June brings Fathers’ Day, a day almost as overlooked on the Jewish calendar as are many Jewish fathers. In the classic Jewish father joke, a boy brags about his new part in the school play, “I get to play the Jewish father!” The boy’s mother frowns, “Couldn’t you have gotten a speaking part?”
Next to Jewish mothers, Jewish fathers get short schrift. Our stereotypes unfairly characterize Jewish men as silent, passive, deferential or inept. The reality is that the role of Jewish fathers is both challenging as well as changing! Ever since Adam had to deal with his aggressive sons, men have had to balance career and family life. Whereas men of yesteryear were trained to be mainly providers, today’s father is also asked to drive carpools, cook dinners, do laundry, attend countless children’s events, give mom respite, all the while providing emotional as well as financial support for the family unit. It is rather a thankless job.
The ideal father is described in photographer Lloyd Wolf’s tribute: Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love. He writes, “The image of the Jewish father is synonymous with the Yiddish word mensch, a good kind, decent human being. The first mensch that many of us meet in life may be our father: honest, hardworking, fair, charitable, funny, reverent, honorable, responsible, a mensch! It is a standard to be lived up to, a standard that Jewish fathers have been charged with since the times of the Biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
To be sure, not all fathers live up to the standard and not all of us view our own fathers so tenderly. Many have painful memories of fathers who were remote, absent, angry or unapproachable. Perhaps this is why Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai once said: “The most difficult of all obligations is to honor your father and mother.”
Ironically the commandment does not tell us to love our father or our mother but rather to honor them. And so, on this day set aside for our fathers, we might consider a Jewish way of honoring our fathers that goes beyond another necktie or sports outing. For, whether or not they were perfect, our fathers gave us our lives. And so if we are lucky enough to have our father in our lives, and even if he is but a memory, we take some time this month to honor him.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner suggests we might honor our fathers by exploring some fundamental questions about them: “What was Dad’s history, his story? What brought him to today? What has my father passed on to me? Which are the most important values he wants me to carry into the world? What are his dreams? What tasks did he attain, and what has been left unfulfilled? In what way can I help my father’s dreams become fulfilled?” We can honor our fathers, whether present, far away or deceased, by listening to the music he loves, looking through family photographs, or visiting a place wherein he found peace.
In the end, we pay best homage to our fathers by passing on their legacy to the next generation. As the Yiddish saying goes: “Mayn tate hot farzeyt far mir un ikh farzey far mayne kinder – My father planted for me so I plant for my children.” But as we are planting, may we pause this Fathers’ Day to honor the man who gave us life, and then we will fulfill the prophetic vision when “… the hearts of the fathers will be turned toward their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).
Happy Father’s Day,
Rabbi Judy Chessin