He's a funny man my father. Though he declared himself an atheist, he used as a pass phrase on one of his accounts “In God we trust.”
So I'll take a moment and share a bit from our bible:
He was born the eighth day of Channukah, when the candles were burning most brightly. His Bar Mitzvah parsha (portion of the bible we read that week) would have been Vayigash.
It's an emotion filled parsha. It starts with the account of the revelation of Joseph to his brothers, the first account in the bible of forgiveness.
We could ask ourselves, though, how was Yosef able to muster such inner strength to overcome and overlook any feelings of ill will toward his brothers, to the extent that he showed them such delicate care and sensitivity?
In truth, Yosef himself answers this question: “And Yosef said to his brothers…And now do not be saddened…that you sold me [to] here because for [a source of] livelihood did the Almighty send me before you…And now [it is] not you that sent me here rather the Almighty… (Gen. 45:4-8).”
Yosef perceived his long chain of difficult and tempestuous life experiences as an ongoing act of Divine providence.
Twenty two years after his brothers sell Joseph into slavery, they come hands stretched out to the Viceroy of Egypt, and he forgives. He gets that the hand he was dealt was the will of G, and he harbors no ill will against those who wronged him.
It’s also the section where Jakob, distressed, leaves his land. And here God assures Jakob that he will come back.
The parsha on which he died was Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah.
In this portion, Avraham secures a gravesite for his wife, makes sure his son marries one of his own, then has six more kids, and dies himself.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe had an interesting thought on this, a thought that I think fits with my father's story that he was an outsider.
The Jew, he suggests, feels himself a “stranger” in the material world. His true home is a higher, loftier place, the world of spirit, the world of holiness and G-dliness from which his soul has been exiled and to which it yearns to return. Indeed, it is only because the Jew feels himself a stranger in the world that he can avoid being wholly consumed and overwhelmed by it, and maintain the spiritual vision and integrity required to elevate it and sanctify it as an abode for the Divine Presence.
I think in many ways he was overwhelmed by this world, but he had his moments that proved otherwise. He was angry, yes, but he never stopped being good. He was a good boss, an exemplary manager, meticulous record keeper. He kept strict accounts.
And I hope I did my part. I did in fact chose someone from his tribe. I'd like to think that mattered to him, though how far I took it he didn't quite understand.
In the end though he was proud. There is no doubt he adored and worried about his grandchildren, and while he didn't express it often, he did have regard for those around him.
I don't know if he said it much to my mother, but he shared it with the world, and it's worth her hearing one more time:
None of this would have been possible without my wife's steadfast support who stood by me through thick and thin.
Thank You Dear Ilse
He was a straight shooter. He was bright, and knowledgeable, and charming. And I'm completely guessing here, but I think he must have imagined himself destined for more at some point. And seeing that fade, I think made him hard, especially on himself.
So all I have to say is I hope you've made your peace, and that, like Jakob, and Sarah and Abraham, you find your way home.
I love you, and I'll miss our weekly calls, and I only with you could be here to continue enjoying my children growing with me.
May you find peace. May you forgive us for any disappointment we've caused. May our lives be a blessing unto you as your memory is to us.
I actually wrote this one and sent it to my father before he died. He told me it was more like four acts, but I didn't take good enough notes to get it straight. I've changed it a little with what he told me.
So too often the eulogy is more about the speaker than the dead, and this one is likely also so.
The truth is my father was a hard person to live with. It seemed to me that, to him, people were either competent, or they were morons, and you didn't get any points for being competent. That was to be expected.
And there was order. A few years back, I came for a few weeks to do some prettying up. He calculated how much time it would take me (he was right of course), and it bothered him no end when I didn't seem to be working according to schedule.
The job got done, but it was always a strain when it didn't look the way he thought it should, and somehow, with me anyway, it never looked that way.
I hear my father spoke brilliantly at the funeral of his friend David a few years ago. He looked at David's life as a three act play. I'm sorry there aren't any people here from his first act, or his second; so I'll run this by him before he dies, and hope he can fill in the picture.
Joachim Herz was born in Germany. It's a tough name to live down. In Rabbinic literature, Jehoiakim was a godless tyrant who committed atrocious sins and crimes. In the Christian tradition, he is Jesus' grandfather. He would have hated this aside (“Get to the damned point, already“), but he's not here; so I'll take the liberty.
He made Aliyah (that's how Jews say moving to Israel, in his case Palestine) when he was three, in 1933. His first memory of Israel is one of excruciating pain. They lanced his eardrum to deal with an ear infection.
