My old man, or How I discovered God
The clearest though not the dearest memory I have of my father is him forever being in private discussion with someone. I never knew what people consulted him about. I only knew that they were serious matters. I believe that it was about money, marital relationships, affairs of the congregation and even politics. I believe many people saw him as a problem solver and. I admired him as one would admire the magic of a witch doctor. I, however can’t remember a single time when I approached him on any matter. If I needed cash I’d always approach my mother (Ma).
My father usually addressed us kids at the dinner table. The talks were prefaced by the same statement, namely that everything he was doing was for us and we should never forget that everything we had was thanks to the hard work of him and my mother. We were supposed to think that we were all he and my mother lived for. For example we moved from Burgershoop to Eastern Extension so that we, the children would be near the school, the sports fields etc. They were always on the school committees, such as a committee for raising funds for the new school hall or building the new swimming pool and so on.
He had many projects which we were rarely told about, and that made them look very mysterious and wise to us. He never tired, however of telling us about his main project in life, namely to make decent people of us.
He was forever watchful that we shouldn’t stray from the good path. If we showed signs of this we’d hear about it at dinner time. Of course part of this path was following the Jewish religion. He was not concerned that we should follow the rituals of Judaism, like eating kosher food, the observance of the Sabbath and other customs. These were secondary to moral goodness and being decent people, a “mensh” as he called a good person, was all important. He was a great admirer of the great rabbis of the Talmud, a body of higher Jewish learning of which he was generally acknowledged by all and sundry as the expert, even the rabbi would consult him. They were his models for morality, piety and scholarship.
When I finished high school I decided to examine the ritual side of Judaism and started carrying out the customs that he had treated so lightly. He followed me in this and also started carrying out the customs more assiduously.
Saying that I feared my father isn’t saying much because, as a child I was always scared of something. I saw ghosts all around me and expected something terrible to happen at every turn. To this day, for example, I feel my father looking over my shoulder and expect to see him as I open the door to go to the toilet. I’ve given up trying to explain these things and I live quite happily with the fear. It doesn’t stop me from anything I want to do.
It’s not as if I was scared he’d bash the daylights out of me because I can’t remember him ever doing such a thing. I remember seeing him with a leather strap in his hand as I sat bawling on my bed, expecting blows to rain down on me, but suddenly the memory changes and he’s holding me in his arms, comforting me and calling me his “ingele” (little child).
It was in those moments of reprieve from punishment that I felt God stepping in and I understood how the story in the Bible of God stepping in to stop Abraham’s hand from sacrificing Isaac could be true.
On the one hand God was there to protect me from my father and other dangers that threatened to disturb my peaceful existence. On the other hand my father and God were in cahoots. It was like he was God’s representative on earth. God was the boss. My Dad lived on earth here with us while God lived in heaven, which is still a puzzle to me.
Although I never saw him talking to the boss, like saying “look here God, I’ve got this kid doing all these dumb things and getting bad marks at school, what should I do about him”, all I saw was him reciting words from the prayer book in the synagogue and every morning putting on the prayer shawl and the tefilin (prayer boxes with verses from the Bible, written on little pieces of parchment, like “Hear o Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one”) tied to his arms and on his head.
The Jews call this praying but it didn’t look like that to me. It looked like mumbo jumbo, but I concluded that he was carrying out an obligation of some sort to God. Apparently God wanted him to do these things and in return looked after him and his family etc and told him when to punish and when not to punish etc. I thought this was quite a good deal and probably that thought brought me to be so observant about Jewish rituals. At that time Cynthia Sack was the only observant Jewish person in town, besides the rabbi, so I became quite unique and became a sort of holy man about town.
Prayer, to me was talking directly to God about things that bothered me, such as the prayer I said every night as I settled down to sleep asking God, very courteously to please take care of my dad; he was doing a pretty good a job here on earth. While I was about it I also put in prayers for the rest of the family, my mother, brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, cats and dogs etc.
So it was through my old man that God became central to my life; If those crazy car chasing dogs of mine were dying after a car hit them in Main Reef Road God would pull them through, just like He would make a miracle that my father wouldn’t be at home to donner (give me a beating) me for failing English or whatever again, or a miracle that I got top marks even though I hadn’t written a word on the paper during those brain crunching tests or a miracle that the teacher would put off the critical test. He always stepped in and I felt that He was on my side. If a teacher got sick and class was cancelled I thanked Him for it.