About a year ago I asked my father how much money he had.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think about $150,000.”
“You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose I ought to check.”
He invited my brother-in-law Moishe, a CPA, to go through his papers and tally it up. The following week dad reported that he had $1.6 million—not including his house in Queens, worth an additional $700,000.
Moishe told me that when my father found out that he had this much money, he let out an incredulous laugh like when the biblical Sarah, still barren at 90, was told by God’s angel that she would bear a son. Now that I have waxen old, I have this shocking delight.
Dad grew up poor in the Depression-era Bronx, the son of a destitute house painter/wallpaper hanger from Galicia. He would be the first to tell you that, as an adult, even though he was known as a wise and venerated educator and rabbi, he was never good with money. Not only did he not save money during most of his lifetime, he was in debt most of the time. He had credit card debt, as well as other kinds, and even found relatives to drain him of money at every turn.
You would think that the debts would have weighed him down, but in fact, his debts seemed to give him the strength to work harder and provide handsomely for the family at every opportunity. They even brought him to a unique intimacy with his God. Dad would beseech God like Tevye: Provide for me—make it rain for the family and save me from my debts! And God did, always. But God would never make him rich. Unlike Tevye, Dad did not want that. On the contrary, Dad lampooned the pursuit of wealth. He thought it entirely disreputable. When I was little there used to be a jingle for the now-defunct Dime Savings Bank: “The road to riches starts at the Dime.” My father changed it to “the road to rishus [Yiddish for wicked] starts at the Dime.”
While he provided for us beyond our station, for himself, he retained the thrifty habits of Depression-era men from the Bronx. The luggage set and the fountain pen from his bar mitzvah in 1942 were preserved in the master-bedroom closet. He wore the cashmere winter coat he bought in 1956 for more than 30 New York and Montreal winters. He made sure to buy gas at Safeway and Gaseteria and Merit, the off-brand gasoline stations that dotted the outer boroughs. When we were younger he collected S&H Green Stamps, earning for the family a set of drinking glasses and a set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias.
Yet as he moved through life, America slowly worked its way with him. The culture of capitalism and upward mobility through material goods insinuated itself into his Yiddish bones and rabbinical thoughts. He started to grant himself various permissions and indulgences, to a degree. For instance, after amassing an absurd number of GM Visa credit card points, he allowed himself the scandalous luxury of his first Cadillac. It was the mid-’90s and they still made them like houseboats then; his Sedan de Ville sat anchored, somewhat out of place, in front his Queens rowhouse.
Here’s a secret: I not only inherited his money—or a portion of it, since it is shared with my siblings. I inherited his ways with money.
I cannot say how this happened, whether it was deliberate or something I absorbed unconsciously. I too have gotten into tremendous debt, spent beyond my capacity, saved not a cent. I have been driven mad by the lack of money, been driven to God by the desire for it, been driven finally to the wells of my own creativity to scare it up when the collectors and financial doom lay just outside the door.
Such a haphazard, even reckless way with money ought to have been repudiated. In fact, my father did just that, warning me wide-eyed as if he was telling me a horror story around a campfire: “Don’t get into debt like me! The choivos,” he said, using the Yiddish word for debts, “will kill you, bury you alive—that’s what the Toyreh says.”
I didn’t listen. I followed, like a sleepwalker, in his financial footsteps
The reasons for this are many and contradictory and they are all true.
Firstly, I saw my father as a hero to emulate, as a man who was wounded in the battle to provide for all of us: school, camp, braces, bar mitzvahs, weddings.
What’s more, I felt indebted to him as few sons might feel to their fathers. I had the barest inkling very early on that he didn’t love me in the usual sense that one might want to be loved as a son—a gas-and-go type of love. With Dad there was love, but his idea was that he would give his first-born son his soul and that we would remain together forever. This was something that I could not handle at such an early age, but I knew it was special, that he was special and the religion he was giving me was special. I was grateful, but I also hated him for it and was deeply confused. The only feeling I could comprehend was indebtedness.
As I grew up I would marvel at others who would wait to save up for things they wanted. Not me. I simply borrowed. Whereas others might have shunned debt, for me it was a natural state of being.
When I was 19, I wanted a car more than anything in the world. I was in yeshiva and there was no way I could afford even a second-hand car, nor could Dad provide me with one. But he surprised me and bought me a 16-year-old 1967 Dodge Dart—he would pay for the insurance in installments and I would maintain it. Neither of us had the money, and we would both go into debt for it.
