I kept think of my father yesterday, I expect Nicky was thinking of her father too, during our son’s graduation. Of course it wasn’t the only reflection; but, amidst love for Mossy, respect for his achievements, gratitude to have been ‘kept alive and brought to this day’ as he received his degree in nomine De’i, the memory of my father kept returning to my mind.
I didn’t attend my own graduation. When my father asked me ‘When’s your graduation?’ and I told him that it had been and gone without my even informing him, I watched his face and spirits fall as he told me how deeply disappointed he was. No doubt I justified myself at the time, as one does when one is heartlessly convinced that one is right. But even before my own son was born I’d come to realise how correct he was, and how mistaken my own conduct had been. I felt that even more clearly yesterday. ‘Ure’eh vanim levanecha – you shall see your children’s children: peace upon Israel,’ runs the verse from the Psalms. He did live to see them, all his children’s children, and even one Bar Mitzvah; but not, by a few years, the graduation.
I remember how my father came into my room one night when I was sixteen or seventeen and asked if I was doing my homework. It was an easy question to answer; I loved the subjects I was studying for A level. ‘Because’, he added, ‘they can take everything away from you except what’s in your mind’.
His family fled their home when he was sixteen; my mother and her family did the same. My father might have looked forward to a steady progression through a good school, a degree from a quality German university, and probably time too at Yeshivah. Instead, by the age of seventeen he was the main earner for his family in a poverty stricken Palestine embroiled in two consecutive wars. I recently found letters from the 1940’s years written by my grandmother in Jerusalem to her brother in New York:
18 April 1945: Adi is working very hard. He’s still with the same firm (freezers and cooling plants) and studies hard every night to sit his engineering exams.
His sons’ graduations would have been proof that by dint of constant hard work and determination he and my mother had managed to give to their children what had been stolen from them and their sisters. That would have constituted a small, personal triumph over the evils of Nazism. The venerable halls of Oxbridge with their beautiful gardens would have represented a continuity of the ancient, disciplined culture of scholarship, both Jewish and secular, of respect for learning and its institutions, in which he had been brought up.
(My father’s experience cautions me against judging those labelled ‘economic migrants’ whose deep purpose is to seek a better future for their children.)
The Talmud teaches, ‘Parents are obliged to teach their children Torah…to teach them a livelihood, and, some say, to teach them to swim’ (Kiddushin 29a). The latter is no doubt a metaphor for ‘survival skills,’ managing the challenges and dangers of everyday life. ‘Torah’ embraces the entire Jewish way of life, wisdom, values, ethics, practices, rituals and the inner life of the spirit. But the word translated as ‘livelihood,’ umanut, means much more than the English term suggests. It derives from the same root as emunah, ‘faith,’ or ‘trust’. Also from the same root is aman, a person skilled in their craft; in my father’s and my son’s cases, the art of working with wood. To pass on the capacity for umanut is not simply to teach someone how to make money; it encompasses everything involved in guiding them to be loyal, trustworthy, painstaking and caring in the way they live their every day.
This is what my father wanted to achieve, together with my mother, by enabling his children to progress from school to university and on into the world. He himself finally obtained his degree in his late thirties by studying each night for seven years at the University of Strathclyde.
It was wonderful to have my mother with us. I hope my father was in some way present at his eldest grandchild’s graduation too, to know the measure of what he achieved.