Today I mark seven years since my father died. Last night I lit a Jewish memorial candle for him.
Bernie and I had been at the Auschwitz-Birkenau bearing witness retreat that year. Bernie himself would have a major stroke two months later, but who knew? The retreat ended Friday night and we were back in Krakow on Saturday afternoon. We had reservations to return home on the following day, but Lufthansa employees had gone on strike and we had to make alternative travel arrangements. I recall how several of us sat on the floor in the Saski Hotel corridor, computers open, trying out different routes and airlines. It took a few hours before we were finally able to reroute using two different airlines.
Exhausted, we went to bed. At midnight my brother called to tell me that my father, watching a soccer game on TV, had had a heart attack and died.
“Because the Israelis won?” I almost said. But I was shocked. My father had been 90 and still healthy; no one expected this.
More rerouting was needed. My brother made plane arrangements from Warsaw to Tel Aviv while I went downstairs, woke up the redoubtable Andrzej Krajewski, who has coordinated all our retreats in Poland, and asked for his help in making train arrangements to the Warsaw airport. At 4 am Bernie and I were on our way to Israel. My father was buried that very night in pouring rain in Jerusalem; we were there.
His body had already been shrouded, but before they took him up to the grave, they opened the shroud to show me his face. I looked and nodded, and they closed up the shroud once again.
It’s no coincidence, I mused last night, that his memorial takes place at the opening games of the World Cup. He wouldn’t miss a game. He loved football, as soccer is referred to the world over except in the US, but was prevented from playing it as a boy by his father, the village rabbi, who had very different ideas about what a rabbi’s son should do with his spare time.
This year my brother sent me a recording of my father singing a nigun, a religious melody, in his old, soft voice. Different communities of Jews, both Hasidic and non, developed their own nigunim and melodies over hundreds of years in East Europe, and if you went to visit a family on Friday evening you could often tell where they originally came from according to the melodies they used for singing Sabbath or holiday songs.
Shortly before he died, my father had a surprise visit from a Hasid he didn’t know. The Hasid lived far away and came to him because he saw my father, one of the last survivors of his village in northern Rumania, Stefanest, as a repository for the nigunim sung by Jews who’d lived in Stefanest for generations before being exiled by the Nazis.
He recorded my father singing them and that’s what my brother sent me by WhatsApp. I could hear my father’s voice, weaker than it had been but still clear and mellifluous, the Hasid joining in every once in a while in joyful fervor.
I listened and listened. What was I listening for?
My sorrow isn’t connected to the loss of my father but rather to the lack of sorrow. I mourn the absence of strong feeling, the absence of strong connection. In a way, I’ve envied people who have deep emotional bonds with parents after their death, who often evoke them and what they meant in their lives even if it brings tears. That’s not been my case. We spoke such different languages, he and I.
But when I was young, there was one language we did share. My father loved to sit at the head of the table and lead our family in Sabbath songs at Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch, his left hand rising and falling like an orchestra conductor’s measuring out the beat, and we’d sing with him. I had an immature soprano voice at the time and could provide harmony.
Looking back now, I realize the connection we had over the dining room table in those early years was perhaps our strongest. I loved those songs till I turned rebel, and things went downhill from there.
“You’re a Sagittarian,” people have told me “Sagittarians tell things as they are.”
I don’t know what telling things as they are means. I liked to be in his and others’ faces, flaunting my difference from him and the rest of the family. He had little patience for that, and finally I felt alienated from the very songs I once loved. Our connection broke down for years.
Last night, as I listened to him singing, I bore witness to the big differences between us, to how hard it was for me to relate to a father who deeply loved me but spoke such a different language. Like so many men, he had a hard time with feelings, but towards the end of his life there was no mistaking how much he cared; you couldn’t miss his big heart.
In a few weeks I’ll start teaching a module on History and Lineage to a Zen Peacemaker Order cohort, and that includes my personal lineage. But I don’t feel connected to it. Interesting how much more I feel connected to the Buddhist masters than I do to my own father.
On the rare occasions when I talk about my family history, how my father was a rabbi and the scion of a line of rabbis, while my uncle, his brother, married into a Hasidic family and his son, my cousin, heads the Boyan Hasidic sect, people say: “Wow, and you’re one of the founding teachers of the Zen Peacemaker Order and your husband was Bernie Glassman. What a rich family tapestry you have!”
And I think: That’s true, but what happens when you can’t connect the dots?
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