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The last time I saw my father was in August 1999, one month before he died. I was in Israel on university business, mapping out a trip to the Holy Land as part of a spring seminar that I teach at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. At that point, I hadn’t seen my dad in a year and I could tell immediately that his health had deteriorated.
My father was a vigorous man who, curiously, became more relaxed and more adventurous with age, especially after he moved to Jerusalem in 1992. Six days a week he went to a daf yomi class in the Orthodox neighborhood of Geulah, a short drive from his home. Daf yomi is a system of study in which a folio page of Talmud is studied each day; at that rate, the entire Talmud (all 2,711 pages) is covered in a little over seven years. For my dad, daf yomi was part intellectual, part devotional (the study of Talmud is in itself meritorious), and part social event. His daf yomi study group was made up of about thirty men in their seventies, eighties, and even nineties, most of them from the United States, but some also from England, South Africa, and Australia. English was the language of discourse, although the text was read in the Talmud’s original Hebrew and Aramaic.
The class was led by Rabbi Eliezer Simonson, who like many of his aging daf yomi students was a retired American pulpit rabbi. My father had spent his life buying, selling, and managing real estate in Hartford, Connecticut, and retired to Israel at the age of seventy. But he too was a rabbi, privately ordained in 1944 after graduating from Yeshiva University in New York. Several of the other men in his Jerusalem daf yomi class were, in fact, classmates of his at Yeshiva University. Here, some fifty years later, after raising families and building careers, they were together again, reading the very same texts they had studied as young men. Shira, our kids, and I spent the academic year of 1997–1998 in Jerusalem, and during that time, I sometimes joined Dad at daf yomi. He introduced me to his friends with great enthusiasm, and then we sat down to study. I was surprised by how easily I fit into his world of Torah learning, a world I had drifted away from.
In the year since I’d last seen him, Dad’s doctors had discovered cancer in his right lung. They had taken out the lower lobe and were confident that they’d gotten all of the cancer, but the operation seriously weakened his heart. He recovered enough to resume his cherished daf yomi routine, but he could no longer drive to the class in his own car. Either friends would pick him up or he’d take the Number 14 bus right on his corner. He walked slowly and with a cane. But his spirits were good. He was excited that I was visiting and he encouraged me to stay in the extra room in his apartment on Lloyd George Street. But I was traveling on an expense account, I told him, and I was looking forward to staying at the new Jerusalem Hilton. I promised to take my Shabbat meals with him.
I arrived in Israel on a Friday morning, took care of some business, tried to catch up on my jet lag (I can never sleep on the plane), and then met Dad at his apartment for the walk to synagogue. It was a walk that we’d taken together many times before—down the main thoroughfare of Emek Refaim, across the railroad tracks over which trains never ran on Shabbat to the neighboring community of Bakka, and then down Yair Street to the old domed-roof Yael Synagogue.
My father’s gait was unsteady, and he leaned heavily on my arm. What was normally for him a fifteen-minute walk, was taking twice as long. He stopped often, ostensibly to point out a new store along Emek Refaim or to listen to my answer to a question he asked me about my children. I remember feeling frustrated at how slowly he was walking and how often he stopped, especially on the way home from shul. He never complained about feeling sick, so I thought he was just dawdling. But by the time we returned to his apartment and he assumed his place at the head of the table, it was like old times. He sang Shalom Aleichem, the opening song of the Friday-night Sabbath meal, made kiddush over the wine, made hamotzei over the challah, and sang his traditional family Sabbath songs. His wife, Teme, served a home-cooked dinner of gefilte fish, salad, chicken soup, and chicken. Dad ate with obvious pleasure, brought me up to date on our many Israeli relatives, and asked me for more news of my children and of Shalom and Dov, my two brothers, who also live in America and made regular visits to see him in Israel.
I told my father about the project that had brought me to Israel, and how I planned to return with my class in March 2000 for the expected visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. We spoke about the possibility of my bringing my family along, either before or after the class trip. Dad said that if we all came, he’d make a special bat mitzvah party for Emma, just like the bar mitzvah party he’d made for Adam in 1997, during the year we had spent in Israel while I was teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I may not believe in equal rights,” he joked, “but I believe in equal opportunity. Emma should have a party too.”
