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An Ode to My Father and His Courageous Career

‘I’d never have had the courage to do something so eccentric and insecure if not for your example’

Mark Oppenheimer
June 19, 2015

Dear Dad:

Happy Father’s Day! I know my three siblings and all six of your grandchildren join me in sending you a big cheek-pull and a kiss on your head of curls, still thick and wavy in your eighth decade. It’s a fine opportunity to tell you something I don’t think I have told you before, but which I think to myself often. Consider it a cheap Father’s Day present; I’ll put the cost of a necktie into the grandkids’ college fund. Here goes:

It’s a dangerous game you played, raising us to think that we actually, truly could do anything, and that somehow a career would work itself out. You seemed to believe that there was no point in majoring in something useful, let alone remunerative. I don’t think once in my entire childhood did you indicate that education was for anything but joy, the playful fun that could be had when living the life of the mind.

Okay, wait—I take that back. My junior high school started all the seventh-graders on Latin, but you asked that they allow me to take high-school French, because you had found Latin so utterly pointless and useless in your own education. I guess that was one time when you insisted on some utility in my curricular choices. But to be fair, what you had really hated about Latin was the rote memorization, not the fact that one never used it. So even there, you were trying to make school more fun for me.

Back to the Father’s Day point: I have as much fun in my weird career, with its mix of writing, editing, teaching, and talking, as anybody I know. And I’d never have had the courage to do something so eccentric and insecure if not for your example. Not only did you refrain from querying the usefulness of my educational choices (even when I studied German opera, Second Temple Judaism, and African art in the same semester), but you also modeled the kind of career restlessness that I like to think I have perfected.

Why you went to law school, nobody knows. But after that you worked in consumer protection for the city of New York, where your boss was Bess Myerson, still our tribe’s only Miss America. Then you left to teach law school in Western Massachusetts, at a start-up law school endowed by one of the founders of Friendly’s. When that didn’t suit you, you entered small-town private practice, suing the city for police brutality and sexism. Then you went back to school to get a degree in labor studies and went to work for the labor movement, where you help the dwindling number of unionized Americans get contracts they deserve. Now you say you’re going to get another degree and become a social worker.

(Through it all, you’ve always been first and foremost a dad, the best I know.)

Some would say that switching careers like that is mad, but your example makes it look perfectly sane, indeed the only sane way to live. Your restless quest for purpose and satisfaction in your work life was the only fatherly example I knew, and I thank God, way more often than every June, for that.



Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.

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