I can only speculate when my father’s passion for singing began, because I know so little of his background. He was born in Chęciny, Poland to Orthodox Jewish parents and had an early education in the yeshiva there. At some point there was intensifying trouble between his parents, a get (Jewish bill of divorce) was secured, and his father departed in quick succession on a boat bound to foreign shores.
Left behind were a distraught wife and a 1-year-old. Over time my Polish grandmother found another Jewish husband and her young son became a yeshiva boy in a stitched-together new family which added a daughter in short order. When my grandmother suddenly died, however, my dad’s stepfather made a decision to dispatch him to Toronto where his biological father had also found a new Jewish wife who promptly delivered three children to him.
Jewish tradition teaches that music unlocks the door to divine connection. My father once told me that with all the upheaval and dislocation, there was nothing to do but sing. He sang on the boat to Canada, a brown-skinned 7-year-old lad with black, impossibly curly hair and green eyes whose family originally descended for hundreds of years from Spanish Jewry. Faced with a new stepmother, half-siblings and a new language to learn, he turned to song as a way to navigate a strange and secularized world where Jews lived next to non-Jews and many of those Jews disassociated from their religion.
Relations were strained between his father and him — told he was “another mouth to feed, you will have to work.” I can only imagine the emotional discord such a harsh welcome betokened. The family of six lived above a small grocery store in Canada that they owned and made a very meager living. My father received the equivalent of a sixth grade education in Toronto and was urged at a tender age to “bring money into the home.” Still he turned towards music at a synagogue the family attended; his stepmother kindly encouraged him to sing because he had a beautiful voice.
The Talmud teaches, “Where there is song, there is prayer.” If it is true that song and music are how we express happiness and celebration, my father had found a way to reinvent a life in a foreign land with the yeshiva’s lessons from the Old Country still exerting their influence. There were new songs to be learned, this time in English, but the old Hebrew ones supplied a literal foundation from which to navigate the world.
I learned from a Polish man, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw who was my father’s closest friend, that his solution to everything was a song. When my dad obtained a job on the Ford assembly line the company foreman would often say during lunch break, “Nate, give us a tune.” My father, only too happy to comply, would belt out popular 1940s songs that he had picked up — “Mac the Knife,” “Sentimental Journey,” “Swinging On a Star” and “Lover Man.” The other employees wildly cheered, enjoying the velvety tenor voice that soared above the noise of the constant machinery.
Life nonetheless was not always smooth — at some point the job was lost as well as a succession of others; numerous undertakings, such as barber school, were attempted but footholds in the job market continued to be tenuous. His friend told me that “your dad sang when things were good and when they were bad. He had charisma. He gave others momentum, the power to be inspired by music.”
Life changed at 25 years old when my father met his bashert, soul mate: a comely Jewish-German immigrant with dimples and flashing dark eyes, who had barely escaped the Holocaust. My father always told me, “I fell in love with your mom the first time I saw her,” and I knew that was true because I never heard my father tell a lie.
Suddenly there was a marriage, although not one approved of by her German-Jewish parents, who felt keenly that it was an importunate event. He had darker skin, no money to speak of and a family background which had been interrupted by divorce. My mother defiantly pressed on, beamed unrelentingly at her wedding, gave him her heart, two children and a love which expanded to fill the huge void that he had carried so long from a father who had never really wanted him and a mother he had lost so prematurely.
My mom remarked to me, “Your dad, he was always singing, even when the roof caved in.” He sang each week at synagogue, on the bus to work, at every job he had, at home while he carried by brother and myself in his arms, doing double duty in the kitchen preparing meals alongside his wife. He sang in Hebrew, Polish, Spanish and English. He sang “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” when I was crying and to this day that song still brings tears to my eyes. He sang when he lost his job, when there wasn’t enough money to pay the rent, when my mother yelled, “There’s no money for food!” He would stop momentarily and say simply, “God will provide,” and then resume, knowing full well that the Jewish community would help out as well. Singing was his defense against the world and the means by which he lived in it. His response to the intransigence, the vagaries of life, was to lift up his and others’ spirits in song.
Reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently, I was struck by the comment in his article “Torah as Song” that “without an affective dimension — without music — Judaism is a body without a soul. It is the songs we teach our children that convey our love of God … whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual, it modulates into song.” My father, always a deeply religious man, did not stop at the Jewish prayers; he sang whatever touched his soul and shared that gift with many people, who were not shy of expressing their appreciation.
I remember one time when my mother, in exasperation, screamed at my father that our electricity had been cut off due to non-payment. “Please stop singing, I’m talking to you!” My father, with complete composure, turned to her, his eyes dancing in the faded light, and said evenly in the Polish accent he never lost, “My darling wife, I can’t.”
My father passed away when I was 36, two years before my son was born. Soon I found myself singing to my baby — “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” and “Mac the Knife” just like my dad used to sing, and “Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I never expected, however, that my son would also sing all his life, at moments of despair and moments of exuberance. He would sing at Chabad, at the synagogue in Berkeley, California, through university and two Master’s Degree programs, and in his current home of central North Carolina. Clearly the legacy of music had been passed by genetics from the grandfather he had never known somehow, immutably and determinedly to him.