Sitting in my father’s apartment, I found it easy to forget how frail he had looked during our walk to and from the synagogue. I focused instead on how vigorous he seemed at the table. We spoke eagerly about the future.
I went about my business during the next few days, planning the upcoming trip. I met with tour operators and with religious and government officials, and I journeyed to the north of Israel to visit some of the kibbutzim where I was thinking of housing my students during our trip. I checked in with Dad by phone each day. He was very interested in the places I was visiting and in how I was getting around by train and bus. I told him I’d be back on Wednesday and had an 8:00 a.m. flight to New York the next morning. “Don’t check back into the Hilton,” he pleaded. “You’ll have to get up at 4:00 in the morning and leave for the airport at 5:00. It’s not worth it.” I reminded him that I wasn’t paying for it myself. “C’mon,” he said, “stay with me. I’ve got the room.”
It means a lot to him to have me under his roof, I realized. As a father myself, I know how good it feels to go around to all the bedrooms of my home late at night and see my children sleeping, safe and sound. When I’m home, it’s my nightly ritual. Why should I deny my dad that pleasure? God knows, he didn’t have that feeling often as a young father. I imagined him in Hartford, going around to the rooms where my brothers and I used to sleep and seeing only empty beds. After my mother left him in 1956, the three of us lived with her in New York and saw my father only on occasional weekends and Jewish holidays. How hard it must have been on him. “Sure,” I said. “Why check into a hotel? I’m staying with you.”
When I got to his apartment, we talked more about my sojourn up north. My father, who was just discover- ing public transportation after a lifelong love affair with cars, questioned me about routes and schedules and timetables. I told him about the great views of the Mediterranean on the train trip from Tel Aviv to Haifa, about how modern the trains are (they even have outlets for laptops), and about the seedy Tel Aviv bus station, where I picked up a bus to Jerusalem. He seemed to delight in my ability to get around without a car (I happen to hate driving). “I’m very proud of the way you did that,” he said. The words struck me. I stared at him, sitting in his V-neck T-shirt and pajama bottoms, with a cup of iced coffee in front of him. In a sense I’d been waiting to hear that my whole life. “I’m very proud of you.”
My dad did not support me in my career choice; he wanted me to be a doctor. He was certain that journalism would be the death of my Orthodoxy. “How can you be a Sabbath observer and a journalist?” he asked. “Impossible,” he answered. I’ve spent my life trying to prove him wrong. I believed—and continue to believe—that I can at the same time be true to my faith and excel at my profession. Sure, I’ve made some compromises along the way, but even after all these years and all those compromises, my essential Orthodoxy remains intact. In my twenty-five-year career, I’ve written more than 1,000 articles for the New York Times. I wrote a book (which I know he didn’t like for a myriad of reasons, including its portrayal of my parents’ divorce), and I became a professor at Columbia. None of it seemed to please him. Why now, after mastering Israeli public transportation, was I a source of pride? Was he talking about my ability to navigate the Israel he loved, or was he taking the whole measure of my life and finding me suddenly worthy? I wasn’t quite sure, but I do remember that I went to sleep quite happy that night.
My father wasn’t much of a sleeper. Insomniac might be a better word. Soon after I got up at 4:00 a.m. to catch my plane, I heard him in the living room. He was opening and closing the glass doors of the wooden breakfront. He wished me a particularly enthusiastic “good morning” and mischievously handed me a silver kiddush cup and a silver bessomim box, the spice holder used during havdala, the prayer said at the conclusion of Shabbat. “These are for you,” he said. “I want you to have them.” My first reaction was: I wonder if he asked Teme. She was particularly proud of their silver collection and here he was giving part of it away. But she was fast asleep in their bedroom, and that wasn’t for me to worry about. When he gave me these gifts, I felt additional confirmation of his approval. Perhaps he was trying to let me know that I did, after all, find favor in his eyes. I carefully wrapped the cup and the spice holder and put them in my suitcase. Outside, the driver of the cab that was taking me to the airport honked his horn and raced the motor. I hugged my dad, inhaled his musty morning smell, and kissed his stubbled cheek. “Love you, Dad,” I said holding on tightly. “See you in April.”
From the Hardcover edition.