Honoring My Father

By Michael Felsen


My father Leo was a wave physicist. He lived and breathed careful analysis and testing of theory, rational inquiry and the pursuit of objective truth. At least partly informed by this approach to the universe, he was not a religious man.

At the same time, his Jewishness was never in question. He grew up in Nazi Germany; in his youth he was a labor Zionist. In Munich, he experienced Kristallnacht firsthand, along with repression and expulsion from school because he was a Jew. He narrowly escaped the death camps by leaving Germany, in June 1939, when he was 15. He arrived in America alone a year later. His older sister was deported to Poland and ultimately perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. Because of these experiences, being Jewish was an integral part of who he was.

When my father died unexpectedly three years ago, it fell to my sister and me–our mother had died several years earlier–to consider what memorial observances would be true to his memory, and would also help us, and the other members of our family, to grieve. My sister and I express our Jewishness in sometimes differing ways, but we found common ground.

Once we realized that my father was dying, we knew that we needed to find a place to bury him. I said goodbye to my father as he lay dying in his hospital bed and arranged the burial from the hospital. The nurse on duty let me use her computer to find a nearby Jewish cemetery that had a section owned by a bygone affiliate of the secular Jewish communal organization, Workmen’s Circle, and I bought several adjoining plots there.

My father was buried there a few days later, in a simple pine box, and in a shroud, but with his favorite, signature beret on his head. The graveside ceremony was private and very simple: we recited the mourner’s kaddish (for its cultural rather than religious resonance), each of us said a few words of goodbye, and I read one of

Evanescent Professors
by Leo Felsen

Occasions like the present one
Remind those of us who have come of age That surely there will be a time


When they will move from center stage

Just how a person leaves the stage
Is often difficult to say
Old soldiers getting to that point,
They never die, they Fade Away.


Professors somehow do the same.
How it is done, you’ll hardly guess.
For those of us who deal with Waves,
We do not fade, we Evanesce.


 my father’s poems.

We returned home for the first of two days of sharing our mourning with friends and neighbors, fashioning our own version of sitting shiva. The first evening was particularly cathartic: at the suggestion of a friend, I spoke a little about my father’s life and about his last days. I also remarked on how his death, though very sad for us and also too soon (he had a few more scientific collaborations he had hoped to complete), was hardly tragic. He had lived an often difficult but also rich and exceptionally full life, and it helped me, through my tears, to recognize and find solace in that undeniable truth.

During and after the shiva, we were barraged by a flood of cards and emails from my father’s former students and colleagues from every corner of the world, and we decided that we needed to organize a more public memorial to provide an opportunity for colleagues in the academic world to remember Leo as professor, mentor, collaborator and friend. We also wanted to include others in remembering who else Leo was: son, brother, husband, dad, grandpa; poet, Holocaust survivor, humanist, cultural Jew.

Two months after Leo died, we held a memorial at Boston University, where my father had held a professorship for several years, hosted by the school and Boston Workmen’s Circle. My father, like the rest of the family, found in the Boston Workmen’s Circle the right community through which to express his non-religious but deeply Jewish identity.

Some of Leo’s colleagues traveled from Glasgow and Munich and Naples and Istanbul to share their anecdotes and appreciations. My father’s childhood friend in

Joe Felsen painting of Leo
Michael’s son Joe Felsen painted this portrait of his grandfather when he was 16.

Germany recalled their youth together under Nazi rule, and my sister and eldest son and I, through our tears, each conveyed our individual eulogies. We interspersed personal statements with a series of slide shows depicting different eras in Leo’s life and three Yiddish songs sung by a small ensemble of the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Community Chorus, “A Besere Velt” (“A Better World”) in which Tolle, my non-Jewish wife, and I sing. The songs reflected aspects of my father’s life journey: “Vilne,” about a thriving, culturally rich Eastern European Jewish community before the war, “Hulyet,” a haunting, metaphoric ballad starkly evoking fascist oppression and the uplifting “Brudershaft Lid” (“Brotherhood Song”).

Mitchell Silver, Boston Workmen’s Circle’s education director and a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, shared his perspective on how non-religious people can come to terms with questions of life and death. I think my rationalist father, who wrote poems on the subject of life and death, would have been pleased with Mitchell’s discussion.

Silver spoke of how many members of the Workmen’s Circle secular Jewish community focus on this world as a natural phenomenon, without invocation of the supernatural. But he also emphasized that while we tend not think about the world in magical terms, this doesn’t mean we don’t believe in a spirituality that is inspired by nature and love and beauty and hope. Our spirituality sees its completion not in our individual selves, but in the wider community of which we’re a part. Many secular Jews don’t speak of personal immortality, or of an individual soul that lives on. We do see people as living on not only in memory, but also as contributors to the story that we tell and to the projects we’ve embarked on.

My father’s gravestone bears a Jewish star, a description of his many life roles, the image of a wave and the phrase he asked to serve as his epitaph: “To strive, to seek, not to find, not to yield.” On the stone, on one side, we replicated my mother’s gravestone, though she is buried in New York, because he wanted that. On the other side, we named his parents and his sister Johanna, with the notation that she died in the Holocaust. As far as we know, no other monument than that stone preserves her memory.


About Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).