Father’s Day – My Dad and his Legacy

I wrote this for Father’s Day 2010—but I think you’ll still find it relevant!

Happy Father’s Day

More than any person in my life—what I stand for, what I believe in and what I hope to pass on–has been shaped by my father.

Last month I wrote about my mom, one of the most compassionate, kind and hard-working and devoted women I’ve ever known. Today, with Father’s Day fast approaching, I hope you’ll indulge me as I write about my dad—a man for whom my love and admiration still grows–and the importance of fatherhood.

I do not write as an authority on fatherhood. Instead I write as someone who’s had a privileged childhood—not one of material wealth but a childhood filled with challenges guided by the most trustworthy parents a boy could have.

I can speak with authority about two things—the legacy of my dad and what I’ve observed about the current state of fathers in our culture.

My Father and his Legacy

My dad, Israel, was born over a century ago in Opatów, Poland on September 6, 1908. Opatów or “Apt” was settled in the 15h century as a small commercial town in southern Poland. Like many Polish towns of the early 20th century it had a rich rabbinic history and more than its share of poverty.

“Izzy” was the youngest of 8 children born to Joseph and Miriam Goldwasser. Were it not for a clerical error at U.S. immigration my last name would be Goldwasser.

When my grandfather Joseph died (1867-1921), my father was 13 years old and forced to drop out of cheder (school) and join his brother’s and sisters as they struggled to support their mother. Dad apprenticed himself to a local tailor and that became his craft after coming to America in 1947. In fact, it was dad that sewed together the coat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore at President Kennedy’s inauguration!

By the outbreak of WWII on September 1, 1939 dad had just turned 31, was married to his first wife, Helen, and had a son, Isaac who was 2. Another son, Joseph, was born in 1941. Polish Jews all struggled during the war—but that is beyond the scope of this brief article. Over 95% of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews fell victim to the Final Solution.

After the invasion of Poland its central portion, known as the Generalgouvernment, came under Nazi control—which included the town of Opatów. On January 20, 1942 a famous meeting held in a Berlin suburb—the Wannsee Conference—concluded with the decision to murder all Jews under Nazi control—that included all the Polish Jews in the Generalgouvernment.

On the morning of October 22, 1942 the Gestapo entered Opatów and drove all of its Jews from their homes, assembled them on a big empty field, placed them in rows and led them through a “selection.” Those that were unfit to work were sent to one line and were escorted to the local railway station on a train that would take them to Treblinka—one of 6 death camps the Nazis had constructed throughout Poland. By 8 a. m. on the morning of October 22, 1942 there was not a Jew left in town, except for a group of about 70 who were left behind to work for the Germans.

Most of Opatów’s nearly 6000 Jews would perish within the next week; among them all 7 of my father’s brothers and sisters, his mother, in-laws, aunts, uncles, wife and sons. He alone was “selected” to live and was transported to a munitions factory in nearby Skarzysko. Before the war ended nearly 3 years later he would also work at Dachau and Buchenwald before he was rescued by American armed forced in the midst of a railway transport to his death.

mom and dad wedding
Mom and Dad’s wedding (1947) at the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp American Sector in Germany

By the end of war 300 (5%) of Opatów’s original 6000 Jews survived and would be scattered around the world—most to New York City and Palestine.

Liberation did not mean freedom. Dad, along with 50,000 Sh’erit Hapletah – the so-called “surviving remnant”—of death camps, starvation, typhus, exhaustion, executions, medical experiments and death marches—found their way to displaced person’s (DP) camps scattered across the American and British occupied zones.

Dad found his way to Feldafing—the first Jewish DP camp ordered under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower—just outside of Munich. It was there that he was able to be nourished back to health and regain his strength—he weighed 65 pounds at the end of the war. By 1947 he had met and married my mother—also named Helen. Together they found refuge here in the United States and saw the Statute of Liberty for the first time on November 29, 1947—the very same day that the United Nations approved a partition plan for the State of Israel.

Mom and Dad moved in with mom’s sister, Lola, who was the only other survivor of two families that included 13 children! My parents found work in New York City’s Garment district and within 6 months moved out to their first apartment on Sackman Street in Brooklyn.

