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No Bitter World by Michael Eigen
No Bitter World by Michael Eigen

Volume 1 , Issue 2

It was a Wednesday morning, a day I normally took off from work and on which, for the past two weeks, I visited my dying father in the hospital. On impulse I bought a decent tape player before driving to Connecticut. Months earlier I had given him a great headphone set and his favorite music. He called me weeping with thanks for the beauty. He left it at home in New Jersey when he visited my sister in Connecticut. He thought he would be back in days. He did not realize that he went to my sister's to die.

A little while after I came in and put on some music tapes, my sister arrived with a tape of my father chanting the Yom Kippur haftorah. It seemed Providential that I had bought the good tape player just when I did. Several years earlier my Dad had begun to study with a cantor, so that he could sing haftorahs in shul. It was something he always wanted to do, but never had had time for in his busy life. When he neared retirement he began going to shul every Saturday.

He did not keep kosher. He rode to an orthodox shul. He did not put on teffilin every day. When I was a boy in Hebrew school I would beg him to come to shul with me on Shabbat. He never did. Saturday was a day of rest but not of religion. To my entreaties he would say, ?God means good.? In truth he gave more to his fellow man than was required. He lived from the heart.

When I was in my late 40's, I began to notice that my father went to shul. Many times he told me proudly that he had had an aliyah, or that special blessings were said for loved ones on joyous occasions, or that he had sponsored a kiddush. I had stopped going to shul many years earlier. I prayed in English to the God of my heart in my own way. Now when I saw my father, he might put on a yarmulke and practice he week's haftorah. He was proud that he understood it and that his understanding gave his chanting a special feeling.

He postponed doing the Yom Kippur haftorah until his last year. He previously said he wasn't ready, but this last year he felt it was time. My sister recorded one of his practice sessions, which she played at this final visit. As my father's voice filled the hospital room, he visibly relaxed. We feared hearing his own voice when he yet possessed power might sadden him, but the opposite occurred.

I had already made as much peace with my father's condition as I could. Several months earlier we knew he did not have long to live. What amazed me in those months was his integrity in face of death. I never heard a bitter word. He spoke ill of no one. My mother was his sweetheart again. To him she was more beautiful than ever and he used words of endearment that he never uttered before. It seemed as if he saw the beauty of everyone about him. My father was a worrier and I feared that as he neared death this element would dominate. I did not expect the thorough going appreciation he showed for everyone and everything. Thank God I was able to tell him how beautiful he was, and that he taught me more in the way he faced death, than in all the previous years.

Several weeks before he died he told me about a Jewish prayer in which the soul was likened to a boat, and that he felt like this boat, coming to port intact. He told me that Kaddish was a prayer of praise, not grief. He wanted a traditional Jewish funeral and asked me to say Kaddish at his funeral, so as not to shame him. I recited Hebrew when I visited Israel in 1968, and when I was 23 in a crisis, otherwise not since a few weeks after my bar mitzvah. I was closer to Catholicism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism than Judaism. He knew he had no one to say Kaddish for him, but I certainly would say it at his funeral.

As my sister's tape of my father's haftorah ended, my sister's rabbi, entered the room. He had not visited all this time and my sister was mad at him. He explained that he had been away and asked if he could speak with our father and say some prayers. We agreed with relief, yet just a few days earlier I had sent the hospital rabbi away when he made the same request.

Rabbi Wainhaus began by thanking my father for supporting him. He came to the shul as a nervous, young man with an orthodox background. My sister's shul was not orthodox. My father told him to follow his convictions, that he was good, that the congregation would go with him. Rabbi Wainhaus expressed how much my father's words had meant to him, and how much his presence in shul had meant, since he could be sure that at least one person understood him. He then affectionately told my father that he was the best haftorah reader this side of the Mississippi.

After a pause, Rabbi Wainhaus sang the Sh'ma and as soon as I heard the Hebrew words my heart said, ?This is what he was waiting for. This is what was missing.? The rabbi went on with the Kohanic blessing in the ancient holy Temple, taken from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6, then the last two lines of Adon Olam, and finally in the traditional Hebrew, ?The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.?

During these chants my father's breathing became slow and peaceful, although I saw him struggle to close his mouth, which he did. The peace was profound and thorough. The rabbi left and we thanked him, it dawned on my sister and me that my father died. The rabbi did not know.

He died when Rabbi Wainhaus sang his last words. In death my father's face seemed to me to resemble the Hebrew patriarchs. The dross was burnt away and pure substance remained. The words formed, ?The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lives.? My father died beautifully and my sobs rose up without bitterness.

His body was transported to our hometown in New Jersey and the funeral took place Friday. Three rabbis and my cousin, Robert Gabel spoke at the ceremony and one led me in saying the Kaddish at his grave. I returned home with my family late in the day and when evening came I found myself going to B'nai Jacob to say Kaddish. I wasn't quite sure where the shul was, but I walked up Eighth Avenue until I found it. Why B'nai Jacob? Once two young men stopped my older son and me on the street and asked if we wanted to say a blessing holding the lulav. We did and liked it. They gave me a circular saying to come dance with Torahs on Simchat Torah with a Modern Orthodox community. I wanted to go, but our guests on Simchat Torah didn't. I kept the circular for some time, but never followed through.

I never liked organ music at shuls. It just sounded wrong to me. I loved hearing Bach and Vivaldi and Handel in churches. But if I was going to daven, I needed the intensity of an Orthodox service, even if my Hebrew was minimal. B'nai Jacob was the name of one of my father's shuls, an old shul in an old section of Passaic, N.J. It was the rabbi from this old shul that helped me say Kaddish at the funeral. My younger son is named Jacob. Why did I name my older son David, after my favorite Bible character,and my younger son Jacob, after my second favorite? What was working in me?

I walked in and asked the rabbi to help me say Kaddish. I leaned on him and he led me, yet I felt I was standing on my own two feet, as one really does during the Kaddish. I was lost during most of the service and suffered through it. Somehow it was worth it. I read along in English as best I could. I felt I got something important and determined to return the next day, the first Shabbat I was conscious of as Shabbat in decades.

When the Sabbath service was over, I was a little afraid of coming back. The rabbi was not coming back. He substituted for his brother. Rabbi Shimon Hecht. He sensed my feelings because he came over and said, ?If my brother doesn't take good care of you, you tell me.? No such drastic step was necessary. My journey into Judaism, a long time coming, had begun.

[Michael Eigen, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who practices in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He is author of The Psychotic Core, coeditor of Evil: Self and Culture, and has published over 50 papers on psychotherapy in professional journals. He is a senior member and on the faculty of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, the Institute for Expressive Analysis, and New Hope]



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