Palestine was poor, the British didn't really give a fig for the Jews, the schools were ill-supplied, the teachers ran hot and cold, some scaring the pants off my father and his friends, the imposing German Herr Doktors and such.
But I think he throve there. We were back last December, and I for the first time saw art he'd made 70 years before. There were soldiers and tanks (Palestine was occupied remember). The thing is there were still people in the pictures. And he still dreamed. A friend of his related to me how he was putting four engines on his planes before there actually were planes with that many.
And though the war planes flew over, and he moved to the house of a friend of his father for safety, and there was war in the world, I imagine he had his friends, and his lazy Saturdays exploring the hills and dusty streets of Haifa, and wandering down to the beach and back up via the Carmel, or the other way around. I suppose when everyone has nothing, you find yourself taking comfort in each other.
And then in October of 1947, that ended. His father's back was shot, things weren't going so well (I suspect his mother was probably having a hard go of it as well), and he and his brother got on a ship (that's how they traveled back them), and headed to America. I don't know the journey exactly, but his mother and father followed up and the family ended up in Vineland, New Jersey.
Vineland sucked for my dad. They sent him to high school there. In Israel, the teachers had called him an idiot. Here he felt he was among idiots. Vineland was then known as “the egg basket of America.” It was a rural community of around 29,000 people, and they just lived in a different world.
And while my father was navigating the hallways of a Vineland high school, his friends and family were fighting - and dying - to create a new home in Israel.
It's easy now to say “I lived, maybe that was my purpose,” but I know it would have made me nuts to know my friends were out there on the front, and I was here, in a place I hated, far removed from the people most important to me. And I can wonder that I might be dead if I'd been there, but sometimes death doesn't seem that bad an alternative.
And my grandfather had his back surgery, and then, for whatever reason, he hanged himself in the hospital. I don't know if he was depressed, or angry, or if the hospital and his life just got to him, but suddenly he was not. And he was buried in Vineland, though the family was already in New York.
One of my muses, Jordan Peterson, suggests:
Without the encouragement of your father, the world is a dismal place. It's very difficult to be a courageous person unless you have your father, in body and spirit behind you. It's very demoralizing.
…If your father rejects you or doesn't form a relationship with you, it's as if the spirit of civilization has left you outside the walls as of little worth. It's very difficult for people to recover from that.
2017 Maps of Meaning 9: Patterns of Symbolic Representation
And I don't know what relationship he created with my father before he left, but that last act can't have been too encouraging.
And the art changed. There were no more people, and it was industrial and it was dark, and then it stopped.
He went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and became an engineer. I don't know if he met his mistress there, or she'd been around earlier, but the one picture I've seen of his Gents, essentially a drinking club for those not suited (i.e. Jewish) for the local fraternities, suggested a certain acquaintance.
And he went out to Michigan and worked at Ford, and hated it. These beer-swilling, Polish bowlers weren't his crowd. And he lost a year. And he came back east to American Electric Power, and became the expert on a certain bell-housing. Realizing he didn't want to be that for the rest of his working life, he enrolled at New York University to study business in the evenings.
And he was in marketing and then ran businesses the rest of his working life. And the thing is he cared, I think almost in spite of himself.
People were pretty much assholes. Most were self-serving and interested more in their own bottom line than the company's.
And he was willing to do what was right to grow a company. I don't think he could have done any different. “This is a businessman's job.” But it so pissed him off that people weren't this way.
He couldn't believe that GM promoted that moron Stempel to run the show. He hated his boss Victor Kiam, a loud, brash New York Jew whose only goal, according to my father, was to milk the asset he'd bought.
It bothered him that so many of the crooks of Wall Street were Jews. A self-proclaimed atheist, I think he still sensed that Jews were responsible for a certain code, and their violation of it reflected badly on him, and made the world worse for his people.
I think at some level, he didn't know how to relate to these people, or maybe any people. He fancied himself “the outsider.” He was charming. But I think he felt he had to be charming; you had to get along somehow. But I'm not sure who really got to know the man.
You did “your job” as a parent as well. There was never a question about food and shelter, and us having what we needed.
And there were things to learn, maps on the wall, and places to memorize. We had to have some sense of the world. And you sent us overseas to see it ourselves.
But there was also no question about us meeting our responsibilities (some of them anyway), about who would be doing the maintenance around the house when it needed doing. We were the car wash, the house painters, the gardeners, and we were usually morons (requiring loud, angry correction and redirection) hopefully on the way to becoming competent.
