My Father and the Talmud
I idolized my dad and resented him. As I’ve untangled our relationship, I adopted his passion: Talmud study
When I was young, my father, a rabbi, would roll up his sleeves in front of an open Talmud and spend four or five hours putting different postulates and corollaries together as though he were building a road in ancient Rome. It wasn’t easy, but he was determined. He would concentrate unrelentingly on the words and sentences until he fashioned a pshat—a line of reasoning—to make things work. Lazy thinking was as far from him as Queens was from the Pacific.
He was the whole world to me, and I yearned to know what he knew, to be like him. But he and I were too different; we still are. My father is thoroughly God-centered and deeply committed to mastery of religious texts. He is a man of principles, scholarship, organization, planning, and goals. I, on the other hand, am both less scholarly and less organized along rational principles. I cannot be like my father, as much as I may have awkwardly, painfully tried.
Still, I yearn. Most boys go through a period where they aspire to be their fathers and it passes, but for a few like me it lasts a lifetime. My father continues to exert an oceanic force on me that has not let up with age. But now, as I near my own half-century mark, I may be ready to accept both of us on our own terms. As Father’s Day approaches, I find that I am able to forgive myself and him for our wonderful, loving, bullying, and bizarre relationship over the years—a relationship in which the Talmud has played a starring role and remains a key to helping me understand our connection.
Dad came to life at the dawn of the Great Depression, delivered into the cauldron of an America yet to achieve its full muscle.
A Bronx Jew, with Yiddish as his mother tongue, the son of an uneducated house-painter from a Galician shtetl in der alter heim, Dad lived as many of the throngs of Jews did in that borough, in swaybacked tenements. They played stickball in the streets in their knickers. He would go to the live chicken market before Shabbes with his Bubbe and he would sit in shul with his friends on the High Holidays. He went to P.S. 82 and afternoon Hebrew school, was accepted to the honor society at De Witt Clinton High School, and from there went to City College and the United States Air Force and various universities and an august rabbinical academy.
He, with griner parents, knew exactly what he had to do, as if by magic; I, by contrast, had no idea what to do with my life for a very long time. It seemed that my only clear job in an American paradise built by Dad’s generation was, incredibly, to be a son—a job that I performed reasonably well, though with no great distinction. (I was terribly short and a disaster in sports.) Looking back, I wouldn’t have minded being a son to such a man if I had some other role, but I did not.
When I was 8 years old, I started to study with my father on Shabbes afternoons. We started with the easier-to-understand Chumash, but I was an excellent study and it was not long before we moved over to Talmud. I think we began with the 8th chapter in Tractate of Bava Mezia: One man borrows a cow and something happens to the cow—is he liable?
I can remember the creaking noise of my father’s footsteps when he would seek me out to learn with him. I would think of ways to evade and escape. “I’m tired,” I would say. This would work for a while, he would go downstairs and begin to learn on his own, but after a few minutes the guilt got to me and I felt I could not possibly leave him by himself. I had to be with him to save him and, by extension, myself—for I was totally dependent on him. If I was not near him and in his favor, I literally had difficulty breathing. Those summer afternoons are bound in my memory by a mix of love, devotion, and homicidal wishes. How I envied my mother and my sisters whose femininity exempted them from these trials. I chafed, I bridled, I snarled, but I also showed interest. I was under a complicated spell of the love a boy has for his father and a young boy’s devotion to and fear of God.
My father sat at the head of the dining room table. I was at his right. In front of us was a plate of pretzels, a glass of seltzer for him and orange juice or Hawaiian Punch for me. In those days I was a chubby kid, both overfed and undernourished. He would passionately explain a concept and I would glumly nod. I felt truly helpless in the face of my mind’s wanderings, yet there was no fright greater than disappointing him, which inevitably happened—when he discovered that I had not been paying attention. “Do you think I am just bumping my gums?” he would ask in disgust.
I would master a concept, and it would immediately be time for the next one. I had been thrown into the sea, and the only way I could survive was to cling to Dad. Those summer afternoons of a dark father-son love were but a blip in my father’s life, but they lengthened into the arc of my own. The Talmud became the great metaphor for our relationship: During these study sessions, and in the afterglow that lasted afterward for days and weeks on end, I would experience feelings for which I had no words—and I would receive the words of the Talmud, for which I had no feeling. Rather than embark on a life’s course for myself, we both began a game of seek, search, destroy, and rescue that has lasted a lifetime.
