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. David, you are deeply blessed for having had such a meaningful relationship with your Papa. That you express yourself so authentically is also tribute to the unbreakable bond of Father and Son. May each of us be remembered so fondly.

  2. This is a lovely tribute David!
    The one who holds our fingers and teach is to take our first steps, and many more steps there onwards, are true heroes of our lives. As we grow up, we cultivate our own personalities, and maybe then we start noticing the flaws too, which is natural, as we all are made of strengths and flaws. I notice flaws in my dad, as days go by, and yet for me too it has always been that in many ways I just want to be like him, not in his flaws, but in those strengths which I noticed so carefully while growing up and which made him a super hero in my eyes at one point of time.
    I love the way you write your thoughts on this, and can relate so much πŸ’–

  3. David, you have crafted a heartfelt piece about your father. I love the adjectives you used to describe him; he sounds like a truly inspiring person, father, and husband. Hopefully doing so brought some comfort. I agree with you – there is something comforting about a flickering flame. πŸ•― I am approaching the the second year anniversary of my father’s passing. He was also 72 when he passed. Next to his picture is a candle that I still light on occasion. Thank you for sharing your journey of mourning and a moving tribute to your father. πŸ’“

  4. David, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings here. George’s comments are perceptive too! Whilst my father died over 20 years ago I am shocked occasionally that I have not fully grieved for him, however, I continue to honour him in many other ways, like in some of my writing. I feel privileged that I can read your blog and learn. πŸ™

    1. Ashley, you know…

      In the ancient Jewish text called “Ethics of the Fathers”, or, more literally: “Chapters of the Fathers”, there is a famous text that goes as follows (Ch. 4:1) –

      Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) β€œI have gained understanding from all my teachers.”


  5. It is a nice tribute to your father on this special day. My respects to himπŸ™ and love to you ❀️

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