It was a loving gesture in a relationship of great intimacy, but ultimately it was a failure of love in the sense that love requires a sober separation, a repudiation of sorts. The Dodge Dart was a way to erect a monument to love, but not actually feel love. In a sense, I came to realize that all debts and loans we had to and for each other were a monument to this terrible, awful, grand, loving disaster of a relationship we had. Ours was not a love, perhaps, but a loving madness, one that had to continue no matter the cost. And for this madness to continue one must not take inventory. Such a thing would have been like reviewing a credit card statement, a frightening and cold forensic. If the words “I cannot afford” were uttered, they were immediately and mysteriously undone by some counter-gesture, usually some kind of financial sleight of hand or boondoggle.
And then there was perhaps the most important thing of all: His Yiddishkeit, his sincere piety, spoke to me. There was a God-consciousness that ran through my father around money, his respect for the worker and his pay—he heeded always the biblical injunction to pay the worker on the day of his labor—his profound, meticulous honesty. All of this went through me. I wanted to live in his world, a world where God was included in the mundane and he, in turn, involved himself through his spirit in ours. Even though Dad was as hard a worker as there ever was, he never believed that he was providing by his own hand. There was always someone out there who was “taking care.” Whether he worked in the frost-hardened gloom of a late November day or the scorching hot sidewalks of July, he had the idea that he was working but someone else “up there” was providing.
This heart-centered, semi-delusional, but faith-colored idea that Dad gave me about money turned out to be a piece of gold, the most precious thing my father ever gave me.
A little over 10 years ago, in very early midlife, I changed careers. I had gotten a degree in social work and psychology in my early 20s but I did not work in that field; I yearned to but felt I couldn’t because I would not be able to succeed in midlife and make sufficient income. Nevertheless, with a stack of debts and no income, I felt a calling to open a psychotherapy practice. I was lost, broke, and I had endless hours in my Passaic office alone to reflect. I was deeply lonely and hungry and I began to reflect on money and why financial satisfaction was so sought after yet elusive to me and others.
I had to be like him, but I couldn’t be like him. I began to understand that a son moves to his father like the tides to the shore. The natural flow might be out to the ocean, but he always comes back. Back and forth, he moves to be like him, to please him, to be what his father is, to be what his father wants, but then on the outtake he flows toward the vast midnight ocean of his own calling, his own creativity—only to return again to the father, and inexorably to his ways.
Out of the tides in my mind, the unending, inner conversations with my father, I composed a course called “My Mother, My Father, My Money.” This 10-week course—aimed at therapists, and presented by The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies—became the material and intellectual representation of my experience with him and his unconscious “teachings.” It was counterintuitive because everything about my father’s way seemed to suggest how not to make money. My father himself, to his last days, begged me to repudiate his ways with money. When I told him about the class he said, “‘Mother, Father, Money’? I have lived like a drunken sailor on leave! This course must be a shpass, a joke. A sach shlechte zachen, a lot of negative stuff,” he kidded.
Yet I would not repudiate him, nor would I repudiate his ways with money. There was too much richness to his madness.
In fact, the course centered around the idea that money was often not money per se, but represented or conveyed something—a truth, a disturbance, vibrations from the primordial and from the heavens. This course, built on the rickety foundations of our wacky relationship with money, was an instant success that evolved into a modest empire and a handsome living.
The improbable hit seemed to point to the Jewish idea that money was a confounding nonlinear relationship with our creative core, our madness, and the desperate midnight call to the God of our own soul.
A few weeks before my father died this past September at age 88, he told me the following story about how he passed on a windfall in midlife. In 1980, he was run over by a drunk driver. He received a modest settlement, but he was in the hospital for seven months, countless operations, and three years confined to a wheelchair. Nineteen surgeries don’t happen without a little medical malpractice. And so it was that one of the surgeons botched it with his left knee. My father had the opportunity to sue for millions, but his own rabbi—a transplant from the Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, who was then in his 90s—cautioned him not to: “Gezunte gelt is a sach besser vi kranke gelt,” he said: Money you make as a healthy man is far more nourishing and sustaining than money one mooches from being sick.
This was a decision he never regretted. Had he had money, he would have stopped working. Yet these last 37 years of his life (gimp-legged, wheelchair and all) were his most productive. He kept making money through his work, which he did with greater and greater efficiency until the end. His income gradually outstripped his expenses and whatever he didn’t use was shoveled into various funds, which someone invested for him over the years and accumulated to the ungodly total of $1.6 million.
He died with his boots on at the end of a long day of university teaching, his late-model Cadillac waiting for him in the university garage.
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