This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009.
He was born at the turn of the 20th century in a shtetl in Eastern Europe; I was born in the second half of the century in the most cosmopolitan city in the world.
His mother tongue was Yiddish, but he was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish, German and eventually English. My preferred tongue was English, because I was embarrassed when he spoke to me in Yiddish.
He had no use for TV, movies, sports or even books that weren’t limudei kodesh. I was passionate about all of them. On the other hand, he was a true talmid chacham who could recite any pasuk from Tanach or any prayer from the siddur from memory; I could not.
He was a simple, quiet man, preferring to sit in the back of the shul, at the end of the row. He chose to avoid both crowds and conversation and was content to immerse himself in a sefer; I was not.
The recreational pastimes that American fathers commonly partake with their sons—playing ball, going to movies, attending sports events—were of no interest to him. The only activity we shared was attending lectures given by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l. The intellectual excitement of studying with this frail, brilliant icon was the sole interest that appealed to both of us.
I can still remember sitting with my father at one particular shiur of the Rav as if it was yesterday. It seemed to me that the Rav looked me squarely in the eye when proclaiming authoritatively that we were forbidden from choosing a favorite prayer. He stated that all prayers had to be appreciated, objectively and equally. As he said it, my mouth suddenly became completely dry.
It was as if he knew my dirty little secret: I had a favorite prayer. I chose it as soon as I had learned Hebrew in elementary school. It has become so hardwired into my psyche, that, I must confess, despite the Rav’s unequivocal admonition, it remains so to this day.
On the surface, my choice of prayer made no sense whatsoever. It was Birkat Kohanim, and neither my father nor I, obviously, were Kohanim. Nonetheless, the enigmatic closing paragraph of the prayer was one I recited with far greater kavanah and fervor than anything else in the machzor.
The reason was simple. It was the only prayer that allowed me to directly, explicitly and unabashedly beseech God to extend my parents’ lives.
Why was it so important to me? Was it because I loved my father more than any other child loves his?
I am ashamed to admit that was not even remotely the case.
I recognized my father’s virtues. He was honorable as well as honest, religious as well as observant, responsible as well as hard-working, modest as well as learned. He was the first person in shul and the first at work. He was respected and even revered by the few who were privileged to be in his inner circle—rabbis and laymen alike. Though I was hardly a neutral observer—by any objective parameter—my father was a great man, and an even greater Jew. He set a standard so high in both regards that I knew, even as I was growing up, I would never be his equal.
Despite that, my love for him was both compromised and conflicted by the fact that his nobility as a man and a Jew were not equaled in his performance as a father and a husband.
He was a provider and a role model, but not much more. He never offered affection, either physically or verbally. He was touchy-feely only in the sense that when I displeased him and he touched me, I felt it.
Why, then, was I so determined to implore God to reward him? For the same reason that I was able to accept his deficiencies as a father: My father was a Survivor.
My father had lost his parents, his siblings, his friends, his wife and his child in the Shoah. My mother and I were replacements and were, perhaps willy-nilly, treated accordingly.
My father never shared any of this with me. He didn’t have to. I saw the numbers on his arm. I heard him wake up screaming every night of his life.
It was only when he died that I understood more fully why Birkat Kohanim was my favorite prayer. I simultaneously came to realize that while being his son was not necessarily a pleasure, it was my greatest honor.
Because he died, deservedly, at an advanced age—as I had continually prayed for—on a Friday morning of the earliest Shabbat of the year, his funeral had to be postponed until Sunday. I had several days to gather my thoughts for his eulogy.
His hesped had to contain three elements:
It had to be completely truthful, as the Rav himself had explicitly instructed in his eulogy for the Talner Rebbe.
It had to do my father justice. He was not only a member of our holiest generation, but in starting his life over, he gave life to me and my children, and he displayed a courage I could not begin to comprehend.
Finally, it had to describe him in Lashon Kodesh, which, though not his mother tongue, was his most precious possession.
I searched for the right words, but they eluded me. In my desperate reverie, I found myself absent-mindedly mouthing my favorite prayer. As I did, its relevance struck me like a bolt of lightning.
The enigmatic repeated reference that I had been automatically reciting for four decades suddenly made sense: “Yaakov Avinu, hanikra ish tam. Our father, Jacob, who was referred to as tam.”
What does “tam” mean? As in the Haggadah, it means simple. My father was simple—unpretentious, unaffected, hewing to the verities of our faith. As in a korban tamim, it means complete. He was complete, writing poetry with the same arm with which he lifted 100-pound bolts of fabric. As in tamid—eternal. Despite being tested inhumanely, he continued to believe and practice our ever-abiding truths.
As I hurriedly wrote down the words that so elegantly defined my father, I suddenly realized a more important truth. I felt foolish for never having understood it before. The words of my favorite prayer were not even remotely what had determined my choice.
The real reason I treasured Birkat Kohanim was because when I recited it, to prevent me from looking directly at the Kohanim, my father would take me under his tallit.
For those precious few moments, I felt like an eaglet—safe and secure under the wing of a strong, invulnerable eagle. Under his tallit, Auschwitz was very far away. Under his tallit, he didn’t cry out for his murdered wife and child. Under his tallit, I felt the love that otherwise he could never express.
We buried my father under his tallit. It was where he had always belonged.
And so had I.
My roommate in medical school, Sheldon Feldman, when asked why he had chosen breast cancer as his specialty, recounts how his sister had died of the disease. In reality, he confesses, he never chose the field; the field chose him.
The Rav was right. We don’t choose our favorite prayer. It chooses us. Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, is the president of the NYU-Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, a columnist for The Jewish Week and the author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend—Embracing Anger to Heal Your Life (Bloomington, Indiana, 2003).