In my Father’s Thought
By Leo Mercer
“Yes, yes, I lit them on time”.
“And the switches?”
“The switches are on. We have till midnight”.
“Fine. And the chicken soup’s already hot.”
My father’s 56, and he’s flipping out. Mum’s calm, or at least she’s trying to be. She’s been using her work-voice, the over-polite, over-enunciated one that all nurses are trained in. Dad’s used to it, but he thinks she overuses it. He thinks she’s being overtly patronizing, which she’d like to be, but she’s not. She’s just trying to understand.
“The soup. It’s already hot, right?”
“Not yet, I’m about to heat it up!” Her work-voice collapses. She had remembered to light the candles in time for Shabbat, to set the time switches, all of it. But the soup. Who knew about the soup?
“It’s just the liquids. You can’t heat the liquids on Shabbat.”
“You’ve got to be –
“Jess, this is serious.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s the law.”
“Why? How does heating hurt anyone?”
“Listen, this is just how I do things.”
“Since now. Since now.” This is what happens when you, as people call it, ‘flip out’. You begin - slowly at first, then rapidly - to take on more parts of Jewish law. Why law? There were once three little peoples who wanted to escape the huff and puff of the winds of time: the Egyptians built a pyramid of sand, the Babylonians built a Ziggurat of brick, and we went and built a skyscraper of law, floor above floor. Typical.
The phenomenon is a strange one. We first came across it with Simon, my oldest school friend. I went straight off to college, but he decided to spend a year - just one, mind – studying at a yeshiva. I’m in my final year in college now, and he’s still not back. His beard’s so long he mustn’t have shaved since he got there, and he’s even got one of those black hats. Simon says it’s a common thing for young people to do, and since then, it’s come up everywhere. Three successive valedictorians in my school have done it. Our next door neighbour’s son, Matthew, the local rebel who’d been on drugs before I’d even heard of the things, had done it, which is why they’d needed an extension for a second kitchen. And there was the Jewish girlfriend I once had, but when it happened to her, we knew it was over.
The whole world is going crazy. “The whole world is going latkes”, Simon joked when I caught up with him in Israel last summer. He loved flip-out stories. They show how people think for themselves, he said, how they’re out for something more in the world than what their eyes can see. He explained that people grow up in America, they think they’ve got everything they want, but then they go to Israel and see that they’ve been blinded. “The holiness of life is being massacred there”, he’d shake his head mournfully, and he’d go on for ten minutes about how the human soul yearns for the deeper truth of all reality. I’d listen for a sentence or two, but the words he uses are like a spontaneous poetry. That would be fine if he didn’t mean it as prose, and I’ve learned the best thing to do is just listen to the music of his voice. He’s lost the American inflections, and learned new ones where there’s a sort of question mark at the end of every phrase. It’s like a mystical singing,
But now dad’s gone and done it. He’s flipped out. Grandma says “its not right for someone his age”, and grandpa just says “its not right”. When I came home the summer after my junior year at college, and found the Kandinsky’s replaced by Chagall’s, the doorposts streaked with scrolls and the fridge filled with kugel and homous, it’s because dad has decided he does actually feel connected to Jewish tradition. Now dad’s decided he believes in following the law - well that’s beyond my limits, and mum’s too.
We do try to accommodate my father’s needs in his own house, though. “Right. I see,” mum says, almost whispers. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. We won’t have soup tonight.”
There’s a moments silence, and I pretend they’re mourning the lost soup. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m still vegetarian. I’ve stuck to the customs of my childhood. My family, we haven’t touched meat since I was born. Before, even. We haven’t touched it for generations. But when dad comes home one night and the rabbi’s taught him, ein simcha ela b’basar v’yayin, then the custom changes. ‘There’s no joy without meat and wine’, say the rabbis. Dad thinks it must be true.
