HomeOnline ArticlesTHE HIDDEN HAND - THE HOLOCAUST (New Book)THE HIDDEN HAND (Volume 1)SOUL SEARCHINGJewish Afterlife TerminologyQ & ABeyond Soul SearchingAbout the AuthorContact the AuthorAsk A QuestionPurchaseIn Memory Of My Father
This eulogy was delivered at my father's funeral on 16 Elul 5764.

The great Jewish sage and saint of the last century, known as the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, zt’l), told the story of a wealthy man who was summoned to the palace of the king. In those days, such a summons was a very bad sign and the man quickly found out who is true friends were. Some “friends” immediately took leave of him. “It was nice knowing you,” they said. “But please don’t even mention to the king that you ever knew us.”

Other friends said, “We’ll accompany you to the palace gates. However, we can’t go any further. They won’t allow us. Sorry.” And that’s what they did. They led him to the gates and departed.

The man entered the gates, his heart heavy with worry and fear. Suddenly, a complete stranger came out toward him and said, “I know who you are and why you were summoned. Furthermore, I know exactly what needs to be said on your behalf before the king. Have no fear, I’ll personally escort you into the king’s chamber and speak in your behalf. You have nothing to worry about.”

That’s what happens when we die, when we are suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to the palace of the King of Kings. Who are the first set of friends, those who want no part of us? They’re our material possessions: our money, our status, our connections — none of it has any meaning over there. The Pharaohs wanted to be buried with their riches; I remember reading the story of a man who was buried in his fancy sports car -- but “you can’t take it with you.” And that’s the first thing you realize when you get called before the King of Kings: how insubstantial the things people consider valuable in this world really are.

But then we have a second set of friends: those who accompany us to the gate. They’re our family and friends. They accompany the body to the grave, the palace gates -- but they can go no further. They’re not allowed to proceed into the palace gate with you. And so the person finds himself alone.

Who, though, is this stranger awaiting at the palace entrance who promises to speak for us in the presence of the king? Who is this stranger we don’t even recognize?

He’s our good deeds. These are what speak before the King of Kings on our behalf.

My father, o’h, had a lot of good deeds to speak for him. Many of them I’m not even aware of will come out during the shiva, and those which I will briefly convey are just a tiny sample. I’d like to convey them as snippets, as snapshots, without necessarily and rhyme or reason, but in concentric circles starting with his relationships with complete strangers to those with family, friends and those most intimate with him.

 

STRANGERS

For some reasons, after my father passed away this image kept popping up in my mind. My parents worked in schools – my father as a teacher and then guidance counselor and my mother as a school nurse – we had summers off and always did something together. During one of one of those summers we went horseback riding. And I remember my father and one of the ranchers guiding us along the trail falling a few feet behind. The rancher, a young woman, was talking very animatedly to my father, and continued this way almost oblivious to her job. This continued for a long time, and even after the hour-long ride was over. I remember feeling agitated that we wanted to go home but she continued talking to my father even after we dismounted. I never found out what she was talking to him about, but she was obviously very burdened with something and found my father someone she could instantly open up to. She was a complete stranger and she never saw my father again but for that hour he was obviously helping her with an extremely important issue.

The other story in this category happened with the TV star Jimmy Smits. Truthfully, I don’t own a TV and don’t really know who Jimmy Smits is except through this family story. But everyone who knows knows that he’s a very big star. Anyway, one day I visited my parents in their home in Woodmere and saw a card on the table. It was a “Thank You” card from Jimmy Smits. My father was just his ninth grade guidance counselor, but this big Hollywood star apparently never forgot him and took time out of his busy schedule years later to thank my father for helping him become who he was.

The problem with coming up with stories about strangers my father helped is that once you knew my father for five minutes you weren’t a stranger any longer. He had a way of making you feel at ease and at home without any effort. 

 

FRIENDS

The next concentric circle moving inward are friends. And this large gathering at his funeral is testament that my father had a lot of friends. The fascinating thing is that there are so many different friends from so many different stages in his life. There’s his friends since he was a little boy: Billy, Ruby, Merlin and others. Then there’s the friends from his college and teaching days: Arnie, Ray and others. And there are the friends he made in Woodmere and the Berkshires. Then there’s an entire new group of friends I don’t even know because he made them in the past two or three years when my parents moved to Long Beach. But judging from the brief stories and exchanges you shared with me just moments ago you too felt unusually close to my father despite knowing him only a relatively short time.

