As a little boy, my father was my hero. When he was around, I knew nothing bad could befall me.
Rarer, perhaps, my father remained my hero even after I had reached adulthood and become a ba’al teshuva. There was no one with whom I more enjoyed talking. He drove me to the airport every time that I traveled abroad. The forty minute drive, with no outside distractions, always seemed too short.
I always told my parents that they have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that four out of their five sons became ba’alei teshuva. And they acknowledged their guilt with good cheer. My mother always told us that the most important about us was that we were Jewish. And it was natural that her sons would, at some point, come to Israel to find out what being Jewish means.
My father’s contribution was different. He exemplified many of the middos that the Torah stresses. When my brothers and I became ba’alei teshuva, we were not entering a strange new world, but rather discovering an entire society based on the values that my parents had stressed. I knew that I could never be as good a person as my father without some external discipline. Torah was that discipline.
Dad never worried about whether he was doing more than his fair share. The very question was repugnant to him. As a child, my mother would frequently ask us, "How can you just sit there while your father is doing the dishes?"
His energy was nearly limitless, and he never required much sleep. As a teenager, I knew that if I waited in the living room, in the middle of the night, that my father would eventually appear, and I could sit with him in the dark discussing any and every subject under the sun. When my oldest son was still a toddler, Dad and I lay in my sukkah, under the stars, talking late into the night, as we had so many years earlier. It is one of my most treasured memories.
Machlokes was anathema to my father, and none more so than family machlokes. He believed that there was usually a win-win solution to any conflict if the parties are just prepared to compromise a bit. His natural inclination was to say yes to any request, and then figure out how to make it possible. When my brothers and I would fight over who was going to have the family car, he would discuss with each of us when and why we needed the car, and usually came up with a solution that satisfied everyone.
Compromise came easily to Dad because he held so little of himself. He never factored in his own time and energy when fashioning solutions to problems.
All forms of self-absorption were foreign to him. He never complained, despite having gone through many operations and medical procedures in the last 15 years. When he mentioned to his physician older brother his prolonged hiccupping after the Seder, his brother knew to be concerned.
Because his own ego was small, he was able to encompass many others within his "I." He drew others to him, particularly in his later years, when he had shed the shyness of being a portly child. On the first day of shiva, a fifteen-year-old girl, who lives in my parents’ building, came into the house sobbing. I asked my mother why she was crying like that. She answered, "Your father knew how to talk to everyone like they were important."
He made every relationship personal. His computer expert, his moneychanger, and the man who took care of his apartment were all friends, despite being decades younger. He attended their simchos, and they knew that they would not escape a visit without providing him with a full update on their families.
FAMILY MEANT EVERYTHING TO MY FATHER. We were surely one of the few families in our upper middle-class suburb that sat down to a family dinner, at a set table, every night. A television never entered our dining room or living room. In Highland Park, Illinois that represented kedushas HaBayis (the sanctity of the home).
Unlike most parents of ba’alei teshuva, it never occurred to him that his sons becoming bnei Torah would estrange him from them. "I think I raised my sons well, and I have to rely on the decisions that they make," he said.
Even the shtarkest yeshiva bochurim among his grandsons had an easy shprach with Dad, despite his relative lack of Torah learning. One Bais Yaakov-trained granddaughter told a cousin a few years ago, "I never found anything to criticize in Saba."
In his last eight years in Eretz Yisrael, Dad realized his lifelong dream of being surrounded by all (or almost all) of his children and grandchildren – almost forty in all. And he found his true calling: grandparent. I learned from him and my mother how much difference grandparents can make in their grandchildren’s lives.
They were constantly chauffeuring grandchildren to supplemental lessons of one kind or another. Dad once baked a surprise birthday cake for a grandson, drove it up to the Golan, and then returned home. He taught various grandsons to swim, and his home was a place of refuge for grandchildren who needed a little space or a dose of unconditional love. When a grandson was born with Downs Syndrome, his natural response was, "Well, I guess I’ll have to learn Hebrew so I can speak to him."
He loved nothing better than seeing his offspring gathered together, and when there were no family simchos on the agenda, he would manufacture occasions to gather the family. As he surveyed his grandchildren, his would kvell, "You can’t tell which cousin belongs to which parent; they are so close."
Dad was buried on his 78th Hebrew birthday, a fact we learned from the extensive birthday list to which he was constantly adding. He left no strings untied. Typically, his last instruction to my wife – an hour before his petirah -- was to be sure to pay the surgeon right after Shabbos.
He knew how much we loved him, and we knew how much he loved us. Just the day before he passed away, I told him, "Dad, I’m almost 55, and I still need you so much."
In his last Email, my father listed the family bar mitzvahs through 2010. "Some of us do not buy green bananas," he added, "but one can hope."
He will not be there, but we will have his memory to guide us.