Now, I’m a college student, so I can tell you about the intimate connection between wine and joy, and others things too. But you can’t make me believe that meat does that too. At least, it hasn’t made us much happier. Mum hasn’t fully got the hang of it yet. Being a law-observant, vegetarian Jew would be easy enough. One set of cutlery and plates is all you’d need – you could almost feel normal. Mum put one of the new meat bowls in the dishwasher three weeks ago along with the milk dishes which, it turns out, is a huge sin. The meat-bowl has been sitting glumly on the counter since, with a big warning sign on, NOT IN DISHWASHER OR ELSE we’ll have to get the rabbi to make it all kosher again.
And half the Jewish restaurants are practically vegetarian anyway. I’m told they won’t let so much as a pet dog inside. See, they’re Milk Only restaurants, though somehow smoked salmon and gefilte fish squeeze in (apparently they’re closer to milk than cows themselves). When my friends go to Israel, they rave about the schwarma, the steak houses, the Burgers Bars that have starbucked the country. But Jews? We’ve been baking bread since we left Egypt, and we haven’t stopped since. There’s English Cake, Ma’afeh Ne’eman, but the true heir to the Israelites is Lehem Shel Tomer. I found it over the summer, and it’s glorious. It’s hidden away in Katamon, where the streets are lined with cafes, and young people sit outside, baking in the sun. If Jerusalem is the Jew’s Paris, then Katamon is the 6th Arrondissement, and Lehem Shel Tomer is Le Grenier a Pain.
But who am I to complain? I’m just the son, and I’m just back for spring break. Now mum and dad have chicken soup with kneidlach, because that’s the Jewish way and it has been for millennia, dad says. Just on Shabbat, of course. And the festivals, and not just Pesach and Rosh Hashana like when he started. Dad’s been doing the other ones too. Just to get at extra meat, if you ask me.
He likes the idea of being veggie during the week, and bloodthirsty at special times, because that’s what Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain does, and dad likes everything that he does, especially now that he’s become Lord, and especially when it’s audio, because then he gets to listen to the accent as well. Jonathan Sacks does it because Rav Kook did it, which is important, because Sacks needs precedence for it otherwise the English frummers will bounce on him, pounce on him and denounce him again. And I reckon Rav Kook did it because he knew it was right, though he thought that even ethics shouldn’t override the rabbis’ statements completely.
“Well, we’ll put our soup on the hob, Bob”, grandma’s announced. We (grandpa, grandma and me) stick to the leek and potato. Somehow, I think the people in the shtetl were more used to that than chicken soup, never mind the weekly roast. Mum is nodding with her, and grandpa would be too if he hadn’t been in the toilet for the last twenty minutes. If mum had said it, dad would have fought back. “This is my house”, he’d have started, and rambled on for a minute and a half about how in his house, he sets the rules - before he remembered which century he’s wandered into. But it is his mum who said it, and his is the last generation where, if your mum says something, you do it.
“Leo, go and knock on the toilet, dear, see if grandpa’s okay”.
“Why me?”, I protest. “Dad should do it.”. Mum snorts, and would have told dad to do it if grandpa hadn’t heard his cue and entered. It was a little too well-timed, and I reckon he had been waiting been waiting in the hallway for the argument about the food to end. For one thing, grandpa’s been trying to ignore his son’s recent return to religion. But the fact that he’d started eating meat again, well, that was too far. Our family preference for vegetarianism had been transformed into a militant dogma long ago. It happed at the moment Isaac Bashevis Singer uttered those terrifying words. Every day is Treblinka for animals. Those words. Something in those words had hit home with the force of a shechter’s knife. Grandpa’s father survived Treblinka, one of the few to have done so. When he left, he vowed not to eat meat, and that’s how our family’s minhag began. Bashevis Singer gave it the commanding voice. Treblinka for animals, that was a line to live by. Grandpa was sure that within twenty years of hearing it, that phrase alone would convert the world to the green life. Not only had it not, but his son’s decision to change the family was a secular apostasy. It was a spit in the face, a spit in the face in the name of the God who had spat in his father’s face.
