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Fathers and Sons

Reflections on a vexed relationship

Gabriel Sanders
June 18, 2010
Will Deutsch
The Binding of IsaacWill Deutsch
Will Deutsch
The Binding of IsaacWill Deutsch

The Jewish mother we know: over-involved, long-suffering, a nag who gives her kids her all—and never lets them forget it.

Or at least we know enough to know, from our evolved 21st-century perch, that the old stereotype no longer applies and that the jokes it gave rise to have pretty much lost their zing.

The Jewish father is harder to place. He doesn’t even offer a caricature to debunk.

We can say this much: He’s at the office, in the study house, on the road. He is—or at least, historically, has been—a figure distinguished, as much as anything, by his absence. Even when home, he’s preoccupied—tuning the radio to news of far-off wars, hiding behind his newspaper, trying to obscure himself behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. And then there are instances when the Jewish father just ups and leaves. The Forward of yore published whole galleries of missing husbands, men so intoxicated—or perhaps overwhelmed—by the New World, they’d simply lost themselves in it.

Seen in this light, it’s no wonder the Jewish mother became such an overbearing figure. She had to pick up the slack.

The Jewish father’s aloofness is not a recent development. It can be traced back to the very beginning, to Abraham. He’s a man so devoted to his God—an abstraction no one else had come to believe in yet—that he’s prepared to kill his favorite son, Isaac. Some have attributed this willingness to a species of blind faith, but I’m partial to a different reading. Yes, it’s true that when called to action, Abraham appears ready. “Hineni,” he says. “Here I am.” But as father and son ascend the mountain together, and the horror of the task ahead comes into focus, Isaac calls to Abraham. “My father,” he says plaintively. And the reply is the key, for in responding to his boy Abraham employs the same formula he used to answer God. “Hineni,”he says. But this time around, the “here” signifies not the seeker’s readiness for duty but the father’s allegiance to his son. And this is the essence of Abraham’s trial: It springs not from undivided devotion, but a double pull—to God and to his son, to the celestial and the terrestrial, to the world of abstraction and the world of the real.

Even in the modern world, where God has come to occupy a less commanding place, the Abrahamic template persists. In what can be seen as the 20th century’s paradigmatic story of the tension between Jewish father and son—the relationship of Franz and Hermann Kafka—God’s diminished place (which, seen another way, can be understood as the shift away from religious observance) is central. In the 45-page lament that has come to be known as the Letter to His Father, Kafka bemoans the shrunken brand of Judaism that his father had passed on to him. “We might both have found each other in Judaism,” he says wistfully. Instead, they have estrangement, coldness, silence. In a way, Hermann and Franz Kafka invert the model established by Abraham and Isaac. With the Kafkas, it’s the son whose gaze is focused heavenward and the father who—with his appetites, his loud voice, his bourgeois respectability—is rooted to the earth. The roles are reversed, but the gulf remains.

As literary artifact, Kafka’s letter is extraordinary, but in the feeling it voices, it is far from unique. In his biography of Paul Celan, John Felstiner reports of the poet’s once having said that in Jewish homes Kafka’s anguished letter had to be written “over and over again,” generation after generation. That such a sentiment could have been voiced by one whose own father died while in Nazi captivity makes it doubly poignant.

Does a discussion of Jewish fathers and sons have to be so relentlessly bleak? It’s a vexed relationship, sure, but does it yield only tragedy? Not necessarily. There can be common ground. There is, after all, baseball.

Michael Chabon, who has written searchingly on the question of aloof fathers, has said that in spite of all the indignities the game has suffered since its mid-century heyday—artificial turf, the designated hitter, free agency, drugs—baseball “is still a gift given by fathers to sons.”

I’m not sure what Chabon was getting at here—my own father has never been a baseball fan—but I can venture a guess. Baseball may be a game of runs, hits, and errors, but it’s also a game of silences: the pause between pitches, the interval between innings. Following a game can mean eying the action on the field or watching the flag billow atop the flagpole. Sitting in the bleachers, the spectator, like Abraham on Mount Moriah, can be connected at once to heaven and earth.

Judaism has long offered its own version of this—you might even call it our national pastime—an activity that mixes close scrutiny with detached reflection, the concrete and the abstract, black and white: the study of text. Books are the gift that our fathers have bequeathed to us. The most notable example here, of course, is the five-volume set gifted by God (the aloof father par excellence) at Sinai. Notable, too, is that for all that kept Kafka and his father apart, it was with a sheaf of paper that Franz tried to bridge the gap.

There isn’t much of a tradition of home-schooling among Jews nowadays, of fathers and sons sitting and learning together, but it was once more than just a tradition: It was an obligation. The words avi and mori—my father and teacher—were once, like salt and pepper, a natural pair. It’s amazing—and more than a little humbling—to think that the great medieval scholar Rashi, commonly regarded as the “father” of all the commentators who followed him, was, from the age of 5 onward, taught chiefly by his own father, who was not a great scholar but a poor vintner.

My own son, Ezra, isn’t quite ready to be a full-time student—he’s not yet 2—but when the time comes, the economic realities of 21st-century life are most likely going to keep me from being his primary teacher. Instead, I’ll spend my days working in this ethereal realm, trying to figure out what it means to be a Jew today. Happily, every now and then, thoughts of something he’s said or the gallery of pictures I keep on my hard drive let me float down to earth, but, inevitably, after a few minutes, duty will call.

Even during the little time Ezra and I get to spend together each day, I’ll feel the pull of the greater world: the Blackberry, the bank statement, or, lately, the set of ruminations recorded here. But then, as bedtime nears, we’ll gather up a pile of books and lie together side by side. We’ll read and marvel, move swiftly through a book we’ve come to know well or, sometimes, linger on a familiar page and find things we’ve never seen before. As the time wears on and sleepiness begins to take hold of him, he’ll inch closer to me, sometimes so close that by the time he’s ready for bed—a moment he’s come to signal by declaring “Paci, Night-Night”—there’s really no room between us at all.

Gabriel Sanders is Tablet’s director of business development.