by Carol Blatter (Tucson, AZ)
My dad died of lung cancer on January 16, 1965. I was twenty-two. I remember Mom and me trying to find his tallit to be used in his burial which was tucked away somewhere in the apartment. Luckily we found it. Do I ever remember him wearing his tallit? No. Why would he? He didn’t go to synagogue on the Sabbath to engage in prayer. Nor on other holidays either.
Because he had a hard life and had to work long hours including on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, he left behind any Jewish observance. (I am assuming that he had some Jewish education in his childhood but I never had a way of verifying or refuting this. All my dad’s family are deceased).
Jewish practice could not heal his losses. He lost his dad when Grandma locked his dad out permanently for his abusive behavior. Dad, the oldest child, lost his childhood when he became a dad for his family. He lost the love and attention from his mom, my grandmother, who was raising Dad’s three younger siblings. He lost an education when he dropped out of school in eighth grade to support his family. He lost his sense of self-esteem and the ability to earn a good living in his adult life.
I grew up in a Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. I always knew that I was Jewish. Most of our neighbors were Jewish. An Italian family lived next door. I thought that we had a good relationship with them. Maybe it was a superficial relationship because we were of different faiths. Thinking back I realize they never came to our apartment. Did my parents ever invite them even for a cup of coffee and chat? Did they ever invite us to their apartment for a cup of coffee and a chat? Not that I can ever remember.
We had a dance toward the end of sixth grade before graduation. John Mortorello, a very nice Italian boy, asked me to the dance. When I told my parents, Dad was incensed. He probably said something like, I can’t believe that you are going to a dance with an Italian boy. He was visibly upset. It’s hard to remember my reaction. I wanted to go to the dance and I was content to go with John. Mom didn’t say anything. I don’t think I knew much about prejudice. But I was beginning to learn. I still went to the dance with John. Did Dad have bad memories of having been beaten up by some Italian and Irish kids when he was a kid? Does that explain his reaction?
Did he fear that eventually I would meet and date and, perhaps, marry a non-Jewish boy? I have no idea what he thought.
Dad had an ice cream parlor and luncheonette when I was growing up. Many Syrian Jews frequented the store. For some reason Dad kept complaining about the Syrians. Why complain about the customers who brought income into the store? And why pick on other Jews just because they originated in Syria? Not from Minsk or Pinsk or Brooklyn? Not Ashkenazi Jews? Were their skins darker than ours? Did they have accents that made it difficult for them to be understood? I wonder what dad really feared. What I do know is that he feared the goyim. But Sephardic Jews are not the goyim.
Dad and I never talked about our religion. I don’t think that I learned anything about our Jewish traditions from Dad. Showing was a way of teaching, and Dad was not a role model for Jewish practices.
My recollection is that neither Dad nor Mom went to the neighborhood synagogue on Kol Nidre night nor on the following day. I have my doubts that they prayed at home and fasted. I never saw this happen. What was strange was Dad taking on the role of a taskmaster on Kol Nidre night. I can still hear him telling me what I wasn’t allowed do. I couldn’t turn on the radio. I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t read. There wasn’t anything I was allowed to do. What was going on with Dad? Why this strange behavior? Why was he so harsh? So dictatorial? When did Dad ever tell me what to do or not do on other Jewish holidays? Not once that I can remember. In telling me the rules of Yom Kippur as interpreted by my dad, perhaps he was assuaging his guilt for his own non-observance. He could tell himself he was a good parent keeping me in line Jewishly. It is as if he fulfilled his obligations as a Jew even when he didn’t.
I was ten and in fifth grade. I told my parents that I wanted to fast on Yom Kippur. They appeared shocked and surprised. Imagine seeing my parents standing there frozen like two statues facing a traumatic event. I wondered. Did they think I was too young to make an informed decision? Did they think that I might die if I fasted? After their brief whispered chat, they agreed I could fast but only until 3 PM. I was ok with that. But they didn’t say anything about fasting with me.
I’m thinking back to when my dad sat shiva for his dad. I was eight years old. It confirmed that my dad had some knowledge of Jewish traditions. He followed the Jewish practice of mourning for his dad. Despite a life-long fractured relationship, he knew he had to sit shiva. He had to say goodbye to his dad in this traditional way. Maybe in his dad’s death, he forgave him.
Thinking about all the main Jewish holidays, Sukkot, Purim, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Ha’Shanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah, I can’t remember any family celebrations. I don’t know if I knew so little about these holidays that I didn’t feel a sense of loss. Maybe in a subconscious way, I did. Somewhere in my childhood, I decided I wanted to be more Jewish. Where this came from I have no idea. But it has shaped my entire adult life.
I’m proud to be an observant Jew.
Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Real Women Write: Growing/ Older, Real Women Write: Seeing Through Their Eyes, Story Circle Network’s Kitchen Table Stories, The Jewish Writing Project, Jewish Literary Journal, New Millennium Writings, 101words.org, and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write, Beyond Covid: Leaning into Tomorrow, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother.