It was the evening following Yom Kippur—Sept. 22, 1980, when I was 17—when Dad asked me to accompany him to buy esrogim for him and the school of which he was principal.
Kum mit mir, du vest mir bagletn, he said. Come with me.
That night was no different from any other. My father nearly always wanted company—and in particular, mine. Except that night, for whatever reason, a force gathered inside me to say no and to keep my own company.
“No, Dad, you go.” I said. And so he went without me.
An hour later, my sister came to my room.
“Something terrible happened,” she said. “Get over to Dad quick.”
Had he had a heart attack? I asked.
“No, he was run over by a car. He’s lying on the street—around the corner.”
I raced over. There were flashing lights of emergency personnel and police everywhere. The pavement on Main Street was soaked with his blood. The scene reminded me of the Vietnam broadcasts I had seen when I was a young child: a rocket attack in Pleiku or a firefight over the Mekong Delta, the whirring of the chopper blades of medevac helicopters, the grim soldiers—the last words, sometimes, the last rites.
I was dazed, horrified. A man came over to me. “You’re Yisrael, Chaim’s son? Your father is hanging by a thread. They just took him to Queens General. Get over there.”
Oh my God, I thought. If I had gone with him, would I have been on the pavement? Or would I have saved him? In any case, we had separated and look what happened: destruction.
I had kept him company everywhere. It was his earliest request of me and his most insistent—come with me, keep me company. When I was 3, I would get on my big-boy pants and walk the mile or so from our house in Atlanta to join him at shul at Beth Jacob, with its gigantic arched windows. If he were going to the store to get a Coke or to buy The New York Times or a pack of his Tiparillos or White Owls, I would go with him. I wanted to, I had to, I had to want to.
Besides, it was an honor to be with him. He was big, I was small, and I had so much to learn from him. It was reasonable—come with me—and it was loving, too. You should have seen his face, round and beautiful like a Rosh Hashanah challah, and blue eyes, the blueness was like a gleam against the red beard that dripped and spread over his face as though it were honey glaze. A High Holiday face, he had.
But even in love there is always a drop of tyranny (and in tyranny there can sometimes be love). So his invitation for “company” also contained a demand that was both loving and tyrannical—basically, a loving tyranny.
For example, in the days preceding Yom Tov, for inspiration, he would travel to Brooklyn to hear his rebbe, the famous Rav Hutner, expound for several hours at a clip in a Yiddish that was so esoteric, on topics so mystical and sublime, that mature scholars had difficulty to comprehend. Naturally, at 7 years old, I had absolutely no understanding. Yet I kept him company, sitting for hours. Du vest mir bagletn, come with me, he would say. Lomir lernen a bissel, come study Talmud with me, was a signature of his being. When he gave a class as he often did at shul or in school, I would also go with him and watch him speak. I adored him and was one with him.
Looking back, all of this seemed like an invitation, almost an insistence, to know him—all of him—and it would barely stop at the washroom and the shower. He would remain in conversation with me as he would wash or brush his teeth, talking from behind the door. On Fridays, he would emerge from the bath, wrapped in a huge towel, like a Roman senator as if bathing were a solemnity, a ritual. He could talk about his time in the service or some other part of his history, or with just a hint of somberness he would instruct in matters of Jewish law. “The head must be washed first, because this is rosh kol ha’evarim—the most important of all the body parts. And this,” he continued, “this is how one cuts the nails,” in a particular order as prescribed by the Shulchan Aruch, the code of law. And, he added, must dispose of the clippings—azoy hobn gelernt unzer rabbanan—this is what our chachamim, our wise men said. One has to love the commandments.
I kept him company to his God, his Talmud study, his adventures, his triumphs, and his tales of woe. And he took me to the greatest places—not merely to his mentors, his gurus, but to the recesses of his mind—and for the most part I was glad to go.
But slowly, over time, I realized that at some point I would have to say no. I was already 17. A boy cannot keep his father company forever.
But how does one say no to a loving “tyrant”?
Du vest mir bagletn, keep me company. No, Dad. I don’t want to.
I lived with dread about the day that I would turn him down. What would happen then? Would he die? Would I die? Sometimes I got the feeling not that he would die in the physical sense but he would become unwound, he would disintegrate—we, our union—would disintegrate, a fate worse than death.
I drove fast to the hospital.
