For Mordecai Strigler, z”l*
My father sometimes hummed to himself, while doing routine chores or walking or putting on his coat. He mostly hummed Jewish music, but not always. I remember this as a morning activity, a fresh start to the day and a show of optimism that for me was always all the more stunning in light of his personal history. He had a lovely singing voice and used to sing me Yiddish lullabies when I was little.
The humming was also surprising because I usually thought of my father as a serious person, although I knew that he had a sense of humor that was quite wry and light, given to intellectual word play of a linguistic or logistical nature with a touch of satire added. As I grew older and learned how to formulate my own jokes we began to share this particular form of play, trading witticisms as we spun out our observations on a given topic. I think my father especially relished being able to use his voice to convey exclamation, surprise and other reactions. I later learned that he was admirably able to convey such reactions in his writing as well.
Sometimes these witticisms would be based on text study. I studied with my father regularly, at first because I would ask him about the homework I brought home from my Jewish day school. I quickly learned that he knew more than my teachers and that his view of the text was different - more liberal but still studious, literary. Studying with him was far more intriguing and illuminating than my classes were. He introduced me to the activity of commentary by explaining that the text was full of conundrums and that therefore the rabbis were driven to ask questions, explore possibilities and find answers that spoke to them. These questions varied in different times and places. My father had his own questions, about passages that he thought were still opaque, commentaries that he felt had missed certain possibilities or allusions and tenets of Jewish belief that were difficult to leave unquestioned in the latter half of the twentieth century. We would discuss for hours, a discussion on the creation story leading to evolution and archeology, the nature of God’s ability to create, God’s attachment to his creations and fallibility. My father would often comment that he still had much to teach me.
Thanks to our studying together I knew that my father knew everything, or just about. Certainly he knew about anything connected to Judaism or being Jewish - from the obscure text to the obscure Jewish actor or sports figure - and everything about Israeli and Jewish politics. I was a spoiled child in the following way: I knew that I could call my father with any question on a Jewish topic and receive information instantly; I happily relied on him in this way. Despite his instant recall, he always emphasized the importance of checking sources. He would say “I think it’s ___ but let me check and get back to you”. I think he enjoyed the variety of my questions, which grew out of my own studying, reading and later, teaching and working in the Jewish community. My questions would lead to long associative discussions reminiscent of Talmudic passages. Once or twice I was able to offer a tidbit from contemporary Jewish life that was unfamiliar to my father; this would usually yield a phrase that was the closest I remember to his being surprised: “You don’t say!”
My father did not waste words, even in everyday speech. He was thoughtful in formulating his comments. He always spoke softly and carefully. The same is true of his writing; he was thorough and careful while at the same time incredibly prolific. His mind was always working and he slept little, I think as a result of the constant turmoil of his thoughts and questions. He was quietly but incredibly curious about the world and its people and had much to say about them. He would think, read and read more, sometimes while humming, until he was ready to formulate his thoughts in words on paper, writing late at night and early in the morning. I sometimes thought that night was one of God’s gifts to my father: quiet time for reflection and clear thinking, an opportunity to write down some of his many observations and ideas. Perhaps my father’s humming in the morning was simply the result of so much mental energy, his way of letting some of it escape as he began a new day of studying and observation.
PS: I originally wrote this piece for the Yiddish Forverts, the paper my father edited, on the occasion of his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) a number of years ago. It has been humming to me to post it on this blog so I decided o heed its call and hope that it inspires me to return to posting more regularly. A News Year’s resolution, bli neder – I do not swear, merely set an intention.
* zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing
©2009 Leah Strigler