In Plain Language: In the name of the father

To all you children out there – of all ages – cherish your parents while you have them.

Stanley and Phyllis Weiss 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Karen Robins)
Stanley and Phyllis Weiss 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Karen Robins)
Age is just a number. That cliché takes on new meaning for me every week when I visit the wonderful assisted-living senior citizen center in Ra’anana. I have the pleasure and privilege of giving classes there, both in Hebrew and in English, and I am continually amazed by the wit, wisdom and vitality of our “elder statesmen.”
When I was growing up in Chicago, the term “nursing home” sent shivers up and down one’s spine. It conjured up images of frail and feeble octogenarians in various states of helplessness, alternately managed and manipulated by uncaring (less than) professionals. Indeed, the numerous scandals involving kickbacks, payoffs and substandard practices that rocked the American nursing-home industry in the ’70s and ’80s only reinforced the view that these institutions were little more than “death’s waiting room,” where unappreciative and unfeeling offspring could dump their elderly parents when they couldn’t be bothered to attend to their needs.
The popular bumper sticker back then was, “Be good to your children, for they are the ones who will choose your nursing home.”
What a world of difference today, certainly in Israel. The majority of facilities here are upbeat, lively, multidimensional centers that stimulate rather than suffocate the residents. Music, lectures, arts and crafts, field trips and even sports are part of the daily regimen. The food is gourmet as well as nutritious. In our particular locale, there is a synagogue and a gorgeous swimming pool, morning tai chi and afternoon tea and cake. Residents lead a full life, and I sometimes get dizzy just hearing their schedule.
Once a month, I come to the center to participate in the trivia competition. My teammates are 89, 93 and 98 years young. And they are sharp, intelligent and well-versed in practically very field. The sages tell us that the Hebrew word for “old” – zaken – is the abbreviation for “zeh kana hochma” – this one, by virtue of his longevity, has truly acquired wisdom. For, as the saying goes, “there is none so smart as he who has experienced it all.” While I try to contribute my own modest grasp of modern-day facts and figures, when it comes to history, these people have actually lived it, not just read about it.
Every one of these seniors is a living library, and I soak in their stories with wide-eyed wonder.
Some are Holocaust survivors, others endured the Blitz of London. Some were Israeli war heroes, and one of my favorite friends was once David Ben-Gurion’s personal secretary. In a way, I feel like I am the adopted child on premises.
IT IS more than 20 years since I became an orphan, and I feel that sense of loss every day.
Particularly today, the day of my father’s yahrzeit. Born in 1912, he would have been exactly 100 years old if he were still alive, and I imagine he would have fit in nicely among the other residents of the center who have cracked the century mark.
While the Torah is our source book of wisdom, and Jews in general are known for their smarts, I don’t believe there is any area of Halacha more brilliant or more attuned to the human psyche than the laws of death and mourning. Not only when death comes – and we rend our clothes, unburden our souls in the catharsis of shiva, or recite kaddish in the bosom of the minyan – but every year thereafter, when the date of death rolls around. Jewish tradition calls upon us to actively bring the memory of our loved one to the fore, reciting the memorial Azkara prayer, visiting the cemetery, studying, donating tzedaka (charity) and performing acts of hessed (kindness) in their name.
I remember my dad as a gentle, good-natured person with few pretensions and many friends.
He worked hard in the nine-to-five world, never achieving all that he wanted, yet bearing his disappointment with stoicism and a great sense of humor. He was the epitome of classic American Jewry, a second-generation New Yorker who deeply loved his country. He had fought valiantly in World War II, spending three and a half years in the Philippines as a reconnaissance photographer in the Pacific theater.
He didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences; Dad said, “Those who know, don’t say; and those who say, don’t know.” My bedroom adjoined his, and many was the time I had to wake him up when he was having nightmares, reliving some of the battles he had fought. On one occasion, he had saved his lieutenant from drowning, only to see him killed the following week in a Japanese air raid. Once a year, he took out the medal he had received for that act of heroism and retold us the story, tears in his eyes.
“When you bleed for your country,” he would say, “you forever become a part of it.”
He was fiercely patriotic and, unlike most of his fellow Jews and New Yorkers, was a lifelong Republican. But I vividly remember him crying when JFK was assassinated in 1963. When I asked him, naively, why he was crying over the death of a Democrat, he stared at me incredulously and said, “The president is the president of all Americans; when your nation hurts, you hurt.”
He loved Israel and supported it all his life, but never once set foot in the Holy Land. Like most American Jews – 70 percent of whom still have never visited our country – he saw Israel as something you supported from a distance. But he admired the grit and guts that Israel exhibited – particularly its armed forces – and I believe his fighting spirit runs through his grandchildren who proudly wore, and wear, the uniform of the IDF.
DAD WASN’T what you would call overly observant – he liked his religion in small doses – but he had a healthy respect for those who did follow the commandments, and he was completely supportive of my decision to become a rabbi.
As the manager of a Jewish cemetery, kindly and courteously dealing with fellow Jews in their most difficult hours of need, he racked up, I suspect, more than his share of mitzvot.
Dad’s primary religion – again, like most Americans of his day – was sports. As a youngster he played it, excelling in handball; as an adult, he attended the games; and when he became older, he watched the contests on TV.
His primary passion was the New York Yankees – alas, I caught the Chicago Cubs bug and have been a long-suffering Cubs fan since my childhood – and I venture to say he was among the team’s most loyal supporters. His mother had a tradition of bringing the Yankees players a cake on their birthdays, and Dad often got to visit the Yankees dugout. In fact, he remembers sitting on the Yankees bench in 1927, squeezed in between the immortals Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
While it was my sainted elementary-school rabbis who taught me my first Mishna – “these are the items you may keep when found; these are the items you must announce and return” – it was my Dad who pitched me my first baseball, threw me my first football and lifted me high on his shoulders so I could score my first basket.
Dad loved books, and he adored music. He had a beautiful voice, and was particularly adept at whistling. I would sit with him for long hours at night listening to song after song, and to this day I can identify almost any song title and performer. Invariably he would fall asleep, and I would close the radio, kissing him good night.
To all you children out there – of all ages – cherish your parents while you have them.
Learn their song and memorize their lyrics.
When they are gone, all you will have are memories.
Make sure they are good ones.
The writer, who seems to be getting older every year, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.