, the problem of evil. He devoured books on liberal Jewish thought by people like Jacob Neusner, with whom he corresponded. (Myself, I always found the scholarly stuff a bit dry. I loved Soloveitchik, but in general I skipped the philosophizers.) Dad's real passion, though, was Jewish music. He collected recordings of the great cantors (another taste I'm afraid I didn't inherit) and in the last few years of his life he became active in the choir at the Conservative synagogue. I'll always remember the joy it gave him to be involved in the community that way - and his sorrow at not having started earlier.

I'm hard pressed to say how much I'm like my father. I do not know whether I resemble him a lot or a little. Sometimes I think I take after my mother more. She was obsessed with the quest for truth. She wanted to peel back the layers of illusion and find the secret that lay at the core of reality. Not formally educated (but with an IQ most college professors would envy), she read books on science, history, Gnosticism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Born in 1929 on the eve of the stock market crash, she had little memory of the Depression, but I believe she was deeply changed by the newsreels that she must have seen as a young woman. I don't think she ever forgave G-d for the Holocaust.

Illness came upon my father quickly. He'd been healthy all his life, but things started going wrong all at once: heart trouble, cancer, Alzheimer's. He had to leave a holiday performance in the synagogue because he was too ill to continue. He died quietly in his sleep four years ago, on the second night of Rosh Hashanah.

Mom lived on a little longer. She rarely left the house, being in poor health herself, but she enjoyed the company of her caretaker and her next-door neighbor, who also had an interest in Judaism. I don't know whether she ever made her peace with G-d. She died last year, on the second night of Passover.

After her death, I learned that she'd had her hospital records changed to list her religion as "Jewish".

- Asher Abrams

This post is my contribution to Jonathan Edelstein's "Arrival Day Blogburst" in celebration of American Jewry's 350th year. I will be posting more Jewish-themed material over the next few days (including the 11th of September).

Administrative note: Today's post was delayed due to technical problems with Blogger. My apologies to Jonathan for missing the September 7 date; perhaps we can think of today as "yomtov sheini", especially in view of the day's diaspora theme.

Please visit Jonathan Edelstein, The Head Heeb.