Letter to my father on his 90th birthday

Miryam and Dad

Miryam and Dad


I would like to say a few words on this occasion of your 90th birthday.

Tolstoy begins his great novel Anna Karenina with this famous opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A couple of sentences you could spend a lifetime pondering without quite figuring it out. Still, I think of these words now in trying to assemble a few of my own. I have always known you, after all, in the context of family.

You are one of only a handful of people I know about whom I can honestly say I have always admired. There is an essential decency and selflessness about you that has become, for me, the touchstone of my own thematic journey and quest. Many people (though certainly not everyone) see this, though it may be that those with an especial feeling for character are, inexorably, the ones who see it best. “As a man is, so he sees,” muses William Blake; “Every body does not see alike.”

Oedipal Reflections
It’s an absurd understatement to say that we grew up in a sort of quintessential Jewish matriarchy. Mom was headstrong about what she intended for us. You were the steadfast Rock of Gibraltar who quietly and patiently underwrote the whole scene. It could not have been an easy gig, starting from essentially nothing and having, eventually, seven mouths to fill and heads to educate at universities and colleges that didn’t come cheap. There is a lot to be said for working oneself up by pulling one’s own bootstraps. The result is occasionally an awareness and way of being in the world one does not obtain any other way.

I recall all those Sunday night dinners at that Italian bar and restaurant, The Half Moon, just up the line in your hometown of Ossining. I remember being surrounded by brothers with considerable appetites and—even at that early age—thinking about the bill for which you would be responsible at the end of the meal. I could not have been more than 9 or 10, but I would try to order something not unduly expensive so as not to tax you any more than was necessary. Over time, though, it became apparent that you would support us all with understated skill and tact. What came across was that there were far more important things than money, that money was energy and little more. I am not sure that all of us were sufficiently inoculated growing up in a world in which money is the biggest drug going. Still, the values (“Man is the valuing animal,” proclaims Nietzsche somewhere) you tried to instill were spot on and encouraged at least some of us to develop ourselves in unconventional and arguably rarified ways.

Fatelessness, or Subtle Codes
Still, it was a hard family to get away from. It’s no accident that so many of us ended living in a 15-mile radius or so from ground zero. It was a scene I needed to move beyond from an early age. I recall a consequently turbulent adolescence with just a few allies on the perimeter. You were the one person within the confines of family who seemed to silently intuit my need, and surreptitiously, support, and even encourage it.

Fatelessness is the name of an astonishing autobiographical novel, at once brutal and poetic, by the Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész. Kertész’s book recounts a harrowing tale that eventually lands him in Auschwitz where, bizarrely, the worst treatment he receives is often at the hands of fellow Jews. There is a character in the film version that has always made me think of you. A Hungarian policeman stops a school bus one day and orders all the children onboard to debark. The Jewish boys are rounded up and held as the others return to the bus and proceed on their way. The policeman (carrying out, we surmise, orders he has himself received) instructs the Jew-boys to remain in place until the arrival of German officials higher up the chain of command who will place our protagonist on a train bound for the death camps. Verbally, the man exhorts the boys not to move, while conspicuously gesturing to the left and right as if to say, “For God’s sake, get away while you can!” You were like that in my mind, overtly reinforcing expectations and family codes while clandestinely sanctioning my defection—a series of leaps of faith, geographically, to the Promised Land of California and, metaphorically, to exotic realms of self-becoming. My purchase of my old Gibson guitar, my choice of college, that life-transforming move to Berkeley. All these things you supported monetarily, and more importantly, existentially, in principle.

It’s fitting that the author of that book is Hungarian. Your mother was the only one of our grandparents to hail from the Old Country, and Hungarian the strange language she spoke. An offspring of Austria-Hungary and the Jewish ghetto, Auschwitz is where her parents died. She was a survivor in the end, only a few steps removed from the nightmare of Europe. A wound that would never be healed, one that must have affected you in a myriad tacit, perhaps ineffable, ways.  This helps us understand, I think, your lifelong antipathy for reminders of the devastation that had taken the lives of your grandparents and some of their children as well.

Open Vistas and Shuttered Returns: The Scribe in California
“If we were still in the Old Country,” I recall you saying around the time I was packing two military-style duffle bags for my move to the West Coast, “you would have been a scribe.” A scribe in biblical parlance; a man, or now woman, of deep learning. It was an astute observation, one that took account of the philosophical and spiritual proclivities that have always been central to my nature, and more than this, served as an early harbinger of what I was, eventually, to become. Apt labels may be useful beacons when one is otherwise stabbing in the dark.

