Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Dad - Part 1: Focus

This is the first of a two-part post about my father, on what would have been his 75th birthday. I hope to have part two out next week in time for his 2nd yahrzeit [anniversary of his passing].

If I had to restrict this post to just one word, to sum up my dad's approach to life as succinctly as possible, that word would be: "focused".

My dad's accomplishments, his body of work, speak for themselves, to those who knew him, or to anyone else with access to "google". To talk about a man's achievements, his output, is not to truly know the man - this is inevitably true of every one who has walked this earth. Yet my dad's work, to a very high degree, was his life - was himself - of at least, the part of himself that he wished the world to see.

I would say that he allowed himself little time for play, but that would be deceiving. In truth, his reading, his writing, his studying, his torah learning, and most of all, his teaching - these were his play. Not a minute of the day was wasted on frivolity, on anything without high thought-content. Any event, any occasion, any activity that was drawn out, leisurely, easygoing, was pure torture to him. For relaxation, he read science fiction - letting his brain take just that one step down from his work's focus.

There's that word again - focus. One thing about my dad, no conversation with him was ever un-focused. There was no chit-chat, no small talk. When you talked with him, there were only two options: he was instructing, imparting knowledge, or else you were. The vast majority of the time, it was the former. Any opportunity for me to teach in return, to give over a chiddush as they say in gemara lingo, was a rare treat. To impress my dad with an idea I came up with myself, which would somehow be both new and interesting to him - oh how I relished that chance!

Still today, nearly two years after his passing, whenever I come up with a certain type of idea, a unique perspective on the Torah or some other intellectual area, I deeply miss being able to tell my dad about it. Sometimes I post it here, sometimes I share it with my kids or with my chavrusa. But it never feels the same. Only Dad would really appreciate this, I say to myself each time. Maybe that's why he shows up in my dreams so often. I still have a lot to say to him.

As a child I held my father, without exaggeration, in awe. Most small children think their parents know everything, an illusion that is slowly dispelled as the child becomes an adult. In my case, the older I got, the truer it felt to me. To be sure, there were areas in which my dad had little involvement or knowledge - movies, sports, popular music. But such pursuits seemed irrelevant, completely alien, to what he was about, to his very focused intellectual universe.

On this blog, I have touched often on my attachment to the original "Star Trek" show. As a child, I didn't identify with any one character on the show, but I identified my father with one - Spock. "That magnificent mind of his", someone said of Spock on one favorite episode. Spock was so smart, it was scary. Only one person seemed even smarter to me - my real-life dad.

Yet in some ways he was very much unlike Spock. He had the intellect, the logic, the - let's be blunt about it - genius. But at the same time, he was far from an emotionless being. Like all geniuses, my dad had his eccentricities. His unvarying, deep-seated impatience could often lead to anger, and this anger never seemed far from the surface. To be sure, any physical expression of this anger was not to be imagined - but it was daunting and fearsome enough for that. As children, we were all hyper-aware of the unique triggers of this anger, and the importance of avoiding being its target. I have neither desire nor need to bring up painful details. It took me years to learn that my dad was, for all his scholarly brilliance, only human at that.

And he had a softer emotional side, whose occasional expression was vividly memorable to me. More about that in part two of this post.

But for today, Dad, if they read blogs in olam ha-ba, happy birthday! When you were in this world, I would tell you to enjoy your birthday by doing today what makes you happy every day - learning. A party would only have annoyed you. You'd appreciate a good gematria relating to your age instead.

So I'll end with this simple one: 75 is the gematria of a Hebrew question-word I used so often in our conversations, when you imparted to me what is still by far, notwithstanding all my years of formal Jewish education, the majority of my Torah. A question-word that, in your absence, I now ask myself every day, pursuing a response that I know will never truly come.




At 2/19/06, 5:28 PM, Blogger Mirty said...

Hi Elie - Very interesting to read about your father. Much I could write here, but I have to sort it all out.

no conversation with him was ever un-focused. There was no chit-chat, no small talk

I once asked my father why he always argued and never just talked. He said that as a kid, he was not physically strong, so he learned to use words as weapons. Mighty powerful weapons they are too.

At 2/19/06, 8:04 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Mirty: Please write what as much as you feel, whenever you're ready. You've already been so sharing about your family on your own blog, and have continued to inspire me.

My father's style wasn't quite "arguing" - it was more like "lecturing". There were some good arguments now and then though, especially when my brother's hashkafa starting diverging away from the "YU" and more towards the "yeshivish". I remember a good one over one Pesach about whether "Shir Hashirim" [Solomon's Song of Songs] had an literal meaning...

Yes, words can certainly be powerful weapons. I think that's why I always feel like I must understand not only what someone said, but why they said it. So often it turns out that words which seemed and felt hurtful, were not really meant to hurt; that they were driven by a weakness of the speaker rather than one of the spoken to.

At 2/20/06, 1:37 AM, Blogger Jack's Shack said...


Your father sounds like quite a man. I am sure that he was quite proud of you.

At 2/22/06, 10:33 PM, Blogger Ezzie said...

Excellent post - and what Jack said.

Just so you know... they do read blogs up there. :) Click.


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