It is now the Jewish month of Nissan, the month during which we celebrate the holiday of Passover. Because it is considered a very happy period in the Jewish calendar we generally hold back from delivering eulogies, or perhaps more commonly today we keep them more focused and brief. To that end my brothers and I decided to deliver just one eulogy as a united group. I think this works out just fine as my father could get annoyed when we talked too much. The Rabbi also mentioned that the eulogy ought to contain divrei Torah, words and ideas of Torah, and therefore I thought it appropriate to eulogize my father in the context of the upcoming holiday of Passover.
The Rabbis refer to Passover by several different names, one of them being chag haemuna, or holiday of faith. In light of and in appreciation for the miracles G-d performed for us, and having delivered us from oppressive slavery to freedom, it is a time we reignite or reassert our faith in Him. In two weeks we will begin our Passover seder with the declaration of “Ha Lachma Anya” – this is the bread of affliction...”Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechol”...- all who are hungry come and eat. Of course many questions are asked and much commentary offered about this formal opening declaration to the seder, and I presume my idea is not altogether novel even if I can't provide its source, but here's the thought – King David famously writes in Psalm 89 “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” – the world is built on kindness. G-d built this world and continues to build and sustain it with His attribute of Kindness. G-d had no need or reason to perform open miracles for us and redeem us from slavery, rather it was an act of pure Chesed, pure Kindness. What better way to reassert our faith in the Almighty than to imitate this act of Kindness by opening our homes and our families to those in need. What better way to show our appreciation to G-d than to declare “Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechol” – all who are hungry come and eat.
My brothers and I were very fortunate to grow up in a house where this was not just a statement issued once a year, but a way of life. My father's kindness and benevolence was at times seemingly boundless. His greatest pleasure was opening his home to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. He of course loved to cook and to entertain large amounts of people for all types occasions, but what was truly unique was how far he extended himself. I remember when I was living in New York and returned home for a weekend. When I arrived at my father's house there was someone else there who seemed to be making himself strangely comfortable. I asked my dad who it was and he said “Oh it's just someone staying with me.” I thought that meant maybe a couple days or something. No, he was there for a few weeks already and had no plans of leaving anytime soon. After a series of inquiries my father simply said “he's having a difficult time and needed a place to stay for a while until he got himself back on his feet.” Over the course of my visit I saw my father didn't treat this guest as a charity case, in fact he didn't even treat him as a guest at all. Before moving in with him this person was a complete stranger, and here I saw my father treating him like his best friend. He cooked him meals almost daily. And I'm not talking spaghetti or grilled cheese. One night was lamb curry, the next night poached salmon. Rich rice dishes with pistachios, raisins, saffron...For breakfast – feta cheese omelets, shakshuka. He didn't ask for rent, help with the grocery shopping or cleaning the house. My father didn't want him to feel like he was just there for a place to sleep or just there as a charity cause. He embraced him as friend. He did whatever he could to uphold his dignity during his difficult period. And this was not a one time occurrence. I can tell you multiple stories like this. In fact just recently someone shared a similar personal story. I knew he recently went to visit my father in Florida, and I remember my father telling me he was there for a couple weeks for a vacation. This friend says to me “A couple weeks... how about 5 months!” Based on how my father portrayed it I thought he was there vacationing, soaking up the Florida sun, but his friend confided that he was going thru a difficult period and had nowhere else to go. My father never pressured him to leave and let him stay unconditionally. And we're not talking about the Taj Mahal, this was a small 2 bedroom apartment. 5 months. And my father never said anything to compromise his dignity, never mentioned the sensitivity of his situation.
I remember one time I became aware of a situation...someone needed a place to stay for a while. He lost his job and was going thru a divorce and by the time I got involved in trying to help him he had exhausted all his resources. I thought my father's place would be a good potential solution, but was a bit hesitant to ask him. He had just gone thru a rough period with a particularly difficult house guest who overstepped some boundaries and might have even been a bit offensive. Anyway, I knew this person had nowhere else to turn and I had to ask my father, but I was worried it was a bit too soon since this difficult guest had just left. I scripted the ask, even practiced it before calling him. Finally I picked up the phone I said dad I need favor...”Of course, anything, what is it?” “Well there's this guy who is kinda down on his luck...” My father could tell I was a bit distressed so he interrupted me “does he need a place to stay?” I said “yea, but it's probably not for very long and...” Again he interrupted “what's the matter with you, of course he can come. Is he coming today? Will he be here for dinner?” I said “well dad, it's a bit of a story, the guy has made some mistakes and I just want to make sure you're perfectly comfortable with the situation.” At this point he sounded a bit perturbed “ made some mistakes?! I make mistakes, you make mistakes, does that mean we don't deserve to have a place to live? C'mon.”