Dad motions, “Right, let’s go.”
“Let’s eat”, mum nods. “How is everybody? Good week, Raphael?”
“A fine week”, grandpa mumbles. “I’ve got so little to do these days I can be busy for a change.”
She laughs. “And did you go to the concert in the end last night?”
“V’yehi erev, v’yehi boker”, dad whispers. I hope he’s not about to -
“Vayekhulu hashamayim v’ha’aretz v’khol tzva’am” – he is, he’s really doing it, bellowing out the Kiddush for us all to hear. (It was going to bring war, I could feel it already, and it was only much later - after thinking a lot about this meal, trying to work out what was going on, what people were thinking - that I’d realize how worth it it was.)
“Vayishbot bayom hashvi’I m’kol malakhto asher asa” - Any other time of the week she’d be roaring, but this time, she is calm.
“Savri maranan v’rabanan v’rabotai” – Out of the corner of my eye I see grandpa. He is about to explode. Who on earth is he to interrupt his own father’s conversation, especially when he was about to tell Jessica about last night’s magnificent concert? What was the bible’s punishment for a wayward and rebellious son again? His face is turning the color of wine, and grandma must have seen it, because I saw grandpa jump, which is what he does when grandma kicks him beneath the table, which is what she does when she wants to tell grandpa to behave.
Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam “Oh lord almighty! What in heaven is this prune doing?” he whispered into her ear too loudly.
“Borei peri hagafen”. “He’s your son, you raised him and this is what you got. Live with it”.
“Amen”, I answered loudly enough to make dad happy, and with enough sarcasm to please everybody else and let them know that there was no chance that I’d also be abandoning the family traditions. That’s the strange thing about all this: I’m the traditional one. I’m the one who’s at college, living it up while he can, making the most of college happinesses. The one whose only current involvement in Judaism is all the courses he’s taking at college, and even those he’s only taking so he can understand and then satirize and then refute all the flip-outs he meets, and make sure he never gets caught by them, and stand up for – for the truth. I’m the one who, like generations of my family before me, thinks that it’s nice to have been Jewish connections, but it’s not Law, it’s not God, it’s not Truth - it’s family, and no more.
I’m the traditional one, heir to a people dedicated to that noblest Jewish cause of trying to get away from it all. Not that that’s how anybody else sees it. They see it like this: dad’s been doing teshuva, he’s returning to the ways of his forebears. Tradition isn’t how you keep with the traditions of your parents, or grandparents or even your great-grandparents. It’s about keeping (selectively) true to your many-greats-grandparents in the 1600s, or the 600s, or the 600BCs, depending on how you read the history books. But wait a minute: don’t go too far back in time, or you’ll stop being traditional, and start being archaic and prehistoric. It takes 3000 years for tradition to be out-of-date.
We’re all going for the leek and potato soup, and grandpa’s telling us about the concert he went to with his club, songs by Mendelssohn and Mahler. They are two of his heroes, ‘great German Jews who put art above religion like we all should…’ Meanwhile, dad sits munching the rest of the loaf of bread greedily and gloomily. He’s too frum for us now.
Starter, then main course, and I taste that it is good. Mum and dad eat the meat, and grandpa tries not to look. In his humble opinion, dad’s got himself ‘more than a bit conned’, though that’s not how dad sees it. He sees it as a half-truth that has led him to a full-truth. When a new rabbi arrived in our community, one of those Chabad ones, he soon found out how important being vegetarian was to dad, to all of us. “Judaism is vegetarian too”, he emphasized. Dad wouldn’t believe him at first, but the rabbi had divine rhetoric.