I remember you and Mom flying out to California some years later for my graduation. After the formal event, there was a cocktail reception back at the school. I recall introducing you to Murray Bilmes, one of the more memorable professors I have known. A New York Jew like you, Murray was an urbane and circumspectly eloquent man. “What are your interests, Murray?” you asked him respectfully upon meeting. Murray rejoined that it was inappropriate to say too much on such celebratory occasions before going on to say a few words about his interests in theater and psychoanalysis. Later that evening, I asked you about your impressions. “Murray is a thoroughbred,” you said; “I think that people like Murray lose something of the common work horse in their effeteness.” Since that time I have rubbed shoulders with countless thoroughbreds—psychologists, psychoanalysts, philosophers, scholars of religion—and I often think of this observation of yours. Here, too, your insight (the insight of an intelligently pensive and modest soul) was tactful and without judgment. You captured in a just a few words the tensions between naturalness and overbreeding and what is often sacrificed to scholastic achievement.

There is another anecdote I recall from that trip. One of your associates at the time had become embroiled in a malpractice lawsuit that eventually involved you as well. I forget entirely the details or outcome, but the unjust nature of the suit was uppermost in your thoughts and rendering. I asked whether there was anything at all that you or your associate had done wrong. “Nothing,” you replied, “but the more interesting question is this: how many times have I done something wrong without any repercussions at all?” Refinement of character, again, and a circumspect intelligence on which a guy like Murray had nothing at all.

Since my return to the East Coast, you and Mom have stayed with me in my various New England homes innumerable times. We’ve shared countless weekends and seen countless films: Ozu, Wenders, Herzog, Costa-Graves, Fassbinder, even once the Palestinian Film Festival. (Long before the atrocities in Gaza this past summer, you had an awareness of the complexity of things and a lifelong sympathy with the underdog, an attunement to what William James liked to call “the moral business.”) I recall one evening going with you and Mom and a few others up the road to Pleasantville to see Antonioni’s sublime L’Aventurra, a film I had already seen many times. I remember sitting next to you as you watched intently throughout with just a knowing sigh at the heartrending final scene (that final gesture of unanticipated, unbidden compassion) connoting what French philosopher and priest Gabriel Marcel once called ”a metaphysics of care.” Later on, the discussion turned to what might have happened to the young woman who mysteriously disappears at the beginning of the film; you were the one who understood instinctively that Antonioni was not Hollywood or Hitchcock and that the film’s truer message lay elsewhere. You have on occasion expressed misgivings about not having become more fully immersed in these aesthetic, even esoteric, domains of art, but in this regard you are far beyond the norm. The run-of-the-mill physician doesn’t read Cheever or Updike or Pinter. You were often reading writers who, like Tolstoy, had the courage to look beneath and, also, beyond, surfaces and appearances.

Depression, or How Much Truth Can You Stand? (Allowing Suffering to Speak)
I don’t think it is possible to precisely ferret out the factors that conspired to effect the depression that first overtook you some 20 years ago. A gradual letting go of the routine of work, the pressure of longstanding suppression of uncanny awareness albeit on the margins of everyday consciousness (Freud’s “return of the repressed”), the consequence of growing up with a traumatized mother who herself suffered increasing depression as she aged, a possible biological connection. What we can safely say is that it took us all by surprise and left you, liked the biblical Jacob, maimed in a fundamental way.

It’s been 20 years since the phone call I received one evening in the Lexington cottage where I lived for a time not unlike Thoreau. This was at the start of it all. “I’ve been thinking about the family pathology,” you said, “—and I know you know all about it.” Now, “pathology” is a strong word, so others might want simply to substitute the word “psychology.” After all, our family was no crazier than any other; happy families are all alike. “What do you mean?” I asked, a little disingenuously. You proceeded to go right down the list and did not exclude yourself; you were right about everything. I was stunned by your awareness and honesty. You resolved the next day to share your insights with a few others in the family, to help them “get religion,” as they say. I knew that there was no place to go with that insight, that other family members would not be equipped to hear what you had to say. By the end of that day, you were admitted to the first of several hospitalizations for depression.

