June 29, 2011
At my grandmother’s funeral over twenty years ago, I asked my father how it felt to lose his last parent. He said, “It’s about being ready. If you lose a parent when you’re too young, it hurts you. But when you’re ready as I am now, it’s all right.”
He was right. I’m OK and even grateful I had him for so long. Still, I have trouble imagining my life without him, especially since he was not only my father, but a teacher and friend. I could tell him anything and he would be honest in his response. His infectious warmth and ebullience made him mourned by many.
My father was a safe haven, an ark of shelter, for many. I had cousins who spent part of their adolescence with him and my stepmother, because of their healing kindness. He loved people, remembered names, and saw meaning in every life.
He had seventy faces that included a man who loved his family like a mother, had minimal observance for rules he didn’t respect, and was a natural gatherer of people.
He lived the last two years of his life in an assisted living facility called Gurwin Jewish Geriatric Center. From the moment he arrived, he became a presence of enthusiasm. He called it a spa because of all its activities, and he got his money’s worth every day, from taking up painting seriously, yoga, and field trips. The biggest surprise for me was his embrace of Judaism.
It’s not a secret that my upbringing on my father’s side was notable for its lack of religiosity. My father taught me how to crab, and how to eat them. I knew about Tisha B’Av because when I’d ask when we could go to Coney Island, he’d answer, ‘Tishabuv’, meaning ‘don’t hold your breath.’
Gurwin is kosher and holds regular services. My father quickly became a regular on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. This was the first time in his life he was part of a minyan. We’d often talk about the Torah portion on my way home from Shabbat morning services.
One Shabbos the rabbi, an older man who speaks Yiddish fluently, asked my father if he was a Cohane. He said it like, Coyen. My father, a very positive man and one who likes to be helpful, answered, ‘yes,’ without really understanding the question.
Seeing my father’s uncertainty, the rabbi asked how he was a member of the priestly caste. By now my father realized what had happened, and answered with gravitas, “From my father and my father’s father.”
You had to hear my father telling me the story and laughing! I’m sputtered, “you told him you were a Cohane and now you had the first aliyah! Dad, he takes this seriously!” When I visited Gurwin the last time for the minyan for my father, many people spoke of their losing their “Coyen.”
If he was well, my father never missed a service. He lifted the Torah as long as he was able, and in the past year, he dressed the Torah each week. Maybe he took it more seriously than I realized.
He always asked me about HaMakom and the friends he’d made when he came to visit our community. He cheered our success, loved the rugelach and matzah brittle, and kept himself up to date about our events from the Weekly Reader.
I was lucky to have him as my rabbi. Life is with people, he taught me.
Every weekend in the summers, our house was a magnet for friends, neighbors, and relatives. He’d cook up a meal, the kids would run outside, the women sat around the kitchen table, and the men played cards or watched a ball game. There was a feeling of belonging in that house, a feeling of safety, and a feeling of joy.
That’s the feeling I aim for in our community, a place like my father’s house that revealed the holiness of hospitality.
I am going to contribute to our ongoing challenge grant in my beloved father’s memory. He made Gurwin into a village, and because he was a community builder, supporting HaMakom would delight him. If you’d like to join me in remembering my father, or one of your beloved departed ones with tzedakeh, I’d be grateful.
How do we survive profound loss? By being comforted among those who have experienced loss and have gained empathy from the pain. The solace that comes from the presence of loving community is the medicine. I’ll be glad to be among you in the coming weeks and throughout the year.
Peace and Blessings,
Rabbi Malka Drucker