Some of you were part of the Men’s Group my father helped organize and lead. After he retired, my father started reading up on men’s issues. When my family would visit my parents in the Berkshires during the summer every Friday, usually just before we’d leave, anywhere from 10 to 20 men would meet under the tree not far from my parents’ apartment to discuss intimate things about their lives that they sometimes couldn’t even discuss with their own spouses. In addition to the Men’s Club in the Berkshires there was a Men’s Group in Lawrence.

My father had a lot of friends, and not merely superficial friendships, but friendships that were long-lasting and deeply meaningful.

 

FAMILY

My father also had an unusually close and loving relationship with my cousins (his nieces and nephews). He always led the Passover Seder. He’d ask questions and tell stories that made it much more than a perfunctory meal, but a meaningful experience. In later years he passed the torch, so to speak, to cousin Larry who feels indebted to him.

I know that to some of you my father was literally like a second father. You asked him your questions about life, your worries, your fears, as well as your dreams and your hopes.

 

GRANDCHILDREN

My father had a very special relationship with his grandchildren, including all my children and Tammy’s son, Jesse. Mom and Dad came to visit us perhaps 20-30 times a year, for eighteen years or more. And that doesn’t include the times we went to them for Chanuka or the week we spent with them every summer in the Berkshires. My parents are literally part of the fabric of my children’s personalities in ways that are unusual and exceptional even by exceptional standards.

In the last year he was able to visit regularly he taught Yonah how to drive, taking him out on the road, in gradually more challenging circumstances, week after week. He would always take the other kids places as well, to get models or books or food.

My father was a great story-teller. He was already a legendary story-teller to me since I had been a camper. I remember him coming into the bunk one night and telling us a great science fiction story that would have made Rod Serling jealous. There are other memories I have sitting with my camper friends around a crackling fire and my father slowly building a scary tale – only to end it with a joke that had us rolling with laughter in our sleeping bags.

For my kids, the highlight of a Sunday visit -- my parents would often sleep over Sunday night and leave Monday morning –- was Zaide telling them stories before bedtime. These often lasted a good hour or more. If my father forgot (intentionally or not) the details of a story it was no problem. He would just make it up as he went and usually improve the story. One of the most interesting things for me was to find out the next day how he managed to fit the character of Luke Skywalker into the story of Moby Dick.

 

CHILDREN

Speaking for myself, I have a long list of fond memories of my father. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the tucking-in routine he did every night before I went to sleep when I was a little boy. He’d come into my bed and lie down next to me. He’d tell me a story. And when he was done he’d gently run his fingers over my eyebrows, nose, mouth, ears, forehead, and chin, whispering to me to fall asleep. Then I’d yawn or something and he’d tuck me in. If I have any claim to being a normal human being it’s due in great part of the regular experience of having a loving father tuck me in before bedtime in such a manner.

I have many memories of having fun with my father. There’s a picture in the family album I particularly like because I vaguely remember the joy I had when the original photos were taken. I’m not more than three or four, lying next to my father in his bed. It’s morning time and we both have big smiles on our faces. He’s got this unlit cigar in his mouth (he was not a smoker). Then there’s another picture with me and him in the same position, except I have the cigar in my mouth.

My father had the ability to be child-like into his old age. During the summers the highlight of my family’s annual trip to the Berkshires was a ride called the Alpine Slide. This was a ski resort in the winter. During the summer we’d get on a ski lift that would take 15-20 minutes to reach the top. Then we’d climb on plastic slides and zip down the winding, concrete slide that took a good few minutes to maneuver all the way down even at high speed. Until the last year of his life my father would always take one of the kids in his lap and go down with them. I think this fulfilled two of his deep personality needs: to be a Zaide and to be a child.