The Trial, or The Persecutor Within
I remember giving Adam a copy of Kafka’s famously uncompleted 2nd novel on the occasion of his graduation from law school. Not simply because Kafka was himself a lawyer, but also insofar as I knew he was about to enter a profession in which it might prove difficult over time to be guided by what we may call the “higher virtues” in life. After one has been through that astonishing book several times, one begins to realize that it is no objective court that tries the protagonist “K,” that the relevant crimes and misdemeanors are to be found quintessentially within. Whenever “K” begins to dwell on himself, his sense of being-in-the world, the court suddenly appears around him in all its unfathomable irrationality and power. Seen in this way, it is a narrative of existential guilt, the manifold ways in which we betray our very selves. This existential guilt (the province of honest, searching souls) is one that you, like the Czech poet and penitent, would come to know intimately over time: Stations of the Cross on the way to character’s further refinement.

The novelist William Styron (a man with more than passing knowledge of such things) once offered this wise counsel to those many of us with reflexive tendencies to oversimplify, objectify and judge:

The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it…it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

The preoccupation with money and mundanity that sometimes overtook you during these times was entirely comprehensible. At such moments, you became, in a sense, more like others in your perseverative, self-absorbed concerns. “Anxiety seeks to become fear,” writes the great psychologist Rollo May; when dread reaches critical mass, its “packaging” into something manifestly tangible is what we mortal beings tend, inexorably, to do. Ironically, you became a little more normal, like others you have always tended to evaluate gently, yet negatively in their relentless overvaluing of material concerns. Larger familial scripts and narratives remaining essentially unattended, so you were left with no place else to go without becoming alienated utterly from the timeworn pulse of things nearby. You became, in a sense, the vicarious sufferer in residence—a moving, protracted second act of devotion, even servitude, to the family you have always supported faithfully in innumerable, essentially selfless ways.

There have been regular, sometimes prolonged, moments of reprieve. And you have changed in subtle and, also, not-so-subtle ways. We used to greet, you and I, with a respectful, customary handshake, but in recent years embraces, and finally, kisses have typified our ritual and increasingly become the rule. “Burdens are from God,” Gimpel the Fool muses to himself in a famous story by I. B. Singer, “and shoulders, too.” Irrepressibly, the gentleness and generosity of your essential nature shines through. Miryam talks a lot these days about “Ma Wilma” and “Aunt Ruth” and “Uncle Mark” and “Jed,” but, undoubtedly, “Ba Stanley” is the name Khanh and I hear about most of all. Miryam is, perhaps, is a sort of emissary from the land of the vitality, spontaneously living, and must recognize, in turn, an uncommon soul that gives freely while asking very little in the way of self-validation in return. I mean, where does one find that at either her age or yours?

Tikkun Olam
Tikkun olam, repair of a broken world.  According to Jewish legend, God at a certain moment in the evolution of the universe “retracted” upon Himself, thus causing a disturbance of the original unity and the shattering of its sacred vessels into shards. This primordial cosmic cataclysm, known in our mystical literature as the “Breaking of the Vessels,” coincided, in effect, with the creation of the visible world. It finds, in turn, its earthly reverberation in a fragmented human consciousness, unable in its inchoate state to perceive revelation, the greater coherence of it all. Ever since this original retraction, the task of each human being has been to “repair the world,” breaking though the husks of fallen shards to disclose the divine light hidden within. To redeem one person—to save a single life—according to Talmudic instruction, is to redeem the world. For me, Dad, you have done this. The result has been a life marked by relations, occurrences and accomplishments that once would have seemed far beyond reach. My relationship with you is part of that pantheon of experience. The quiet, understated dignity and decency of it all is what I am attempting, especially, to convey.

Is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Let’s say that it’s the psychologist’s, or perhaps scribe’s, rendition—the ever-observant eye on the perimeter of things. I began this talk with the opening line from a literary masterpiece, so it’s fitting that I end with the closing line from another similarly inspired work. Kafka always wished to have his short story “The Judgment” (the first mature piece felt he had written), his iconic “The Metamorphosis” (which also, of course, deals with Oedipal themes and spiritual quests and the problem of how to extricate oneself from family and extant world in order to set off on one’s own) and his famously undelivered “Letter to My Father.” He envisioned them bound together in one volume and republished under the composite title, The Sons. Posthumously, it seems, this was done. Kafka was not so fortunate as I in the father the cosmos had it in mind that he receive, though, God knows, he put his ordeal to astonishingly brilliant use. He ends his letter this way:

Naturally things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder—a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail—in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.

Happy Birthday, Dad

— Ed Mendelowitz

Read more stories by Ed Mendelowitz

Keep up with our community – follow us on Facebook and Twitter