The following essay--the first of hopefully many--is about my dear father who passed away about a month ago. This piece, or a variation of it, will hopefully appear soon in a reputable publication. This is your chance to see it in its completion, unadulterated (with special thanks to Daniel Septimus for editing it).
WAIT AROUND FOR THE ANSWER
Imagine "entertaining," conversing, retelling stories, and sharing anecdotes for seven straight days. Now imagine doing that when your instinct is to climb into a far away hiding place with snow globes and forgotten vacation souvenirs. Imagine that this is when your father has just died, a man who at age fifty-eight had lived only half his life.
That was me a few weeks ago during shivah, the seven days of mourning prescribed by Jewish tradition.
There I was in torn a torn shirt, with sore eyes, an exhausted heart, and lungs that hurt from hours of heavy sobbing, surrounded by scores of friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I wanted to be alone, but at the same time, I needed people more than ever.
And the people came. They came together like my father had been a cause to rally behind, like he was the cure and not coming to the shivah meant you found favor in the disease.
My father would have taken pride in this. Because Rabbi Steven Martin Dworken, who was an Orthodox rabbi, attained posthumously what we had thought was impossible.
There's an old rabbis' joke that says that if you put three Jews in a room, you'd get five opinions. Indeed, my religion has its fair share of inter-religious strife, but sometimes it seems like it saves its real passion for its internal tiffs. If charity starts at home, it seems so does hostility. The Ultra-Orthodox won't accept the Reform. The Conservative feel that the Modern Orthodox are too condescending, and the different Hasidic sects have gang-like quarrels.
As if we Jews don't have enough to worry about battling anti-Semitism, we have the wounds of self-hatred to deal with.
This above all, hurt my father.
So as I sat in the intentionally uncomfortable shivah chair, a great rush of pride overwhelmed me. Seated before me was the beginning of a potentially great new joke: a Satmar Hasid, a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi, a conservative rabbi, a reform Jew, and my father's mechanic.
And all of them had come, not to mourn, but to celebrate a life that knew the invaluable worth of a smile and a conversation. All had come because my father had connected with them deeply. He was that kind of guy, the kind who not only asked everyone how they were doing, but actually waited around for the answer.
"My English is not so great," the Satmar relative leaned over and said. Though he's never lived outside of New York, his primary tongue is Yiddish. "I want to say that he was the best of the best."
Being a Satmar Hasid means that this relative lives a life almost completely different than my family's. In fact, many years ago, at a get-together, his son had pointed to me and asked whether I was Jewish?and I was wearing a yarmulka.
It is also well known that the Satmar don't support the state of Israel. My father, on the other hand, believed that Israel was the heart that pumped the life-blood of Judaism. When I asked my dad if it bothered him that we had relatives that did not believe in a basic tenet of his life, he said, "I have the choice to be antagonistic or I have the choice to be family."
The mechanic, a secular Israeli told us that sometimes my father would stop by just to "schmooze." Not to fill the gas, not to check the oil, not even to listen to the unusual squeaking sound in his breaks, just to schmooze. Though the mechanic had different political views, different traditions, and a smoking habit my father disapproved of, Dad enjoyed his company because all in all, they were strikingly similar. They both took out the garbage, worried about their families, the phone bills, and what was for lunch.
But Dad didn't save his tolerance only for other Jews.
There was Angelo, the Roman Catholic barber who graciously gave him twenty years of free haircuts, and the priest at the local church who once referred to my father as his "mentor and teacher." Then there was Mr. Genay, the retired French-Canadian cop from across the street, who my father had visited in the hospital quite often while he fought cancer (Dad also attended the wake when the cancer unfortunately won).
During shivah we got a card from the cleaning woman we had when I was a young child. The card was in half-Polish, half-English, and in it she confessed that she still walked around with a picture of my father in her wallet. She showed it off to friends, bragging, referring to my father as "my rabbi."
Another note came from the family of a former janitor from Dad's synagogue. It retold the story of how my father had gone to the janitor's funeral and how appreciative his family was for his coming and staying, despite being "the only white person in attendance."
Well, it's almost a month since my father has died and the phone has stopped ringing off the hook, the emails have only been trickling in (as opposed to flooding), and my grief is no longer shared en masse. It's a very lonely place to be. The emptiness is so hulking that it's more like an imposition than a privation, an unwanted guest who will never leave.
People ask me how I am. I want to answer truthfully, that this second you are seeing me composed. In a few minutes, though, there?s a good chance you wouldn?t want to be around me. They ask me how my family is. I want to say, "incomplete." Every second feels like a million years without him. Every tick of the watch is another reminder of my mother's newfound loneliness. I am angry at the world for no longer crying with me.
But then again, this is not about me. It cannot be. This is about him. I guess that this is about the fifty-eight year-long-example he set for the world. The example we unfortunately ignored like it was a substitute teacher and we were the rambunctious children.
I remember that my father had woken up most mornings at 5:40 AM, gone outside to get the New York Times, sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the obituaries. Once, as he looked through the names of the deceased, I accused him of being morbid. "Is that really necessary?" I asked. "You know, some people read the comics first." He then solemnly turned to me and said that there was a great deal we could learn from those that were no longer with us. It?s almost ironic, he continued, how we could learn to live from the ones that have died.
I used to speak to my father every day. This was something that used to embarrass me. Now, I replay those conversations in my head over and over again, recycling them faster than the highlight clips on Sports Center.
During those conversations, my father never spoke about himself and the important things he did as the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. I don't remember him telling me to look in the New York Times for his quotes or bragging about the lunch meeting he had with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or the dinner with the late Cardinal O'Connor.
My father was a significant public figure. So why have I waited until now to tell you this? Because this was how my father would have wanted it.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he visited me in a dream, with his spirit blushing, asking me to stop exaggerating. I imagine him saying, please, Arye, I don't deserve all this. And I would say back to him, yes. Yes, you do. Not because you were an incredible father and a wonderful husband. Not because you were a trustworthy friend and a worthy confidant. But because you taught me that every soul is precious, that every person is unique, that everyone has hardships, everyone has challenges.
You taught me that many people find the time to ask, "how are you?"
But only the best people, those like you, take the time to listen for the answer.