Memory Shtick

Here’s my September column for the Jewish Voice and Herald of Rhode Island, about my dad’s yahrzeit. Regular readers of this blog might remember that I wrote about this same topic a few weeks ago. That’s how it’s been going lately. I post something on the blog, and then refine and retool it for the column. Maybe it’s cheating to post both versions here.  Or maybe it’s silly to think people are reading this stuff that closely. In either event, I’m sorry — for my sleaze and my hubris. I’ll work on both this Yom Kippur. And probably post something about that, too.

My father died seventeen years ago, on the 13th of Elul. Judaism prompts me to observe that date. When I can, I do. I say Kaddish, make a charitable donation, sometimes light a candle. But the date I really associate with losing him is the secular one. In my mind, the tragedy didn’t occur two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, but on August 20th, during a family vacation on Cape Cod*.

How can I forget those awful drives between the beach house and the hospital? The far worse one, to the cemetery in New Jersey?

Irv Horowitz grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and spent decades as Assistant National News Editor at the New York Times. He had an exacting eye for detail and little patience for stupid mistakes. He was also very friendly, and funny.

He brought home lots of jokes from work. He told one of his favorites standing up, acting out the story as it unfolded. A desperate mother holds her baby in the window of a burning building. A man from the crowd shouts, “I’m a wide receiver for the New York Jets — I’ll catch your baby!” The woman drops the child, and as the wind blows the baby first one way, then the other, the wide receiver adjusts his run, barely managing to snag the baby at the last second. The crowd goes wild! I can still see my father playing the part of the hero. Beaming, he raises his arm in triumph — and spikes the imaginary baby to the ground.

Election years, Dad coordinated the Times’ coverage of the national political conventions. When the speechifying was over and the exhausted staff packing up, my father would stand in the center of the press area, sing a circus song, and pantomime a juggling act, tossing invisible balls his head and deftly catching them behind his back – a celebration of the job just completed.

The shtick was especially funny if you’d ever seen him at home. As my mother lovingly put it, “When Daddy changes a bulb in the overhead fixture, the first thing he does is drop the screw.” Pouring a diet Pepsi for her, he inevitably spilled the ice. From the living room, we would hear the cubes skittering across the linoleum, and my father berating himself, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Klutzy? Absolutely. Hard on himself? You bet. But my father was far from stupid.

I remember him when I get stuck on a crossword puzzle he would have knocked off in minutes. When I wonder if something I’ve written would have met his high standards. When I think aboutCape Cod. I don’t need his yahrzeit to feel close to him. So why do I observe it?

Not out of a sense of obligation. My father wasn’t much of a synagogue guy. He had a habit of removing his glasses and covering his face with his hands during the rabbi’s sermon, a gesture we interpreted as embarrassment over the inanity of the message. I don’t recall him ever saying Kaddish for his own parents. He never asked, or expected, anyone to say it for him.

A story is told: Rabbi Akiva meets a dead sinner who believes he has no son. Akiva finds the man’s son and teaches him Torah and certain prayers. He then brings the boy to minyan. When the child leads the service, his father’s soul is redeemed. The lesson: an orphan should say Kaddish in case a parent needs help getting into heaven. But in my theology there is no heaven. And if there were, there’s no way my honest, hard-working dad would fail to make the cut. So it’s not out of concern for his soul.

And yet each year I go. Or, if I can’t, wish I could. If I’m not doing it for him, I must be doing it for me. Why? Because seventeen years later, it still hurts – not constantly or acutely, but enough. Saying Kaddish lets me give my grief its due, if only for the duration of the prayer.

But saying Kaddish isn’t  just about feeling good. It’s also about doing good. And maybe the fact that my father’s yahrzeit falls in Elul, a month of reflection, is relevant after all. In a refinement of the Akiva story, the child doesn’t redeem his father’s soul by praising God. He does it by causing the congregation, in their response to his prayer, to do the same. If it’s good to do good, it’s even much better to inspire others to do the same.

Traditionally, the orphan’s good deed is compelling the minyan to recite, “May God’s great name be blessed forever.” I don’t see blessings as magical formulas. But I do believe we honor our parents’ memories when we sow the seeds of goodness they left in our care. Saying Kaddish reminds me that my life can magnify and sanctify my father’s memory. Whether or not he would have seen it that way.

*Photo is from a color slide taken by my mother, Marjorie B Horowitz, at the rented house in Truro, August 1985.

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6 Responses to “Memory Shtick”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    You’re going to stop believing me, if I keep using the same words to comment on your blog posts. I don’t care if this was re-used, re-worked, recycled. It is also very smart and moving and a gorgeous tribute to your dad and your love for your dad. I’m such a fan of what you do with words, Ruth.

  2. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I found both versions thoughtful and moving.

  3. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, you guys. And Linda, you can tell me your a fan as many times as you want. I’ll never get tired of hearing that.

  4. Lea Carmichael Richardson Says:

    So meaningful, Ruth. I especially love the parts about your father—they bring back a wonderful man.

  5. Former Student Says:

    I took your dad’s news editing course at Columbia one summer in the 1970s. What brought me here today was that I found myself telling a reporter:

    “Good enough for the head, good enough for the lead.”

    Which was the second or third thing that I learned in that class (the first being not to sit right next to Professor Horowitz, who would slam his hand down on the table when editing time was up, hard enough to make the notebooks jump and scare the life out of those nearby).

  6. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    It’s great to know there are other folks out there who remember him, and what he taught them. Thanks for letting me know.

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