(Excerpted from my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.)
The morning of the day my father died he told my mother, “If George Washington could die, so can I.” Mom thought he was hallucinating, but I prefer to think he was giving himself a final history lesson, reviewing the names of all the presidents and great figures from history who were gone but not forgotten. For me, his final words captured so much of the person he was. He needed to see himself as an important man, respected for his knowledge and accomplishments. But we knew he wasn’t a president, or even a professor, so he left his children struggling to find the man who was their father.
I suppose all parents are something of an enigma to their children. As I have aged, however, there is a growing need to understand who my parents really were. What were the secrets they held so close? How am I like them? How did they shape the person I am today? While Dad was an easy man to eulogize, he was a hard man to know. When he died on July 5, 2012, my brothers and I quickly found the words to speak at his funeral. But as we sat reminiscing about our parents after Mom’s funeral three years later, we agreed that it had been much harder to eulogize her because she was a real person to us. We were not sure we ever really understood our father in that way…
My father taught me that in order to adapt to the present and evolve with an eye toward the future, you have to understand the past. A history buff who mastered new technology (Internet research, PowerPoint) to further his interests in genealogy and lecturing on art appreciation, Dad saw newness as a tool to pursue his passion for the past. Perhaps it is this powerful legacy my father passed to me that makes me cringe when folks in their thirties tell me no one can pay attention to a video that is more than four minutes long. And that no one cares about the past. For some, it’s all about what’s coming next. For me, it’s essential to look backward to move forward.
So I am taking a journey back to 1934. My father wrote these words for my son’s bar mitzvah on September 1, 1984. They provide a window into my heritage, but more importantly they help me to understand who my father was. I have made a few minor edits (italicized) for clarity, but otherwise this is what my father shared:
The Way It Was—September 1, 1984
(The fiftieth anniversary of my own bar mitzvah)
By Sidney Max Levine
Year two of the New Deal. June 30th, the red-letter date. The week begins with the onset of an early summer heat wave. Temperatures hover near the triple digit mark. Blazing sun. Stifling humidity. Preparations are under way. Mother, tantes [aunts], neighbors, friends—all are engaged in an orgy of cooking and baking. Chickens are plucked and broiled. Fricassees, chopped liver, tsimmes, kishkas, kasha, lokshen, mandlen, challes, tayglech, mandel brot, and strudels—all are in various stages of completion. Large pots boiling on stoves, ovens are all ablaze. Every icebox and precious refrigerator in the neighborhood is stuffed with the overflow of this productivity.
Meanwhile, the focus of this sweaty, frenzied activity is absorbed in the daily heroics of the new “Samson,” Hammering Hank Greenberg, who has come as a messiah to lead the beloved Detroit Tigers out of the American League wilderness to their first pennant in a quarter century.
Saturday morning dawns with sun and heat unabated. The “man to be” is adorned in the new suit—100 percent wool worsted, tan color, belted jacket and knickers. The neighborhood shul is filled to capacity with 125 perspiring souls—women in the balcony, a collection of bearded elders wrapped in ankle length tallisim [prayer shawls] surrounding the bimah [podium]. At the center stands Rabbi Moldowsky, awesome with a red beard and shining penetrating eyes in a stern visage—father of ten or twelve, advisor, interpreter, philosopher, and shochet [kosher slaughterer].
Now, in a quick singsong, the blessings are chanted, followed by the Haftorah [a reading from the Book of Prophets] and the closing blessings. Then comes a five minute break for “the speech”—obligatory thanks to mother and father and to the United Hebrew Schools for inspirational tutelage, promises to work diligently for the betterment of mankind and Judaism, and to remain steadfast in the study of Torah [the sacred scroll containing the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures]. Finally, the descent from before the Ark to a shower of candies from the balcony, and it’s over.
Sundown, and all the food comes forth from the secret hiding places and is lugged up to the Parkside Social Hall, a sparse room over the main business street store fronts. Tables and chairs have been set up. A small area has been cleared for the band and dance floor. The music is Morris Witcoff, violin virtuoso, and his Troubadors, specializing in freilachs [happy Jewish music], waltzes, Russian shers, polkas, and an occasional American fox trot. The endless dinner is punctuated by well wishes and greetings in appropriate order from relatives, friends, and officers and directors of the Landsmanschaft Society [a group from the same European shtetl]. A procession of gifts—the inevitable pen and pencil set, a siddur [Jewish prayer book], a chumash [Torah in book form], a tie clasp, envelopes with $2.00 and $3.00 in cash, a rare $5.00 bill, and a Mickey Mouse watch.
The “Bar Mitzvah” and a handful of boyfriends cavort in a corner. Batting averages and individual athletic heroics are loudly discussed. Trading card deals are arranged. Teachers and sundry elders are mocked and mimicked. Across the room are the girls, my oldest sister and a few daughters of relatives and friends. A constant chatter and giggle prevails. Never the twain shall meet.
By 10:00, the “man of the day” and his oldest sister are dispatched to the babysitter who has been minding the younger brother and sister at the house about a block away. Their big day is ended. The adult revelers go on and on.
The only memento of all of this—the [Mickey Mouse] watch—is now in [my grandson’s] proud possession.
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