Ask Your Father and He’ll Tell You

By Ruchama King Feuerman (Passaic, NJ)

My father is getting older, weaker. I had been pretending it wasn’t so, ignoring how slowly and consciously he walks to the fridge, how it takes weeks to recover from a cold, how he keeps asking me to repeat what I’m saying because he can’t hear so well. And then there are the new bottles of pills that join the old ones on his night table. I’d been overlooking that.

It’s not that he’s faded completely, not by a long shot. He still has a full head of hair which is pretty amazing for a man his age. He makes astute comments on politics, wry observations about human nature, and knows just the thought-provoking question to ask on the parshah that makes me realize I’m not half as smart as I think I am.

And yet, and yet. While his memory is all there, the vividness of certain memories isn’t. It strikes me as a loss. He is, after all, the repository of the memories of his entire generation. His life was vastly different than mine, and he was there as I began to experience my own life. His life stories shaped mine.  Why should they be lost?

I could kick myself for all the things I didn’t ask my grandparents when they were alive. For instance, my grandmother was always insisting she was related to a famous rabbi. Though we respected our grandmother, for some reason we thought she was exaggerating. Everyone we knew claimed to be related to a famous rabbi. Her last name had been Ziv, which didn’t ring any bells back then. By the time I was older and put together that Ziv and the Alter of Khelm were one and the same family name, my grandmother had already died. I didn’t have enough genealogical information on hand to make a real connection to the Ziv dynasty and I probably never will. Gone. A beautiful piece of family history down the tube. Not to mention the memories she carried with her of a previous generation.

I find as my father ages, I’m seized with urgency. I am hungry for details of his life, the small, seemingly trivial memories that shape a man and his personality–the names of his boyhood friends, the games he played, the after-school jobs he took, the teacher who believed in him, the principal who didn’t. Then there are the big memories that are part of a cultural narrative of what has been called the greatest generation: rationing in World War II, playing marbles at his friend’s house and hearing a radio bulletin announce “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor,” gas and butter rationing during the war, scrap metal collections, having to give up his bedroom every weekend to the Jewish soldiers his parents hosted at their home.

I was so influenced by my father’s memories growing up that I sometimes felt I was right there, observing the single great tragedy of his life, when a car knocked off his ear when he was a young boy. I see him going to school, wearing a bandage on the side of his head because his Depression-era family couldn’t afford to buy him a prosthetic ear. I ask my father everything: how he got kicked out of high school for poor grades only to earn a full merit scholarship a year later to William and Mary College; how twenty-nine relatives all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. I write down everything, and in my father’s retelling of his life, I see an image of Yaakov wrestling with an angel, for just as Yaakov had been maimed and yet emerged stronger, so had my father. I want to know it all, even his failures, the parts where he didn’t vanquish his fears. But not too much failure. It’s hard for a daughter to hear.

They say a photograph is worth a thousand words. We love our photo albums for the memories they hold, but pictures will never capture the who said what to whom and why–the special fragrance of a Pesach cholent, the feel of a Borsalino on a yeshiva bochur’s head, the young daughter who at every Shabbos meal would plan in great detail the kind of wedding she wanted, the certain niggun that made everyone turn pensive. I know now that photos are not nearly enough, that these memories will not carry over unless they are written down.

I search out the details of my father’s life in a way that makes it new to me. He was born in Washington , D.C. and speaks with a Southern accent. As one who found Judaism later in life, he is filled with religious enthusiasm, constantly quoting his rabbi or the Torah in what I call Southern-Israelite speak–he can’t help sounding like a gospel preacher sometimes. His favorite verse from Tehillim is:  “Hashem has granted me joy according to the days he has afflicted me,” and, boy, I see how that verse has played itself out in his years.

