Yehoshua, my ex-father in law, passed away this week.
An observant Sephardi Jew, Yehoshua lived a long, full life. He didn’t make it till 120, but he got close.
He was from Bukhara, from the steppes of what is today Uzbekistan. Far away. As a boy, he traded animal skins and furs; when he migrated west, he wisely chose something smaller: precious stones.
He found his most precious jewel in India, Mercia, with whom he would spend the next half century. Together they immigrated to the Jewish State, just after Independence.
Even though they lived modestly, in a small Tel Aviv apartment near the Yarkon, they were blessed with children. Five daughters, one after the other, until an exhausted Mercia finally gave him the son he had waited for. Yehoshua would not be denied a namesake, a son to say kaddish for him.
And those children created for Yehoshua and Mercia a healthy batch of grandchildren. On any given Shabbat or holiday, kids and grandkids would circle the family table and wait for Yehoshua to wash, and sit, and lead the religious blessings of the evening or day.
He was not stingy with the Kiddush: he would often offer that to one son or son-in-law, myself included.
When it was my turn, he would always correct my Hebrew pronunciation, But he forgave me because I sang the blessing on wine with passion, and could hold a tune.
He would always insist on blessing the bread, and he would never allow a meal to be concluded without saying the full sephardi grace. And everyone, everyone, was expected to be around the table participating.
Yehoshua was not always so patient, especially when hungry, or when something was not according to halacha, or his own personal tradition. He would bellow “Mercy!” when he needed the smallest thing. He eventually would get it, although Mercia eventually developed some feistiness of her own.
Yehoshua lost an eye as a youth, reportedly when Muslims hired by a business competitor threw acid on his face. But he wore dark glasses with dignity: he was not a man you would ever pity.
Yehoshua commanded respect of all those around him: at home, the synagogue, the boursa. Even into his nineties, he worked. Precious little escaped his attention.
Yehoshua could be tough. If one of the grand-kids, or a son-in-law, deviated from what he expected, he would communicate his displeasure: subtly, usually, but unmistakably. But his grandchildren knew how to melt his heart.
Yehoshua was a tribal leader. He was Lord of the dinner table, or at least Moses our Teacher. He laid down the law. Strictly.
When I came to Israel, a new immigrant, to marry his youngest daughter, we had trouble getting the requisite three rabbis to sign our marriage certificate. Two immediately agreed but a third “didn’t know” my rabbi in Boston. With just days left before the wedding, my bride-to-be and I wandered the Tel Aviv Rabbinate, looking desperately for a third rabbi to sign on the dotted line. Door after door we got nixed by white-bearded, black-hatted, authorities. At the very last door, we found a Rabbi who happened to know my future father-in-law from decades before in Petah Tikva. He didn’t hesitate: If you’re good enough for Yehoshua, he said, that’s good enough for me. He signed, and we were married.
A quarter century later, I am no longer married, living abroad, and relations are not easy with my ex. When I heard that her father had passed away, I asked whether I should come for the funeral. She “appreciated” my request, but asked me politely to put my passport away. And I did.
So this will be my modest eulogy, my last blessing, a small tribute for the many blessings he gave me.
These past few days I have been thinking a lot of the old man, appreciating his profound significance in my life. He taught me to appreciate my blessings, and to sing them aloud, even if my pronunciation is far from perfect. And I still make the same old mistakes, and probably always will.
Yehoshua was an exemplar, a leader, a true patriarch. He was the dignified model of an authentic, original, God-fearing Jew. He lives on in the memory of those he touched. And most likely, from Heaven, I expect to hear him calling, gruffly, any day now: “Mercy!”
May the Merciful One give him peace, and comfort to the grieving family who loved and venerated him. Including me.
Despite the strains and pains of a difficult divorce, across the distance of time and space, I will say kaddish for Papa.
I may no longer be his son in law, and I don’t know the halacha like he did, but I am pretty sure Yehoshua would sign off.And I promise to keep working on the pronunciation of my kiddush.