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Two weeks before, over 100 hostages had been taken in a Palestinian terrorist attack in Ma’alot in northern Israel, mostly school children. It ended with the killing of 25 Israelis, including 22 children, and the wounding of 68 others. My father and I talked about the attack. Quickly, and in his manner, he endorsed my intention to travel: “As long as there is a God in heaven, you’ll be OK.” With that, and a strong handshake that convinced me he would be fine, I left first for Boston and then on to New York.
My father was 13 years old when he landed at Ellis Island, newly arrived from a small shtetl in Russia. He lost his mother when he was six; his father remarried, producing altogether 12 children over time. My grandfather was a tailor who worked near the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. My dad went to Boys High in Brooklyn at night, took courses at Pratt Institute and Cooper Union, and worked for decades in the leather goods industry as a foreman, designer and ultimately the owner of a small, short-lived company manufacturing holsters for cowboy sets that were de rigeur for every small boy in America.
He was a man of parts: he loved to read Russian poetry and listen to music by Russian composers (which, as a youngster during the Cold War, I could never understand); listened to opera records or the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (Madama Butterfly was a favorite); and had a green thumb, planting outstanding vegetable gardens year after year. No doubt much of that acumen came from a stint working on a farm in upstate New York during the Depression, a job obtained through the Jewish Agricultural Society. He was a great cook who even made a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich taste special.
He was an ardent Zionist, though not affiliated with any particular strain of the movement. He subscribed to the Yiddish-language daily Der Tog-Morgan Journal, which arrived by mail five days a week. In his later years, when we had no rabbi in our tiny congregation, he taught Hebrew school in our hometown of Keene, New Hampshire three days a week, and prepared the occasional bar mitzvah boy for that most important right of passage. He read Megillat Esther at Purim services, and during Yizkor he was asked to read out the names of the deceased, because his Yiddish was so good and most names in those days were handwritten on index cards, and he could figure out the information.
My dad was a straight shooter; you knew, after a brief conversation, exactly where he stood on any issue. He was principled, often buttressing his arguments with “but somebody has to say it.” I knew as a youngster, and then as a young man, that indeed he was right most of the time.
He could see through the “spin” – though that term had not yet been born – of issues foreign and domestic. To this day I don’t know if he was a Democrat or a Republican, but he had opinions that were not blinded by party loyalty.
All of this set my Jewish compass for life. He and my mother, both well read on what we called “current events,” and both dedicated to creating a warm Jewish atmosphere for my sisters and me in our home in northern New England, wouldn’t have it any other way. The table talk in our house invariably centered on our place as Jews in America and beyond. At that table, on any given day, we would discuss anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, my father’s life in the shtetl, my mother’s strong Jewish upbringing in Maine, and, of course Israel.
Indeed, my first recollections of Israel were the photo of my cousins who lived on a kibbutz that adorned a shelf above our fireplace, and the Sinai Campaign of 1956. I recall his predicting to a visiting Israeli relative in 1966 – around an opened map of the Middle East on our dining room table – that should war be forced on Israel by its Arab neighbors, it would need to capture the West Bank to provide a security buffer for the future. When the 1967 Six Day War broke out, my father carried a petition supporting Israel from merchant to merchant along Keene’s main street.
Two months before my visit to him in the hospital, I had been asked to give a speech in Boston for Israel’s Independence Day. It was to be my first major presentation, and I rehearsed it at home before my father the weekend before the event.
“Something’s missing in your closing,” he said, “it needs to be stronger.” He took a Bible off one of the bookshelves, sat at the table for a few minutes and then read aloud to me from the prophet Amos, chapter 9, verse 14: “And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel, And they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; And they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; They shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.”
I accepted the suggestion willingly, not only because it was a good way to close, but because I saw my father’s innate belief at work. He was a proud Jew in both the spiritual and national sense.
Five weeks later I was at the hospital for that reassuring exchange and handshake. In Tel Aviv, one day before the end of my trip, one of my cousins came to the home of another in whose home I was staying. She had just received a phone call that my father was seriously ill, and I needed to get back to the States right away. In fact, he had already passed away, and my mother wanted to spare me the agony of the long flight home knowing he was gone.
It was a heart attack that brought his end. He was giving tours of our new synagogue. He hadn’t felt well that day, but he went anyway, to explain to the mixed crowd of Jews and Christians who came for the opening, about the Torah, the Ark, the eternal light and the other religious objects in the sanctuary.
It was June, and sunset comes late. I was able to make it back in time for the funeral, but I was too numb to absorb the loss. At the time, though, I remember having one consoling thought: before leaving on the flight from New York, I bought a Father’s Day card and tucked it into my suitcase. Thinking it would take at least 10 days for it to arrive on time, I mailed it immediately when I arrived in Israel. When I came home, I saw the opened card on our dining room table.
The author is executive vice president and CEO of B’nai B’rith International.