Did not God create the animals before man, just to remind us that they have a right to live on this earth too? And did He not take the Israelites out of Egypt with the animals, thus redeeming them from captivity too? And, listen carefully, is Isaac not the patron of vegetarianism? Isaac who cried for the ram that died in his place on Abraham’s altar! Isaac who vowed, there and then, not to be a shepherd like his father or his son, but to be a dweller of the fields! Yitzhak (he now changed his name), who had taught his sons to eat lentil soup, thus beginning the true Jewish tradition, passed down for 3,300 years, to eat vegetable soup on Friday night! Yitzhak, poor Yitzhak, who when he was blind, was tricked by his children into eating a meat stew! From Isaac the patriarch to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the rabbi concluded emphatically, there was none like Isaac.
And that was that.
Grandma sits at the table, and scolds grandpa for accepting mum’s offer of extra potatoes. Gran didn’t realize what she was doing, because if she had, she’d have remembered that Friday night was the night when grandpa was allowed to eat all he likes, his belly was free to balloon as much as it wanted. But it was second nature, and she was busy thinking what a shame it was that she hasn’t seen us in months. Once upon a time, when I was young, we’d go visit them every Saturday, but now I don’t do that because I’m at college, and dad doesn’t do that, because it’s Saturday, and God doesn’t want him to. Grandpa’s thinking, why can’t Jewish mothers be Jewish wives too? And I’ve been thinking, as you know by now, about dad, and me, and the way we’re both changing our attitudes to our Jewishness in very different ways, but changing nonetheless.
Mum’s preparing dessert, and my father’s telling himself a story. There were once three messengers who came to a holy man. They arrived and were welcomed with joy. The holy man asked the first, ‘Messenger, what message do you bear?’, and he replied, ‘I come bearing a message, but it must not be borne’. He asked the second, ‘Messenger, what message do you bear?’, and he replied, ‘I came bearing a message, but forgot it on my way.’ He asked the third, ‘Messenger, what message do you bear’, and he replied, ‘I come bearing no message’. The disciples of the holy man told him, ‘throw them out, throw out these messengers, for they have brought only ridicule’. But the holy man replied, ‘These messengers are wise, for they have come not to bring a message, but to take one away.’ And the holy one promised the messengers: ‘You will now make a choice about how to live your life, and it will be realized in full’. The first said, ‘Let me live in great riches.’ And so it was. He was given great riches, but there was much he could not buy. The second said, ‘Let me live in constant happiness’. And so it was. He was given happiness, but could never reach the sadness through which his happiness would be enriched. The third said, ‘Let me live in accordance with my beliefs.’ And so it was. When he believed in the power of art he became a great artist, and when he came to believe in the power of silence he became a subdued man. And when he believed in ethics, he was a moral man, and when he believed in God, he was a spiritual man. His life was a dynamic life, and a fulfilled one.
This is the story that dad made up when he began reading Hassidic tales. Before then, he used to go through it in his mind as a principle, as a proposition. You’d see him walking up and down the landing muttering it to himself, trying to work out if he was living in accordance with it or not, where he was going wrong, what he had to do better.
It’s an idea that’s been engraved into my father’s thought for the past thirty years. It was first revealed to him in his only college philosophy class, and he’s been observing it meticulously ever since. He calls it the Fulfillment And Coherence Theory (FACT), and he’d tried to teach it to me constantly. It was the moral of any bedtime story and the last thing he’d say to me as he dropped me off at school. For a fulfilled life, the principle claimed, there must be complete coherence between your beliefs at time x and your actions at time x. FACT meant that, if at any moment dad believed something, he had to live it, and nothing could get in the way. ‘Truth obligates immediately’, he would say. Judaism’s true? – so he takes it on. Judaism says eat meat? – he eats meat. Judaism says convert to Christianity – he’d convert to Christianity.
“It’s all delish, mum”, I say, breaking a silence that has gone on too long. (It’s been going on for months, you might say).
“You what?”. One of grandma’s great loves in life was keeping up with the Cohens. She’s been watching sitcoms for the last five years – ‘I is tryin’ to keep up wiv da lingo’, she’d give it her best - but I think she’s still in the 1990s.
Grandma laughs, and exclaims, “Rafi, these new words. It’s like a new Yiddish in the making!”