My brother Jack was born in September 1948—almost the very day that dad turned 40. By early 1950 Jack was diagnosed with autism and during a time when family planning was not available in this country I was born later that year.

jack and moe
My brother Jack (right) and me (circa 1954)

If you read the last issue of my newsletter—my tribute to my mom—you can only imagine what a horrible time this was for her. Mothers of children with disabilities generally blame their selves—mom was no exception and with two children under 3 years old and only 5 years since the end of war she became profoundly depressed. The depression that followed the birth of her 2 sons was perhaps the only thing we never discussed. It is sufficient to say that it was profound that my brother Jack and I were institutionalized on Far Rockaway. As for mom nearly 3 years would pass until she was able to care for her children.

I have no recollection of those years or of any home other than my parents. But for those 3 years our family was in shambles and dad was the “glue” that would keep it intact. Without him our family would have quite literally fallen apart.

Dad worked full time in Manhattan, cared for my mother and would visit my brother and I in Far Rockaway on the weekends. This went on until September 1953. Weekend visits were no small task and dad never had a day off. Mom was incapable of caring for us and the weight of our family fell squarely on my ‘tata’.

In fewer than 10 years (1942 – 1953) my tata (father) lost his entire family, including his wife and 2 sons. His third son was diagnosed with autism and then I came along as his “surprise.” Until the day he died in March of 1998 I never heard him say that life wasn’t “fair.”

The challenges that an autistic child brings to a family are beyond description.

If you think psychiatry has its limits today try to imagine what it was like nearly 60 years ago! Mom and dad—broken English and all—were able to get Jack into the League School of Brooklyn the first “specialty” school for autistic children in the United States. Dad was the sole breadwinner until I started first grade and worked long hours in New York. Subways didn’t have air conditioning back in the 1950s and 60s. Overtime, when it was available, often meant that dad left home at 5 AM and didn’t get back home until 8 that evening. And with all of that, he left home early each morning to say morning prayers in our local synagogue. After the family was re-united in 1953 dad always went to synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays. Many Jews stopped believing in G-d after the war, but dad was not among them.

With all the financial challenges of raising a family on a tailor’s salary dad managed to send me to Yeshiva (Hebrew School). Until we moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn (1960) we lived in a one bedroom apartment. We never owned a home or a car but dad had boundless love for my brother and me.

Dad was not one of those modern fathers that would have been happy for me to “choose my own path.” He told me to be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up–as long as I became either a rabbi or a doctor. Becoming a doctor seemed a lot more glamorous to a young boy raised in the era of Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare—two famous television “doctor shows” in the 1960s. Though I never regretted my career choice I wonder if I wouldn’t have been a pretty good rabbi. But that too is for another time.

By 1961 Jack’s condition had worsened and his behavior was frankly beyond what our family could manage. After consulting with his psychiatrists the family decided that Jack could no longer be managed at home. We came to the very difficult decision to have him institutionalized at Kings Park State Hospital on Long Island. Jack remained there for 6 years. No one took it harder than mom—for her it was a personal failure and led to another round of depression, though she was better able to cope with it by then. Dad led family outings on weekends to visit Jack. We took the Long Island Railroad and though I skipped some weekends, my parents never did. Simply put there were no days off for them.

Dad never called in sick to work, never missed a weekend visit to my brother and never had a credit card or debt. We lived modestly and proudly.

We didn’t play sports together and there were no video games. Long before the age of computers dad would sit with me on living room floor with long sheets of paper—often from cut up grocery bags—making me add long columns of numbers and quiz me on my multiplications and long division. I was angry that he wasn’t one of the younger “sports” dads—but years later the lessons about education, discipline and commitment have stayed with me.

Dad had an unbelievable work ethic and was the most patient man I ever knew. He rarely raised his voice despite the fact that I wasn’t the best son. I was (unfortunately) typical of many teenagers—disrespectful and thoughtless. Dad seemed to take it in stride knowing that one day I’d outgrow it. He often told me that one day “you’ll have children of your own and you’ll understand.” He was right.

Dad taught me many lessons and one day they could be the subject of a stand- alone book.

But here are a few.