 

WIFE

My father was also a loving and devoted husband, testified, I believe, by the fact that he passed away on my parent’s 47th anniversary. The Talmud teaches that Moses died the same day he was born. Jewish commentaries explain that if a person dies on the same day he was born this is a sure sign he was an especially righteous person, a true tzaddik. If we can apply that principle to a marriage, then my parents had a truly special relationship. And I can testify that in all the years I lived in their house I never heard one of them raise their voice to the other. On the other hand, I do remember a lot of hugs in the kitchen. I remember them spending a lot of time together and doing a lot of things as a couple. I remember friends asking me if I knew how unique my parents relationship was.

 

GOD

Finally, going to the innermost concentric circle, the most intimate relationship, my father had a natural and later on a developed relationship with God. In his later years, he started putting on tefillin. In fact, my mother told me that he began putting on tefillin exactly 18 years ago when Yonah was born. He remarked to my mother that his entire life he wanted to be called, “Zaide.” However, if he was going to be called Zaide he had to earn it. That’s why he began wearing tefillin. And he did it every day for 18 years. And, unlike even most pious and devout Jews, he said all the preliminary blessings and verses in the siddur regarding tefillin. This was his special mitzvah. And he did it for 18 years straight without wavering.

My father was usually a head counselor in the summer camps I attended. Invariably, the others in the camp would ask him to lead whatever religious services needed to be led. If they wanted someone to stand before the entire camp and make kiddush Friday night it was my father. I remember him standing there Friday night with perhaps 200 campers in attendance.

In the Berkshires, it was my father who usually led their group of friends in various High Holiday services. He always wanted to make it meaningful, and he did so by studying a particular aspect of the prayer service beforehand and then coming up with his own unique stories and angle on the particular service.

In his last years, he was particularly fascinated by the Tashlich service, which is done any time from the second day of Rosh Hashannah onward. The margins of his copy of Tashlich are filled with notes. It was last erev Rosh Hashannah that my parents officially got the diagnosis that my father had leukemia. The news was shocking and crushing. And they didn’t have the opportunity to be with others as in the past. Then one day shortly after Rosh Hashannah they were going into the elevator from their apartment in Long Beach when a group of couples happened to get in and remark they were going down to the ocean to do Tashlich and asked my parents if they wanted to join them. They eagerly did. In the merit of my father’s efforts deepening his knowledge of Tashlich, and teaching it to others, he got to do Tashlich his last time with especially powerful meaning in front of the second largest body of water in the world.

The last story I want to convey in this vein is a habit my father had which forms some of my earliest memories and impressions. Since I can remember I remember my father jumping to pick up and kiss any book, especially things like siddurim, that may have fallen on the floor. In my mind, I’m pretty sure that my writing career and involvement with Torah, and especially Torah books, is rooted subconsciously, if not consciously, in observing my father’s reactions to a fallen siddur.

And this is why I wanted to start a fund to buy Torah books and seforim and emboss them with a note dedicated to my father’s memory. I think he would have really liked this idea. Giving to a leukemia fund in his name is something for the body. Giving the seforim fund is something for his soul.

Also, to honor the memory of his love of books, I have decided to dedicate my next book to him. It's a history book that examines seminal events of the 20th century and offers perspectives how the hand of God was often eerily evident in them. My father began his teaching career as a history teacher, and always had a special interest in World War II. Long before my father became ill I began writing sections of this book. His influence on me is all over the material. If any book deserves to be dedicated to him this is it. God willing, therefore, I want at this time to publicly declare my intention to dedicate this book to his loving memory.

Finally, I want to say that if you want to honor my father’s memory then when you go home today be a little more loving to your spouse and children. Be a little more attentive to your loved one and/or ones. Be a little more sincere in your pursuit of wisdom. As an aside, during some of those many long road trips my father took us on he had a CB to communicate with others. This was in the era before cell phones. A CB was like a ham radio in a car two people miles apart could communicate with each other. Each CB operator had to have a name or a “handle,” as they called it. My father’s was “Socrates.” He truly was a lover of wisdom. So when you go home and want to honor his memory, in addition to being a little more loving, a little more attentive, please also be a little more sincere in your pusuit of wisdom.

  • Information about the Book Fund in my father’s name.
  • If you have a story or stories of my father's you'd like us to post here, email them to astor613@msn.com