This is how he was. My father didn't make calculations, there were no preconditions. He didn't need to know who it was, what the story was. Someone needed a place, they got it.
Two years ago at Thanksgiving time he was in the middle of his chemo treatments and they began taking a toll on him. I told him I was planning on coming down to visit him and asked almost rhetorically if he had any Thanksgiving plans thinking that was the last thing on his mind. He said “Great, come on down. I'm hosting a dinner for 15 people.” If I didn't know him I would have thought he was kidding. I ask him who was on the privileged guest list and as he goes thru the list he mentions someone I know he had a bit of a falling out with. The guy stayed with him for a bit and took advantage of my father a little...I don't know exactly what happened but I know my father was very unhappy with the guy, and here he was just weeks later inviting him to his Thanksgiving dinner. I said “dad didn't you and so and so have an issue recently?” He says “the guy has nowhere to go for thanksgiving, he has no family. I'm gonna let him be alone for Thanksgiving because he offended me?”
“KOL Dichfin Yayte V'yechul” - ALL who are hungry, come and eat. Not just my family, not just my friends, not just those I am comfortable with, not just those who agree with me...
His kindness was not relegated to just his home. Wherever he went he looked for opportunities to bring smiles and joy to peoples faces. Waiting in line at the store he would talk to a random stranger in front of us, tell them a corny joke. Riding an elevator he would ask the person next to him where he was going, tell him have a great day. He just loved people and didn't understand why people didn't interact with each other more. I remember when he visited me in NYC and we rode the subway somewhere together. He thought it was the most ridiculous experience. All these people jammed in a subway car together, none of them expressing any emotion, nobody interacting with each other. They looked lifeless to him. It was so foreign to him. He started making random conversation, telling jokes. Anyone who's been on an NYC subway knows this is usually not taken kindly to. It didn't bother him.
Of course sometimes his extroversion was a bit over the top for people, for some people his filter was set just a bit too low. But he brought a lot of joy to people on a daily basis. Very often before he went to his chemo treatments he would stop at this bakery that made what he called the best babka in the world. With him everything was the best. Always the superlative. Nothing was just good or tasty. It had to be THE best. So he would pick up a babka to bring to the nurses and doctor when he went for his treatment. He recognized that their job was uniquely difficult – being around and treating terminal patients all day. It could be very depressing. He didn't want to be another depressing patient. So he would bring a babka. He said “you wouldnt believe what a babka can do. I spend $6 and I make 3 nurses and a doctor happy.” He marveled at this - $1.50 per person to make them smile, to make their whole day a little better. To make them look forward to the day he was scheduled to come in. To him this was the biggest bargain in the world. There was a problem though. Not everyone loved babka as much as he did, but somehow my father didn't understand how this was possible. He offered a nurse a piece of the babka, the nurse would say thank but I'm on a diet, I'd gonna pass. Well my father wasn't going to have it. “C'mon try one piece, you'll love it. It's the best babka in the world.” Thank you Isaac, I just, I dont really eat babka. So my father had no choice – not a moment later than the nurse insistently declined his jesture my father indiscriminately shoves a piece in his mouth. “C'mon tell me that's not the best babka you ever had.” He just couldn't help himself sometimes. Sometimes even those who were NOT hungry had to come and eat.
When I consider my father's motivations and his attitude to performing acts of kindness I'm reminded of a thought I once heard attributed to Rabbi Soloveichik that goes like this. Our experience as slaves in Egypt presented us with an ethical obligation, a moral imperative to be kind to others, particularly the poor and downtrodden. It is one thing to recognize intellectually that one ought to be kind to those less fortunate, but quite another when one has experienced those same hardships himself.
My father was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1946. From the little he has told us about his childhood it sounds like they lived a very comfortable upper middle class lifestyle – my grandfather had a thriving business as some sort of tradesman, they lived in the heart of a very warm and close knit upper class Jewish community. All of that was suddenly taken away 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Egypt under Nasser's regime. My father's family was stripped of all their comforts and luxuries and forced to leave with little more than a few suitcases. Most of the other Jewish families settled in London, a center for commerce and trade, but ours somehow was destined for the industrial city Birmingham. They weren't in the heart of a close knit Jewish community, they lacked the resources they needed to resettle comfortably. My grandfather didn't speak a word English and had a very difficult time reestablishing himself professionally, and from what we understand battled severe depression the rest of his life. From the age of 16 my father left school to work full time to help support his family.