My mother was already there. They gave us a bag of his bloody arba kanfos, his clothes and his wallet and personal effects. Had I “killed” him?
I heard him scream out with hot-blood pain as they heaved him from a gurney to an operating table. I was relieved that he was alive but his pain ripped through me—he was in agony. You may not believe this, but as the life ebbed out of him, he cried out in loshen koidesh, the sacred tongue: “In His hand I put my life when I sleep and wake, my soul and body are in His care. God is with me. I have no fear.” God keeps him company.
The doctors and nurses were representative of Queens, a hodgepodge, an afghan quilt of nationalities and languages, ethnicities and cultures. They had decided to amputate. “There’s nothing left to these legs,” I remember an Indian surgeon said to his colleague. “There is no choice.”
All of a sudden entered a portly man with an awkward gait, a mere acquaintance, a Hungarian doctor, a survivor of Hitler’s camps. “You will not amputate this man’s legs,” he said.
The other doctors asked: Who are you?
“I am an ENT, an ear, nose, and throat man.” He pulled out a stethoscope. “I hear a pulse in the left leg. I hear a pulse in the other leg. Over my dead body you will amputate.”
“Listen here,” he said. “You will put this man back together. I am not an orthopedist. You will put this man back together.” The other doctors relented and he walked out.
My father was in hospital for seven months and had 19 surgeries—and that was even before he had rehabilitation.
So maybe Dad’s life was not on me. He had a lot of company including my mother, my siblings, his students, even God himself who sent “Elijah” in the form of the Hungarian ENT to watch over him that horrible night. My “position” with him had been an illusion, a daydream, an unconscious radio frequency that he beamed out to the world for all comers: du vest mir bagletn—keep me company.
The idea that I had to be with him was chimera, a trick of love that nature perpetrates especially on children. He was “only” to me, but I was one of many to him. I started to consider this “deception” on a wider scale. To my father, a rabbi, Jews had a mission: We were called to be special to God, to keep Him company, as it were, not unlike my fantasy life with my father. This was a useful fantasy for those who need to feel special, but in reality God had many nations and peoples and is close to all of them and they all keep him company—or don’t.
Dad recovered. He lived for 37 more years—on rickety legs, but he walked on them. Yet his calls of “keep me company” continued to resound in me. He called me many times a day, always with sweetness. “Just called for nothing—no reason, other than to say I love you.” The feeling was mostly mutual. He would discuss Talmud with me: Did you know a sukkah that is half shade and half sunlight is still kosher? Geb a kuk, he would encourage me, see it for yourself. Somehow, in these “nothing” calls, I looked after him and he looked after me—or so I thought.
Then one cool September night, 37 years nearly to the day of his accident, again my sister called. Through her tears she said, “Dad has collapsed. You must come quick.” Again, I dashed, this time to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Was this it for him? I ran into the emergency room. There were about 20 people working on him, trying to revive him, nurses and medical personnel, New Yorkers of every stripe. I walked in and they silently moved back like a parting of the sea. The ER doctor put his hand on me and said, “We are going to let him go. We’ve been trying for 20 minutes.” I held my father’s warm head. You wouldn’t know he was gone save for the blood that trickled from his mouth. It was erev Rosh Hashanah, and his head was shorn; he had earlier that day taken his High Holiday haircut.
Again, someone handed me his wallet, his watch, his car keys, and the cash that had been in his pocket. Then my siblings came one by one. We kept my father company one last time as we buried him at first light on the eve of the Day of Judgment.
Next to his body on that autumn evening, I felt an odd relief. My father in his pious personality and religious sensibility could brook no rift, no separation. He called me and called me and I mostly heeded his call, but it was all an illusion. Over his dead body, I was sure of it now. He had a quirky hunger for me and in my appetite to be special, I took it far too seriously. It was a mutual fantasy, a pyramid scheme of intimacy that sustained us both, but at the expense of the truth: that we were two very plain people who had an extraordinary experience together that was over now. There would be no more calls for company.
Nevertheless, years after his death, he continues to call to me—sometimes in tyranny, sometimes in love. His “insistence” that I study Talmud with him lives on in me something fierce. The pages we studied together recapture my attention anew and if I don’t always call for them, I don’t turn them down either. My eye is on the page, the words resound in me a rhythm of kindness and disputation. We are rendered once more to each other’s company.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.