August 21, 2009
I remember staring out our bathroom window at the beautiful morning. Randy and I shared the sink brushing our teeth while Mom blew her hair dry in the background of the mirror.
Today I am a man, I thought.
Could it have been any more typical? Images of Uncle Harold, my mom's foster father, flooded my memory. Grandma loved to tell about the time when she was in bed reading one night and Harold lifted his head straight off the pillow mid-sleep and said, "Today I am a man."
|The author at his bar mitzvah.
Harold was quite a character. A one-time cantorial student and a shoe salesman by trade, he grew up in New Haven, Conn., and lived what I've always thought of as a typical Jewish man's life. Once in the middle of the night, when my mom and her sister, Barby, were little girls, Harold woke up the whole family and drove them down to New York because he had a hankering for cheesecake.
But that was Harold: a snappy dresser, full of spontaneity and chivalry and a real mensch. He was the strongest father figure my mother ever had. He danced with her at her wedding.
Uncle Harold never lived to see my bar mitzvah; he died three years before I was born. I can only imagine my parents' unanimous decision to give me his name as my middle name. I have always felt honored to carry on his legacy.
Harold and my father got along famously. The coupling of their two gregarious personalities, on top of their love for eating, drinking and sharing stories, killed at every social event. A bris was more like a bachelor party, wedding toasts turned into wedding roasts and the first seder became improv night.
I wish I had been there to watch my dad interact with his first Jewish male role model. My parents met in the summer of 1974 at my aunt's high school graduation party. My father, Gerry, was a friend of my mom's sister. He strolled into the party and made a beeline for my mom. I can't blame him. My mom was tall, wispy and beautiful with long brown hair. My father, the son of working-class, Irish-Italian parents, was well-tanned, mustachioed and had a lion's mane of thick, full hair. My mom had only graduated Trumbull High two years earlier, so they must have passed in the halls a handful of times. An aspiring nursery school teacher attending the University of Bridgeport, my mother Wendy was everything my father was not: a soft-spoken thinker and shy. They were opposites, but that balanced out their relationship and made them stronger, better people. Their love for music, family and each other stayed them on a course for the next 16 years. My father even converted to Judaism before their marriage in 1978.
But after my parents' divorce, Dad left Judaism. My dad had seemed committed to Jewish life. He used to play for our synagogue's softball team and take me to Musaf services on Saturday mornings, right after stopping at The Corner Deli for a bagel and cream cheese. In the aftermath of my parents’ divorce and some personal mistakes that turned his professional business reputation upside-down, my dad would no longer do any of these things. He eventually had to move away to a different community so he could grow some new roots.
In retrospect, I realize that my father always acknowledged the importance of a strong Jewish upbringing, even though he abandoned Judaism. Perhaps taking the Hebrew name Gershon, which means "stranger," was an ominous choice for him.
|At graduate school commencement. Today, he is a man.
But he obviously tried hard to give me a Jewish life both before and after my parents' divorce. When I was in nursery school at Rodeph Shalom, he brought the ladder truck from the volunteer fire department where he was a firefighter and let me sit in the driver's seat. When his family celebrated Christmas, we went to his parents' house to gather with relatives, but Mom and Dad invited everyone to our house for Hanukkah
in return. Even after the divorce, when Randy and I spent our weekends at Dad's new apartment, Dad drove us almost 40 miles back to Bridgeport every Saturday morning just so I would make it to shul
on time for bar mitzvah tutoring.
From the bima on April 27, 1996, I chanted my haftorah to a packed sanctuary at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. My family and friends sat behind one another in solidarity; it was hard to pronounce the words because I was smiling so much--there were so many of them! Despite the enormous turnout, I couldn't help but notice my dad sitting in the other column of benches opposite my fan club. He sat there alone, albeit in the first row, beaming at me proud as ever. He was still a stranger to a once-familiar community.
I never held any resentment toward my father for not having participated in my bar mitzvah ceremony. Despite the fact that he would have loved to make an aliyah or perform hagbah, my Dad would not renounce his revived practice of Christianity, a commitment he had made just a few years earlier. All things considered, I always felt that my dad still played an important role in my Jewish upbringing. My dad was always there for me as a father first. It was difficult for me that my father abandoned Judaism, but his experiences taught me life lessons about forgiveness and second chances that I think are Jewish lessons too.
It was my mother who continued to provide lasting Jewish experiences for me throughout my teenage years, simply because she had the tools. I attended Merkaz during high school, a weekly Tuesday night community class for Jewish teens who want to further their education beyond eighth grade. I also actively participated in Gottlieb AZA, Bridgeport's local BBYO Jewish fraternity chapter.
Dad has always supported my devotion to Judaism, and to this day continues to encourage my exploration of leadership positions in informal Jewish education. I greatly respect my father and the journey he's taken in life. I know that if Uncle Harold were still around, he would be very proud of both Gershon and of me, Channan.