In My Father’s Footsteps
It’s one of those one-in-a-zillion stories. The type my father likes to say would give a computer a nervous breakdown. It begins in 1946. My father had just finished his military service and was living in Los Angeles, an exotic choice for a Newark, New Jersey boy, and was just beginning a stint at UCLA.
It was summer time, the new term was about to begin, and my father was looking for a place to stay. He went to the fraternity closest to campus, gave them a deposit and began to unpack.
A short while later there was a knock at the door. It was one of the senior members of the fraternity. He quickly assessed the situation, and began hinting that my father “might be more comfortable elsewhere.”
This seemed strange. My father just landed a spot as close as you could get to the campus — what could be “more comfortable” than that? My father assured him that he was happy there, but the man persisted, saying that it might be nicer to be around people “more like yourself.” By way of example, he mentioned the name of the Jewish fraternity nearby.
Naively, my father explained that having just served in the United States Army, he had been exposed to all kinds of people, and enjoyed — even thrived — on diversity.
The man repeated that my father would feel more comfortable elsewhere, but this time it wasn’t a suggestion. They were his parting words. He gave my father back his deposit and left the room.
Suddenly, my father understood. No Jews Allowed.
My father vividly recalls how as he walked down the stairs, the ping-pong game in the rec room abruptly stopped, and everyone became uncomfortably silent. It stayed that way until he left the building.
But the real story begins with what happened next.
There were any number of places my father could have gone. While anti-Semitism was still a potent force in American society, the flood gates of assimilation were open, and tens of thousands of Jews were rushing through leaving their Jewishness behind. It would have been a perfect moment for my father to do the same. After all, if this is what comes with being Jewish, then who needs it?
But my father made the exact opposite choice. He went to the Jewish frat house on 741 Gayley Avenue and took up residence there.
Cut to Yom Kippur, 40 years later. After a very unlikely series of events, I, too, ended up in Los Angeles. In a nutshell, while attending Harvard, I started writing for the Lampoon, and improbably decided on a career in comedy writing. Even more improbably, after graduating with no job prospects, and taking my old job back as an elevator operator in my parent’s building on 79th and Broadway, the phone rang. “Not Necessarily the News,” a show on HBO, called, offering me a three-week trial period on their writing staff. (That led to a second three-week trial period, which led to a four-week contract. My introduction to job security, Hollywood style.)
I didn’t grow up observant, but my parents’ instilled within me a strong sense of Jewish identity. As a child, I remember my mother saying “Shema” with me before I went to bed. As an eight-year-old, I remember reading Hasidic stories from “Talks and Tales,” the Lubavich children magazine an observant neighbor sent my older brother as a bar mitzvah present. As an 11-year-old I began attending Camp Ramah, the conservative sleepover camp, and at 14 I remember dancing with a Torah scroll at Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s shul on Simchat Torah, feeling absolutely whole, and knowing that I had connected with the essence of my life.
In the years that followed, I always wanted to do more Jewishly, but somehow I had given myself permission to stagnate.
Then came Yom Kippur.
Even though I wasn’t “religious,” I wanted to go to an Orthodox shul that I could walk to. The closest one at that time was the Chabad of Westwood. At the end of a long day of services, Rabbi Baruch Cunin concluded with a declaration that every Jewish male over 13 must put on teffilin every day except Shabbos, and that every Jewish woman must light Shabbos candles before sundown Friday nights. All I could think was — he’s right. I owned teffilin. I had put them on during summer camp, but that was basically it. Nonetheless, the
y were incredibly precious to me. Wherever I went, even if it was for only a weekend, I would take them with me. “Who knows?” I thought, “Maybe I’ll want to put them on, and if they’re not there, what will I do?”
After that Yom Kippur, I started putting on teffilin and never stopped.
That mitzvah transformed my life. Before long, I was keeping Shabbos, marrying a wonderful Jewish woman, and sending my children to yeshiva.
And now for the part that continues to amaze me. That fateful encounter at the Chabad House on Yom Kippur, happened at 741 Gayley Avenue, the exact location of the Jewish frat house my father reaffirmed his Jewish ties at 40 years earlier.
It is astounding how precisely God governs the world. Beyond the synchronicity though, I think there is an even deeper lesson. When we do something holy, not only do we elevate ourselves and our past, but we open up gates in Heaven for our future, and not just our own — but our children’s and children’s children until the end of time.
I heard from Rabbi Simcha Weinberg that when we experience moments of transcendence, we should use them to pray for our future descendants.
I don’t know if consciously or unconsciously, my father had me in mind when he reaffirmed his commitment to being Jewish, but I am living proof that he opened doors for me that I continue to walk through to this day.