And when it was time to learn how to ride a bicycle, you pushed us down a hill on one, and I don't think we dared to fall. I can still hear you yelling “stop, stop,” which I couldn't because the damned chain had fallen off. It seemed I couldn't do anything right.
There's a certain insanity in having to get it right, now, and now, and now again, and feeling it never can be.
And maybe I was a disappointment, and maybe in the ultimate act of cutting my own nose to spite my face, I became a disappointment to punish your sorry ass, to deny you the one pleasure it might have been in my ability to give you. I am sorry for that. It's a kind of stupid way to go through life.
And speaking to Dahlia recently, I get my floundering left her subject to all sorts of hell before she up and left. So I regret that as well.
So I am sorry I am not “successful.” I don't even know what that means. Sometimes I feel like I've tried so damned hard. I came back to this crazy land (which probably is the right place for a Jew to be), I've raised amazing kids, and somehow that's not enough.
And maybe that's my next stage. Colonel Sanders didn't really make a dent with his chicken until he was 49, the first franchise opening when he was 62. Maybe there's hope for me yet.
And alcohol, she's one jealous bitch of a mistress, and I don't know if she is born of anger, or regret, or loss, but I've hated her, and tried to appease her, and tried to love her, and wanted to kill her.
And she's made me indifferent. I've walked in to find you on the floor, and said to myself “I wonder if he's dead.” So I went over to check you were breathing - you were - and went about my business.
And I wondered what it was that took my father away. I got moments. I remember you trotting up a hill at Surprise Lake, putting the counselors half your age to shame, walking up the hill to my cabin. And there were walks, and bicycle rides, and trips, and visits to the Trelewicz's and the Sarris'. I enjoyed my ride to middle school with you. And you came along to the piloting course, and the gun range.
But you always came home to her, and I didn't muster the strength to stand on my own, to step out to be a hero (you told me when I came to Israel the summer I was fifteen, “Don't be a hero“), and I think it's the one thing I would have liked to be, the gift I never gave myself, to know myself as courageous, to having fear and acting anyway. I might have actually made you proud of me; and I might be dead, but that's a small price to pay.
But you've mellowed. I say I'm coming to visit, and you are excited (the disappointment only comes later). I'm happy to spend hours with you on the phone. I'm tickled to have my kids talk to you. I end up learning things I never knew, probably because they can talk to you from an easier place. I just wish it didn't take so damned long to get here.
You've a new community. Your Senior Men's Association might not exactly be your tribe, but it's the closest thing you've had in a long time. They're not the people you used to carouse with, but they've all caroused in their own way.
They say you are who you are either because of your parents or in spite of them. “Who is they?” you might bark.
Well whatever you did, or didn't, you fathered some pretty amazing people, and that at least you can be proud of.
And then I ask how do you measure success? Is a life measured in money, or moments, or the people you leave behind. We don't go about this very business like. A business has a plan. If it's innovative, or cutting edge, it often fails to meet its plan, or has to pivot in a different direction. We can still measure against our plan and see if we stack up.
Maybe it's time to set a measure for life. You can pick what you got, a wife who loves you, three amazing (even if all disappointing in their own way) children, two advanced degrees among them, children who still talk to you, and care for you, and want something to do with you, five grandsons who mostly seem to be moving in the right direction, people you can talk to and contribute to, and you can call it a win.
Or you can look at what's not, or not as you wished: a beautiful Dahlia without a family, an whip-smart son who seems to be wasting his potential, a Miriam who “is not the same since her accident,” another day at the beach, and say the plan failed.
I know you've touched a lot of lives, you ran businesses with integrity, you had our back, whether we felt that way or not, you were a friend and trusted colleague, you held yourself to the highest standards, even when those around you would have been fine with less.
You've loved, and laughed, and hurt, and cried in ways I'm sure I'll never know. And I'm sure I've contributed to all of those.
And you've touched people in ways no one will ever know. But that game is run, and you should know it was well played, and it was always enough. It couldn't be otherwise.
And we'll do you proud, and it might not look the way you thought it would, but it will have to be enough, because it can't be any other way.
I love you, and I miss you, and I'm looking forward to spending July with you, and I hope it's not our last.
But it may be, and that's why I went on, for pages and pages again. Yes, I'm a writer, and yes, I probably have “better things to do,” but I can't think of any right now.
So help me please with what I got right, or wrong, what I missed, how you'd like to be remembered, and maybe what we can do to make the rest of our lives together something like what you'd imagined they might be.
We've still got an act to finish. Let's make it worth our time.
© 2019 David R. Herz