As our lives lengthened, Dad was in many a fix—he was in a deadly serious accident when I was a teenager, for instance, and was confined to a wheelchair for three years. Moreover, although he remained supremely competent, once I too was an adult, he became dependent on me, owing mostly to his accident, to help him navigate his affairs. This consummate captain could not now function without a first mate. I, in turn, arranged a life where I was in need of his rescue of some sort or other, usually financial.
When I was in my 20s, I embarked on an ill-fated real-estate voyage. I defaulted on the maintenance payments to the co-op. Somehow, he found out about this and my father put on his black hat and rabbinical garb and went down, gimp-legged and all, to the co-op board and simply paid $3,000 in back dues, without saying a word to me other than that he “took care of it.” I did not default after that, but it was not the last time I needed or accepted his assistance.
The help went both ways. He, the supreme adviser, would puzzlingly turn to me for professional and personal advice. Once, he was trying for a very prestigious well-paying position. He felt the odds were stacked against him: Dad said they wanted Ivy Leaguers and not City College boys from the Bronx. I advised him to purchase a Brooks Brothers shirt and cufflinks, an expensive suit, and a $100 tie, and to bring the chairman of the board a falafel sandwich from a well-known pizza shop in Queens. (She loved it, and he was given the position and succeeded there handsomely.) Always we would rescue each other from the scrapes and blunders of late 20th-century American Jewish life.
But despite our mutual dependence (or maybe because of it), I tried to kill him off with rebellion—by killing if not him then his traditions. My Talmud studies stagnated. In every sphere of life—whether in school (delaying my doctoral work), at work (I would score many victories but not win wars), or with women (for my culture, I was a little late in marrying)—I was conjuring up the specter of my father everywhere and doing battle with it.
There’s no single story that clarifies everything: Everything changes and yet remains exactly the same; roles change and shift, and yet we wind up in the same place. I look at his wide forehead, his Paul Newman ice-blue eyes, the sametenem ponim—the velvet face; he knows everything and knows nothing and yet he can hear anything. I have seen people tell him things about himself, terrible things, but it doesn’t matter what you say, how terrible, he will find the human in you and in him.
Once I told him of my ardent plans to wreck everything in my life, to turn everything—career, religion—upside down. I thought my news might give him a heart attack, so as a precaution I arranged to tell him of my plans in the office of a top psychoanalyst (a former Marine). I told him frankly that the life I had built and we had built together was false and needed to be knocked down in one fell swoop. I will never forget the look on his face: total concern and complete silence at the same time. It was the silence that only true and wise love can give.
Somehow, this experience of confiding in him, and his response, helped me to find strength. This wisdom, his wisdom became embodied for me in the bais medrash, the fountain where our people gather every morning and evening to drink.
It was here I found and still find myself going involuntarily almost to struggle, to torture, to find my place literally—in these words, the words of the Talmud for which I thought I had no feeling. The brutality of the bais medrash, the unending, bittersweet rhythm of the rabbis’ imprecations became a source of life, but only after I allowed myself to hate them long enough and with enough heart and soul. It turns out that everything I thought I hated, I loved and hated, and this continuous struggle with the Talmud has brought me closer to him.
Every night now, I go to the bais medrash. I gird myself to do something difficult, even painful: ride the winds of several opposing ideas in a complicated Talmudic discussion. I flail about with the big boys, barely bunting and walking in a ballpark of homerun hitters—the oceanic Talmud and its demanding discourse will flatten even the biggest of men—and every night I return home wiped out and wonderfully defeated.
On the terrain of the Talmud where everything human and divine is discussed and ruled upon, a man borrows a cow and something happens to it, an egg is laid on a holiday, a man betroths a woman with the stomach lining of a stoned ox. With these lines I relive those early, tender, hellish moments with my father, but now improbably with a better ending. Every time I go back to the bais medrash, I forgive, I am free. Free to be with him and yet no longer tied to him in exactly the same way.
A good friend of mine once said that if you feel a pain in life, that pain is more than likely the pain of the man who is not one with his father. The pain of not being one is more painful than anything else, except of course, perhaps the pain of being one with one’s father.
The prophets tell us that in the end of days, the hearts of fathers will be restored to their sons and the hearts of sons to their fathers. The Hebrew word for son is “ben,” which also means to build, but this is not simple. There cannot be father-son love (or any love) without some destructiveness. In fact, the instinct to destroy, Freud said, is greater; the death drive overrides everything. But somehow through the cracks, like the persistent sing-song of the Talmud, the small still voice that threads through a man’s life says, “build, build.” And here on this road, this father and this son walk together.
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