Today Papa did not turn 73

Today is Papa’s birthday.

In Jewish tradition, we tend to commemorate the dates (on the Hebrew calendar) of our loved ones’ deaths, rather than their birthdays. Same goes for historic figures like our Jewish sages of the many centuries.

Generally, as somebody who deeply appreciates and respects his people’s traditions, I tend to think of them as frameworks for expression of human experiences. I don’t believe that they were designed by or mandated by God, but I do believe that they reflect and are the culmination of many, many centuries of Jewish wisdom.

That’s how I approached my year of mourning, following Papa’s death.

But the truth is that I often find our traditions to be… lacking? No, not quite lacking… insufficient? At least – insufficient for me. The practice of reciting the mourner’s kaddish on a daily basis during the first year of mourning for a parent was – not enough for me. It was not enough to get me through that year.

To be sure, there are other traditions associated with that year of mourning. There’s the common tradition of giving charity in memory of the deceased, and of studying Torah in their honor; but as much as I think of my traditions as my framework, it remains for me to fill in the frame. I found myself regularly confronted by the same niggling challenge that year, over, and over, and over again: where am I in this process? Where is Papa?

That, in large part, is why I started reflecting upon it and writing about it. I wanted to own it – to make that year a truly personal one.

Similarly, albeit in much less intensive way, I took to lighting a 24-hour memorial candle every Friday evening, just before Shabbat comes over us. The Jewish tradition is to light such a candle once a year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death and perhaps to light one on special festivals… but I find some small comfort in those flickering flames… in the physical reminder of Papa’s presence. Spontaneously, instinctively, I took this particular Jewish tradition and changed it up a bit.

And -so- I feel I must mark Papa’s birthday somehow, even though that’s not the Jewish tradition. Mama does so by sharing tender memories and Papa’s beautiful photography, as well as by eating some of his favorite foods; but I am found here, in written words. In fact, this morning, as I was contemplating what to write, I realized that it would be unnatural for me not to write something about Papa. After all, I write almost every single day – how could I let January 4th go by as just another day for prose and poetry?


It seems not a day goes by that I don’t think about Papa.

When my Dedushka (mother’s father) died, I remember my mother and her sisters weeping and eulogizing him. I remember one of my aunts crying, “I wish I could be like you.”

With a sloth in Costa Rica (2017)

At the time, I remember being taken aback by this sentiment. Mama and her sisters are all unique individuals, each with her unique strengths and flaws; and all are quite different than Dedushka was. Why should any of them want to be more like him? He was no more special than any of his daughters, and he was no less flawed than any of them either.

As much as I think about Papa every day, I recall his flaws no less than his strengths; and he was no less flawed than any of us. I have countless warm and loving memories, and I also have memories that leave me with frustrated pulses of energy shooting throughout my torso from somewhere between my lungs. I was never like him, and I could never be like him; and, just like him, I have my own human strengths and weaknesses.

But the funny thing is that I have been catching myself on that very same thought often enough recently: “I wish I could be like you, Papa.”

There were so many wonderful things about Papa. I loved his humility, his integrity, his brilliance, his wonderment, his unselfishness, his honor, his self-confidence, his capability, his worldliness, his innate moral compass… and… so… so… so… many… things…

He was a truly beautiful soul, was my Papa, and I know that I say so objectively because I could also, if I wanted to, list all of the things about him that disappointed or even angered me. He was far from perfect; and I know so as well as anyone else possibly could… but… still… I find myself wishing that I could be like him.

And obviously, I don’t wish to be like him because of his flaws, but rather despite them, for Papa was an absolutely extraordinary human being of the highest quality, and I continue to love him so incredibly dearly.

I was never like Papa, and I could never be like Papa; but, unlike him, I can paint this lovely birthday portrait… because I feel that I love him more than he loved himself.

87 thoughts on “Today Papa did not turn 73”

  1. Just beautiful David,,,here I am across the sea, not sharing even religious beliefs although respecting them, never having met your father and yet..I feel I know so much of who he was, from the memories he left with you and for, all his details that you retain and you, mashallah, have the ability, the great don, to paint him, show him, so that strangers who never even grabbed a glimpse of him.,can feel what a truly special man he was..I and how much you dearly loved him. I mean this David..he lives and always will live in you. Thank you for letting me see him on his would -have-been 73rd birthday.

  2. I’m sorry, David. I feel that was selfish of me, responding to you by writing only of me. I wish you well and happiness and even tears when they come, to strengthen the beauty of your own heart, my dear friend.

    1. No worries, George – that is something that is totally natural! After my father died, I was at first startled that so many mourners started speaking to me about their personal losses, but then I realized that this is completely normal. It’s part of all of our processes. I wrote about this here: https://skepticskaddish.com/2018/10/05/the-skeptics-kaddish-for-the-atheist-9/

      A quote from that post:

      … friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters. The timeless conversation unfolded.

      All best,
      David

  3. “insufficient for me” states it quite well, I think, David. The heart does not “heal” from loss, as it is often said. The heart is feeling and being and demanding expression all the time. It doesn’t forget. It is up to us to keep living, and we seek solace from those we love and our work and even in statements like, “It gets easier.” But that does not matter to the heart. It will always feel this loss. And that is not a bad thing. Love has such tremendous resilience. And even in those times when we remember and celebrate my mother, I welcome the pain. It is a testament to how much she meant to me, and how much she encouraged my heart to grow.
    As always, mate, thanking for sharing this, and for inspiring me to think even more on this.

  4. You are you and and he was him, now there is the veil between you.
    Ourselves, we have our individual rites by which we move through our grief.
    I envy Jewish Rites because there are no rites once the funeral is over. Certain churches hold Memorial Services after a year. I have the Office of the Dead which I would say upon the death of a relative or Parishioner.
    Nothing that approaches your Jewish Rites.
    Shame on me that I digress because your remembering of him seems right to me. As for more, you are revealing this individual to the world, pray to Hashem to reveal if there is more for you to do.
    Very well written.

  5. β€œI was never like Papa, and I could never be like Papa; but, unlike him, I can paint this lovely birthday portrait… because I feel that I love him more than he loved himself.” Oh man. perfect. ❀

      1. am just a goi, come here to say thanks for your ‘like’ for my poem yesterday and here I find such a rich definition of Jewish wisdom. Wonderful. I found a Japanese Jesuit once who became a Buddhis Zen Master after and in addition to his Jesuit vow: His reading of scripture resonated with me in the same way – there is nothing if not resonance, under open sky. May I invite you to have a read of my Poetic Justice presentation: I don’t know whether it would be stretching the kaddish too far or whether there is any other way to describe what happened with Jewish Wisdom?https://www.cambridge.org/engage/coe/article-details/5fa5760efc3a990012f895c8 – enjoy. And Thank You.

          1. thanks for that heartening response; now you have said that, a new vista on the whistleblowing challenge has come into view: I am simply handing on something I was granted in Sachsenhausen. (Wasn’t there a film a few yrs back where people were given some kindness or other and had to pass it on? Something like that. Thanks for your feedback,trigger in tow. πŸ™‚

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