This Saturday night marks my father’s 20th yahrzeit. Twenty years of separation and Kaddish; of pondering the most influential person in my life. When I recite the prayer, I hope it will ease my family’s collective loss. But each year, the Kaddish is a blur – I try to say the prayer with intention and hope that the Hebrew words somehow carry his soul higher to a place where he is reunited with his loved ones and family. Instead of connecting to the words, though, my attention shifts to the film of his life that plays in my mind; and while the words I say are Hebrew, they seem to translate into one English sentence: How lucky was I was to be to the son of Zalman “Sam” Rosenberg.
The projector is turned on, its motor whirs, and the images flicker.
Exalted and hallowed be his great Name.
He is a two-year-old child on a boat from Lithuania sailing to Boston. He doesn’t know it yet, but the family will fall into abject poverty once they reach Chelsea … Scene change: I am five and he hands me a baseball glove and patiently teaches me to play catch in our backyard on Orchard Road in Swampscott. I can’t articulate it yet, in words, but if I could it would be: He knows how to be a father.
Throughout the world which he has created according to his will. May he establish his kingship, bring forth his redemption and hasten the coming of his Messiah.
He had once wanted to write, and even saved a few articles he had published in his junior high paper. Had poverty, hunger and sadness killed that dream? If he had written, how would he have described a drunken father who died of tuberculosis, a blind mother, or a bout of malnutrition that preceded a state order to place him in an orphanage for two years?
He did what was he thought was right, what he figured children of poor immigrants were supposed to do. He quit high school to help put food on the table, and scrounged for odd jobs during the war. He was a carnival barker, a tablecloth salesman, and a runner in a Kneeland Street clothing company who worked side-by-side with the man who would become Malcolm X.
In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.
On Sundays, after Hebrew School, we drive to Chelsea. We visit my father’s mother, the Bubbie, and my tantas Rosie and Noinkie on Spruce Street. They only speak Yiddish and my sisters and I speak English. When we visit, my father speaks Yiddish quietly to his mother and aunts. They smile, they laugh, they hug. It’s an equation based on love, and somehow even without ever getting to know his father, he has become everything you want in a parent – a listener, a teacher of right and wrong, and a man who takes his job seriously. One Sunday, in my Bubbe’s modest apartment, I figure it out: Family is everything.
May his great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he.
I am 10 and want to spend more time with my father. I want to go to the deli because it’s something that belongs to my father and his brothers; a place where he works seven days a week; the reason why he isn’t at home with us. I long to see him in charge, and stand next to him as the boss’s son. I have no sense of what a deli man’s duties entail, but I expect his work to be profound.
“OK,” he says one night as we sit on the couch with our knees balancing the Baseball Encyclopedia which we dutifully study after supper. It’s our Talmud and my father believes that some of life’s secrets are contained in the game and statistics. “OK, you can come to the deli. But remember: You’re going to college, and you’re going to get an education. I won’t let you own a deli. You’re going to make it.”
Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world; and say, Amen.
At my bar mitzvah. my father chokes up during his Aliyah. I know why he’s crying. This is the life and family he had dreamed of creating. I stand next to him and help him with the prayer.
Upon Israel, and upon our sages, and upon their disciples, and upon all the disciples of their disciples, and upon all those who occupy themselves with the Torah, here or in any other place, upon them and upon you, may there be abundant peace, grace, kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance and deliverance, from their Father in heaven; and say, Amen.
I am 14 and bored and suddenly disinterested in school. I hear some kids talk about going to trade school to become a plumber. My mother seems in shock when I pitch the idea; my father doesn’t respond right away. Instead, he spends more time with me.
“Stevie, you like English, right? It’s your favorite subject?”
I nod, and he hands me a pile of books. There’s “Exodus” by Leon Uris, a Philip Roth title I can’t remember, and Lenny Bruce’s “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.”
Bruce seems most promising and I hold up the paperback and read a page. “Good choice, he’s a genius,” he tells me. Soon, I start to write every day and never talk about trade school again.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
In 1979, he and his brothers sell the deli. My mother and older sister insist that he has worked hard enough and in the late afternoons he runs the register in their Revere clothing store. He walks the beach every morning and I join him on occasion. He asks questions about my goals and is still a great listener. He knows if he listens, I’ll talk long enough about an issue and be able to figure it out by myself. As we walk, he wades knee deep into the water and when the sun splashes over him the world seems golden. He does not seek attention or adulation and is comfortable with the man he has become … so much that there is a wisdom to that containment that makes me feel he could lead a nation if he wanted to.
He who makes peace in his heavens, may he make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
It’s the early morning hours of Sept. 9, 2001. I sit by my father’s bed in his Florida condo. He’s in a coma but my mother and I talk to him about family. We tell stories about my sisters and their children and I talk about my son. I expect a miracle to occur, that his eyes will open and he’ll ask for a cup of coffee and a bagel.
* * *
When I’m finishing this last line of the Kaddish I am thankful that my father never had to experience 9/11 or how civility has slowly diminished during the rise of misinformation in his beloved America.
But I see him in the faces and feel him in the souls of an America that still exists for millions of immigrants. The climb, the sacrifice, the hustle of multiple minimum wage gigs while cherishing every stolen moment with your loved ones. And the dream of a better world for the next generation. I know that look and feel.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal. Email him at email@example.com.