My father knew what it meant to be needy. He experienced firsthand the horrors of being displaced from his home, of needing a place to go. For him, inviting others into his home, whether it be for a meal or to stay however long his guests needed or desired, was a moral imperative. “How can I not let someone in need of shelter and comfort stay in my home?” “How can I let someone eat a Thanksgiving meal alone?” He didn't make calculations, he didn't have conditions. It wasn't a good deed, a nice jesture...for my dad it was a moral imperative. Kol dichfin...
Professionally as a painting contractor he made it his priority to hire new American immigrants. Russians, Israelis, many of whom spoke no English like his father. He was so proud of the fact that he could help, giving them their first job when they had difficulty finding employment in their new homeland. And this was at great self sacrifice. Imagine running a business where you couldn't communicate with most of your employees even on a basic level. And we're not talking about a shlock operation. Custom Painting by Roger Douek was one of the preeminent outfits in town. You can drive through some of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Clayton and here in the Central West End where entire blocks of houses were painted by my father's crew. Some of his employees literally became some of the best painters and craftsmen in St. Louis. After getting their start with my father some of them went on to establish their own very lucrative businesses as contractors, real estate developers. My father was so proud that he gave them their start when they could barely speak English.
He took a very personal responsibility for them as well. I remember his nervousness during slow seasons when he didn't have any work. He was always concerned about keeping his crews busy so they wouldn't have to worry about paychecks. And I remember some years when things were very tight he told me he paid his top painters more money than he himself took home. Painters who spoke no English. How many corporate CEO's today can make such a claim. Olam Chesed Yibaneh – this world is Built on Kindness.
Unquestionably my father's proudest accomplishment was us, his children. There was nothing he was more passionate about than giving us the positive childhood which he was denied. We spent a lot of time together, always sitting down together for dinner, our Sunday morning ritual of breakfast and bowling. Having no formal education from the age of 16, he always stressed the importance of formal education. Even though his business for many years was a lucrative one, he wanted us to have professional opportunities he never had. Invariably whenever he would attend our school functions, whether it was our kindergarten plays or high school graduations, he always cried like a baby. He was so proud of our educational accomplishments. He was especially proud of our Jewish education and development. We all attended the local Jewish day schools, we all learned in yeshivas. He never pushed us in one direction, he never tried to impose his own ideas or preconceptions of what or how we should learn. He gave us all the room we needed to choose our own paths and make our own choices. Along the way, around bar mitzvah time we all decided to take upon ourselves added religious observance under the influence and guidance of our maternal grandparents – a stricter, more Orthodox observance of shabbat and holidays, and more rigorous kosher diet. These choices weren't just self sacrifice on our part, but in many ways on his as well – spending weekends away from home to attend synagogue and festive meals with our grandparents and the rest of my mother's family. It also restricted how and what we ate at his house, and this was no simple thing. His greatest pleasure was to cook, especially for my brothers and I. Nothing was more sacred than sitting down for a meal together. He tried so hard to accommodate – going out to buy new pots and pans, new dishes to accommodate our heightened kosher standards. And I can only speak for myself, not my brothers when I say that sometimes in my religious zeal I neglected perhaps the most important Torah mandate of Kibbud Av Va'em – to respect and honor our parents. I know there were times when I should have been more respectful and sensitive to my father, and I know it hurt him sometimes even if he didn't show it. And yet I can tell you without a hint of exaggeration did he ever criticize our beliefs and practices. On the contrary, he always actively supported and encouraged our spiritual choices. And he constantly expressed deep admiration and genuine appreciation for my grandparents' influence on our spiritual lives. He told Gabe and I just days ago that he often dreamed about our maternal grandfather, Dr. Parker, even more so than his own father.
Dad I must ask mechila/forgiveness for those times where I failed to show you the proper respect and sensitivity you not only deserved and taught us, but gave to us always. For times when I should have used different words, a different tone, should have listened rather than speak.
The Zohar states that when we begin our Passover seder and make the declaration “Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechul” - all who are hungry come and eat – the Almighty together with his celestial entourage heeds our call and descends upon all our seders to listen to us recount the story of the Exodus, to hear us sing the songs, to be there with us as we reassert our faith in Him. Dad, this year you don't get to make that declaration of “Kol Dichfin,” - all who are hungry come and eat. You don't get to send out any invitations and you don't get to do the cooking. Instead, this year you are on the receiving end of the invitation, a Divine invitation. You will be one of the guests of honor at the Almighty's personal seder. And dad, make sure you bring your appetite. I hear they'll be serving the most amazing lamb curry.