He is too weak these days for walks or even to hear details about my children’s life, but he’s never too weak to talk about his own. He gets comfortable on the easy chair. I ask a few questions and he starts speaking. I’m a fast typist (and he speaks more slowly than he used to). I see it’s not the first question I ask that gets him going. It’s the second question, that’s a response to the first. The “Really? And what happened when you said that?” or “Hmm. That sounds pretty terrible.” And he’ll interject, “No, actually it wasn’t,” and he’ll set me straight until I get it all down the way he remembered it and he saw it and knew it. I’m riveted to his words. He doesn’t use any flourishes or metaphors or fancy language. It’s plain, plain, plain, and yet I’m under the spell of a master storyteller. He knows how to pause and make me physically ache for his next phrase. “Nu, so what happened?” I urge. I’m at the edge of my seat. He’s not only telling his story, but my story, too. Because what happened to him is ultimately my story as well. My father’s sense of himself entered me and is part of who I am today, but unless I write it down, my kids won’t understand me, and certainly not him. And every generation must understand the previous one.

At certain points I say, “Dad, did that really happen?” He nods. Uh huh. Or a few times he’ll shake his head, “Don’t put that part in.” I don’t include it, though I can’t understand what he finds so raw or objectionable. Still, they are his memories and he can decide. Sometimes in the middle of speaking he nods off to sleep. I say, “Dad.  Da-a-d?” He gives a start, blinks a few times and says, ‘Where was I?”  “The part where your bubbe was apoplectic because she thought the Irish policeman was going to arrest her,” I prompt. “Oh, that part.” He pauses. “I thought we passed that.” “Nope.” So he obliges and fills me in.

I can hardly believe what he has endured. There have been so many car accidents, aside from the first one. The next accident took place in his early twenties. A car collision threw him fifteen feet from his car and he landed on a huge spread of red ants. Those red ants softened the hard ground and thus, saved his life, but his face blew up afterward like a beach ball. He was laid up in a hospital for six months. There were more accidents that followed and many illnesses. At any point in the year he could walk into a hospital and be admitted. There were financial catastrophes and death struggles to make a living. There were petty betrayals and the deeper disappointments of not fulfilling one’s potential, big mistakes and bad choices. He says it all in a bland voice. He is beyond any requests for pity. It’s like it happened to someone else. Thankfully he rounds it out with the good stuff, the shining moments, the heroism of supporting a family, his religious renaissance, his outrageous chessed and volunteer work and his position as gabbai in shul, the connections he made with people which lifted him to a different plane entirely, the love he instilled into his family. The totality of his life hits me. I type and weep, blow my nose and type some more. He seems surprised to see me cry, and then I can’t help notice a look of gratification on his face. Here at the computer, I am bearing witness to his rich, difficult life.

I’m not alone in this. In the writing workshops I lead, I see more and more people writing about their parents and grandparents. They are more than witnesses. They are creating treasures, word heirlooms to pass down to the next generation. I’m not telling anyone to write about their parents. It just happens. Cousins get thrown in and great uncles and aunts, and neighbors too. Such stories. The bubbe who sped off on a horse to a different village in her eagerness to make a shidduch. The Munkach Hassid who used his famed humor even at the pits, and how some Jews escaped while the Nazis, y’mach shmam, were literally rolling with laughter. Such stories. Sha’al avicha v’yagecha, zkainecha v’yomru lach. “Ask your father and he’ll tell you what happened….” (Deut. 32:7) Hearing these stories, I feel richer. Even if they aren’t my own parents’ stories, they still feel like mine. I feel the scope of another human being, another Jew. Any Jewish life is an event, a reason to sit up, notice and take notes.

Ruchama King Feuerman is a novelist and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times and numerous publications. This story is reprinted with her permission from her recently published anthology, Everyone’s Got a Story. (www.judaicapress.com/product_info.php?products_id=614 – 65k –)

Feuerman, who lived in Israel for ten years studying and teaching Torah, now resides in Passaic, New Jersey, where for the past fifteen years she has taught writing workshops. She recently was awarded a 2009 Artists’ Fellowship by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

To find out more about her upcoming writing workshops, visit: http://www.writetogether.typepad.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

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