  • No matter how much you’ve suffered, the world doesn’t care. No one should be as interested in improving your life as you should be. You have the most to gain if you succeed and the most to lose if you fail.
  • Children need fathers. A mother nourishes your soul but a good father is a powerful moral compass. A well developed person needs both—love and boundaries.
  • Understand the difference between what you need and what you want. Your needs are few—food, shelter, some clothing and love. Your wants will consume you. Those things that you want to own eventually own you—so decide if something is a want or a need.
  • Whatever you think you need you can get by on less.
  • However bad you think your situation is….someone has it worse.
  • Happiness and sadness have nothing to do with material possessions. Happiness does not happen in the absence of sadness. Happiness is a decision you make.
  • No one can give you self-esteem. Self-esteem is something you have to earn YOURSELF! That’s why they call it “self” esteem.
  • Read what other people have written. You can learn more from a book than a movie but most people don’t take the time to read.
  • Know what’s going on in the world—read a newspaper every day.
  • Some jobs are impossible but that doesn’t permit you to not try.
  • Praise people publicly and criticize them gently and privately.
  • Don’t be quick to judge others—you don’t know what they’ve been through.
  • One day you’ll be old and have children of your own…and then you’ll understand.
  • Kiss and hug your children—especially the boys. The girls will manage to get their hugs and kisses, but a boy needs his father’s love as much as he needs his mother.
  • Don’t be afraid to cry in front of your children—it’s not a sign of weakness.

My dad and mom both died in 1998. He was just shy of his 90th birthday. I will never forget his beautiful and kind blue eyes, his scent when he hugged me or his scruffy face against mine. I could have been a better son and I regret that I wasn’t. As we grew old together I hope I became the kind of man he wanted me to be. I know that as I continue to grow that he was always the man I needed him to be—even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Fatherhood—the current status of fathers

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my family. Last month when I wrote about my mom I got some beautiful heartwarming responses—many people thanked me for writing a tribute to my mom and to my wife.

No doubt some of you might feel that way about the tribute I wrote to my dad. But there are things you should know in the interest of full disclosure and also my concern about modern fatherhood.

First, I never appreciated father or mother the way I could have or should have when I was in my 20s and 30s. There are developmental reasons for that. Frankly, when we’re in our 20s and 30s we’re pretty self-centered and that’s just the way it is. It’s not wrong to be self-centered at that point in your life it’s just a problem if you don’t outgrow it and don’t allow for the possibility that you have much to learn.

Fortunately, for me I was raised in a different era—the 50s and 60s.   Back then the country still valued men, in general, and fathers in particular. It was before there was a 50% divorce rate. Typically men were breadwinners, women stayed home with their children and there were shows like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver. There were strong male role models and boys understood the importance of honesty, integrity, hard work, and commitment to providing for a family. My dad embodied all of those values and more.

And yet today those values have all but disappeared. The woman’s movement defined women’s goals but unfortunately men didn’t define theirs. He we are in the 21st century with gender-neutral roles. Women are frustrated at their inability to “do it all” –being a good wife, mother and professional and speaking as a man I am dumfounded by so many men who are either trying to do it all or escaping all responsibility.

The result is that Father’s Day, unlike its feminine counterpart, is a day of sadness for many fathers. My practice has taught me that many young and middle-aged women have little or no contact with their fathers. The reasons vary—some good and some silly—but the tragedy is that fathers and men are being disenfranchised from society. In some cases they have their selves to blame and in others the blame rests somewhere else—a combination of a shift in the way our culture sees men and in the way sons and daughters see their fathers.

But here’s the bottom line—a good father is indispensable. Fathers teach boys how to become men. We’re more intuitive at understanding what’s acceptable behavior in our sons, setting limits and making them accountable in life. Yes, I know that many women do a good job at this as well. But my point is that—in general—fathers do this better than mothers. The results are plainly seen studies that look at large numbers of families that lack fathers—boys are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and drop out of school while girls become sexually active at a younger age and are more likely to become teenage mothers. A culture without its fathers is a culture destined to fail.

So what should you take away from all of this? If you’re a man—really a man—understand that part of manhood is to provide for your family and be there for your children. That doesn’t mean just being present but it means that you have to be engaged—know what they’re doing, who their friends are and above all else mentor them. If you’re a woman and you’re thinking about bringing a child into this world with the kind of man that won’t be there for you—stop and think again! Having a baby may sound like a romantic wonderful notion but these little infants grow up to men and women and need an intact family unit. This is not to imply that gay or lesbian couples shouldn’t have children—but it means that there should be “couple” as in two parents!

If you’re someone’s child that hasn’t been in contact with your father think about why. You’d be amazed at how many women I speak to who can’t remember why they had a “falling out” with their father but getting them to change their “habit” and call the old man is not high on their list of priorities.

So let me tell you what my father and mother both told me………”one day you’ll understand.” For your own sake close the father-child gap. If you’re a father and you haven’t reached out to your child—just do it. And if you’re a grown child and your father hasn’t reached out to you stop waiting for divine intervention.

Lastly, a necessary disclaimer–I have 4 children and have been estranged from two of them for years. The reasons aren’t important but the results are—it’s everyone’s loss.