Dad perks up. “Or a secular yeshivish!”
He’s swiftly ignored, and grandma goes on talking about Jewish creativity in Yiddish, the plays, the poems, the stage-songs. Unlike grandpa’s side of the family, whose collective memory is filled with the exodus from Judaism, grandma grew up in a proud Yiddish-American home. Maybe that’s where some of my half-curiosity about Judaism comes from, and dad’s new found love. She would babysit for me when I was a child, and she’d sing the songs she grew up with. There’s one I particularly remember, it’s by Joseph Rumshinsky I think. She told me that her family would always sing it on Friday nights. It lilted, it was sad in tone, but the words were soft and soothing:
“If it was good enough for my mother,
It’s good enough for me.
Everything she did or said
Was in such good taste;
People didn’t put on airs.
Everyone was happy back then…
She loves “the new Yiddish” – what she calls any new words - and I wonder if she realizes that this is just how language develops. She learns as fast as she can, and in particular she’s always grateful for new words to throw at grandpa, even if she can’t quite grasp the allusive grammar of slang: she’ll tell him to stop ‘freaking up everywhere’ and ‘pissing out’, ‘what are you cranking about, dear?’. She’ll often be taken by tears of laughter when I tell her, but I think there are other tears there too, a disappointment that she couldn’t go following the story for ever, that hers was only a chapter in our story and she’d have to stop reading in its eternal middle.
‘…there were three hundred thousand people at Shalom Aleichem’s funeral, that’s the biggest gathering of mourners in America…’, she’s still going on, and she’ll continue to do so until we get her dessert. She has learned that this is the best trick for getting her food quicker. “I know this because my mother, may she be in peace, had a friend whose cousin was there and she told her. And quite right it was too, he spoke and worlds came into being, he could make a corpse die of hysterics, he -”.
She stops speaking as soon as she realizes mum has stopped. She’s been walking over with dad’s dessert. Dad always get’s first; we may be living in this century, but some things do not change. She is silent for a few seconds, and moves forward (I think she was about to put it in grandpa’s place) but then stops, even deader than before. She turns back sharply into the kitchen, and returns with two plates for grandma and grandpa. Before dad can say the words he is trying to find, she is back in the kitchen.
Something’s wrong, we all know that, and I feel as though I, yes I, should go in after her. I get up, walk into the kitchen, and see mum sitting there on a chair in the corner. She’s suppressing tears. I’m not sure what to do; mum doesn’t cry. What do I do? At college it happens all the time, but there it’s supposed to happen, and then somebody would see and put their arm round her and you’d spend hours talking into the night, and get something out of it, a new friend on Facebook or something more.
But mum? What do you do when it’s mum and -
“Leo, it’s the custard! I’ve gone and covered the whole pie with it without thinking about it!”.
What was that supposed to mean? Custard? Custard’s custard! Custard’s one of those culinary tour de forces. It’s mortar to bricks, hot milk to chocolate powder, and that’s even before we get to the fact that this is my mum’s custard. It’s gravy for dessert, for heaven’s sake, what could be wrong!
I bring out my dessert into the silent room where grandma is agitatedly grasping her cutlery, trying to wait, but grandpa has just slipped a custard-soft piece into his mouth as subtlety as he can. She kicks him beneath the table again, and grandpa coughs, custard spurts out. He is red in coughing, almost as red as dad has become over the last few minutes in anger. He should have been first, what the was happening in that kitchen?
Mum follows me, edgily, frailly, and places another plate of roast lamb in front of dad. There’s a mad moment of silent hope. Maybe he won’t notice, that he’ll eat whatever’s put in front of him, that he’s in the automatic-eating mode that most of us are in when we eat. Hope never lasts long.
“Jess. What in Jesus’ name is going on?”.
Mum explodes in tears. “It’s the bloody custard, you fool!”, I blurt out, less in control of myself than I anticipate. “She heated it up after hours and it’s liquid and she’d already covered all the pie with it when she came to bring it out and now all that’s left is meat, more holy flesh, so fucking live with it”.
