When my father died, I was devastated. He had been my bedrock for all of my life. Though he is no longer alive, I still feel the need to express my love for him on Father’s Day.
He was born in Poland, the last of his family to come to America. He was very poor in Poland and poor as well here, but he always said he was a rich man. As the rabbi of a small synagogue in inner-city Milwaukee with a pittance of a salary, he also had to travel as a circuit rabbi throughout Wisconsin to sustain his family. He was loved by all, we deeply felt his loss, and I still feel the loss these many years later.
My Dear Aba (Hebrew for “father”),
My brother, Rabbi Labish Becker, assures me your spirit is watching over us, and that this letter will convey to you the great love and admiration we all had for you — and that I, for one, never expressed to you as I now wish to here. For you see, Aba, though your body showed the wear of your illnesses and experiences, your spirit was ageless; I thought that you were immortal. That I would have you forever and there would always be time to express how much I cared, how I took comfort from your strength and goodness. Time ran out on that May 21st, though if my brother Labish is right, you will know these words of love that I now address to you.
You told me, Aba, that the continued existence of the world rests on the lives of 36 tzadikim — 36 righteous men whose identities are not revealed to us or them. I truly believe, Aba, that on the evening of Monday, May 21, the soul of one of these 36 tzadikim left us, for you were truly a righteous and humble man.
While you were with us I did not fully appreciate your generous, quiet deeds of compassion and kindness, your truly charitable soul. The many times you traveled by bus, as you did not drive, in your not-so-strong bent body with your cane, to visit patients at hospitals or nursing homes. You spent many afternoons with people whom even their own children had neglected, singing songs for them, telling jokes, and most important of all, listening to them.
I remember that you often took chicken soup and other food to a woman who lived in a very bad neighborhood, and was dying of cancer. She was all alone and had no one else caring for her. Countless times, people with no one else to turn to would call or visit you in times of trouble. You always answered their pleas, no matter the time of day or the weather, though often your strength was not up to it.
You often officiated as a rabbi at weddings, funerals, or dedications for no fee at all. You felt you were rewarded by the deed itself, the chance to help another person. How often did I chide you for not having been successful financially? You kept telling me that you were a rich man, who had more than he needed.
I could never get you anything for Father’s Day because you never wanted anything.
I only really remember you from the age when hard work and illness ravaged your body, but pictures showed you to have been a good-looking, handsome man. I heard of your strength of convictions and gentle fearlessness as a man, but only recently learned how these traits had manifested themselves in your youth.
I was told that you tried to save your brothers from being conscripted into the Polish army — and that you were arrested because of this. I learned that your love of Judaism inspired you to leave your family as a young boy of ten to attend a yeshiva (religious seminary) in a distant city. There you slept on hard benches at night, often going without food.
You loved knowledge. Both English and Hebrew were sacred to you. Many times you patched up old volumes that others would have discarded. In this same way you tried, in your unpretentious manner, to patch up the spirits of those whom others were too busy to help.
You were humble, so grateful whenever anyone did anything for you. You always thanked me for any little thing I did for you. You were loved in your lifetime, Aba, because you were a gentle man, a man who accepted everyone, who made no one feel small. Your inner contentment gave comfort to all who came in contact with you.
We never really knew how really sick you were. You never complained. Even from your sick bed at the hospital, your first words to visitors were questions of concern about their health, their families.
I will think of you not only on Father’s Day, but every day of my life. I will think of you not only with love, but with a deeply felt gratitude for having had you as a father.
With everlasting love, your daughter.