I Hope My Father Would Be Proud
As part of a recent interfaith Holocaust memorial service, I delivered a sermon at the historic St. Giles Cathedral, the Mother Church of Scotland; I’m told I was the first rabbi ever to do so. I consider it more than a coincidence that the event took place on the 45th anniversary of my father’s death, a connection that is particularly stark because my father was a Holocaust survivor.
He was arrested on Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) and taken to Dachau, where the Nazis shaved his head and beat him. Still, my father was fortunate – seven out of every nine Jews who lived in his native city of Leipzig in 1935 died in the Shoah. Because his relatives in the United States had the necessary papers in order, they were able to secure his release after only a few weeks. He came to this country, met and happily married a beautiful American woman, and fathered my sister and me. Though he was fortunate to escape, the residual effects of his suffering contributed to his death at age 57, while his two older brothers – who left Germany earlier – lived well into their 80s.
When the beadle of the Cathedral formally summoned me to ascend the St. Giles pulpit, my mind flashed back 45 years to that horrible call I received from my mother during my third year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. Back then, an international phone call was a big deal. If you got one, it was your birthday or another special occasion – or something was terribly wrong.
When my landlady, widow of the former mayor of Jerusalem, came into my room at 5 a.m. to tell me my mother was on the phone, I knew it could only be one thing: My precious father, in my mother’s words, “was gone.”
The long plane ride home, which stopped in France, was excruciating. Sitting next to me on the first leg of the flight was an ebullient woman on her way to Paris to celebrate her daughter’s wedding. I did not have the heart to deflate her joy by sharing the somber reason for my travels, but listening to her, my stomach was in knots.
I spent 30 days at home before returning to Jerusalem to continue my studies. They were precious days of reflection and remembrance, and they confirmed for me the wisdom of our tradition in advising us to take sufficient time to absorb the blow after a loved one dies. I loved my father and admired him, but there are so many questions I would have liked to have asked.
Why didn’t you leave Germany earlier?
What was it like when you first came to the United States?
You always acted like you loved me, but why did you never tell me?
Now, it was too late.
Years later, following my second open-heart surgery, I found myself depressed and concerned for my future. When I sought therapy, I was not surprised that the doctor zeroed in on my relationship with my dad: “You seem never to have been able to please him,” he noted.
I credit the Eternal One and that therapist for the blessings I have enjoyed since: the three months I spent as rabbi in Milan, my son’s marriage, the birth of our fifth grandchild, the completion of my book, its translation into German, the two extended periods my wife and I spent in Germany, the many places I have been privileged to speak, and of course, our recent trip to Scotland.
Indeed, the future about which I fretted at the time has turned out very nicely. I believe in the things I am doing, and I hope they make a small difference for good.
But the doctor was correct: I still want to please my father.
Only now, in acknowledging the many blessings in my life, I am beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe, I am.