There is another thick silence. Grandma peers wide-eyed at grandpa just as he tries to sneak in another spoon, but she doesn’t kick him this time. Mum tries to restrain hers tears, and I’m not quite sure what to do so I do nothing. Dad looks as though he is thinking - actually thinking - and it was only some months, later after things began to change, that I realized he had had an epiphany in this moment. He’d been having the same single thought for his entire life, stuck in a conceptual groove, but now, now he realized something new. I don’t know what it was that made it happen: the unexpected harshness of his words? the unexpected harshness of mine? mum’s wet cheeks, her wildly vibrating lips? grandpa’s custard that had covered the table cloth? grandma’s godlike stillness? the sharp contrast of colors, red steak and sunflower custard? the sheer strangeness of having a second main course whilst everyone else was eating desserts? I’ve thought about it a lot since. How could somebody change as fast, as fundamentally as dad was about to?
He begins to laugh. Not the short, sneerish laughter after something stupid, or the cruel laugh after something unfortunate, or the hearty laugh after hearing a joke, but the joyous laugh of glorious illumination. He’s laughing, he really is; it’s absurd. Mum catches it, I don’t know how, but the tears she had sown she was reaping in laughter, and grandma is next. She is more alive than I’ve seen her in years. I see her place her hand on grandpa’s shoulder, and he looks slowly up at dad, and begins to cry, and this too becomes cries of laughter.
I would have laughed. I really did want to, but something stopped me. I knew that if I laughed, I’d be so involved, I’d be inside the experience, sharing it, living it, making it, and that I wouldn’t be able to stop, to just watch, in wonder, at these, my closest ancestors, alive. I remember thinking to myself, I have to remember this. I have to remember this.
They’d been laughing for at least five minutes now, I don’t know, maybe even ten. The pie was cold, the custard congealed. Dad pushed his meat away, took a siddur and, in between laughters, began to say the blessing, birkhat ha-mazon, odd tufts of words and laughter.
Na’ar hayiti, gam zakanti, v’lo ra’iti. It’s odd for me to say this, because I feel so young, so undeveloped myself, but I think dad felt in that moment some sort of belated maturing. FACT, that single well-meaning but ludicrously insufficient idea that had been etched into my father’s thought, had as its premise a deep individualism. He’d embraced it since he was young and through his ageing years. He just couldn’t see the others around him.
Ki yom zeh gadol v’kadosh. And yet, somehow, and in a way that none of us could have expected, on this day, during this meal, he realized it. It must have been every little thing, one on top of the other, that was thrown in his face, when he was least prepared for it, screaming at him, telling him just how far he’d been from us. He’d been so self-absorbed that he hadn’t been paying attention to the people closest to him. He came to understand that individual coherence cannot lead to fulfillment; you need to be coherent with the people around you too. That the third messenger, too was not satisfied, for he was condemned to live in accordance with what he alone believed, and was estranged from the world around him.
V’achalta v’savata… v’lo l’yadei matnat basar, That’s it, a thought so small, so necessary; that’s why he would change so much over the coming months. He would do the teshuva to our family. He would realize that you can be truly fulfilled without meat.
Shehinchalta lavoteinu eretz hemda tova urchava, he would understand that our traditions, our family traditions are good enough. The way we’ve come to think, do, believe, that can all have value, even if they’re not the ways of all Jews at all times.
Kakatuv. And then it occurred to me, a revelation of my own, though just a small one. I realized that this just is what family is, for Jews at least. It’s the Abraham at Isaac’s throat and the Sarah pushing Ishmael’s and the Esau at Jacob’s back and the brothers shoving Joseph into a pit before they can get back together again at the end of the story. With models like that – with all their dynamism, their complexities, their life - our family really is true to tradition. Harachaman hu yevarech et avi umori v’savi v’savti.