Pious in his own way, Dad was, until the end, a pickle-and-borscht Jew

My father died a hard, slow cancer death, and I miss him bad. I miss his elfin spirit and humor. I miss his catcalls at the evening news and his easy breezy way with his grandsons.

And I miss his unique Jewishness.

Unique because he was nothing like the Jew his grandfathers must have been. My dad, born a few weeks after Lenin entered Moscow, was a Communist, an atheist, and he never stopped believing in the socialist paradise-to-come. Funny thing is, despite his radical politics, he remained throughout his life a son of the shtetl.

Though he spoke in a flat Midwestern accent, he could put on the best Yiddish accent I ever heard. It came from listening to his grandparents (three of four were born in Eastern Europe) as he grew up on Chicago’s West Side. Yiddish was for my dad the step-mamaloschen. He was not fluent, but he understood, or, rather, felt it in his bones and blood.

He not only had the shprach down cold, he also had the moves: the subtle sideways shrug, the arching eyebrows and half-curved smile, all very Jewish.

And he had a taste for the food. His idea of living like a king was eating lox and bagels for breakfast every morning. Heaven on earth? A big bowl of beet borscht, made screaming pink by a dollop of sour cream mixed in. The very sight of it made me seasick, but he would eat it slowly, in long satisfied slurps.

He would also wax rhapsodic about the kosher pickles of his youth. “Right out of a wooden barrel,” he told me they came, big and dripping and fresh. My father would virtually swoon with pleasure remembering those pickles.

And he made the best matzah brei in the world. Once, near the end, when he was sick and wobbly, I tried to cook matzah brei for him, but he got out of bed to show me what I was doing wrong. He’d fry it up in butter and douse it, too, with sour cream. (I think sour cream was his version of oat bran: good for you and good on anything.)

He didn’t take to the religion though. He told me he remembered being 5 years old, watching his uncles daven and thinking it was all a crock. Years later, I brought him along to my synagogue’s Friday night service, but he fidgeted the whole time. An ark, a Torah scroll, ner tamid: these things meant nothing to him. But other things — Jewish things — resonated deeply. The sad sweet melody of “Oyfn Pripetshik” would make him cry like a baby.

But given his radical politics, it would have been impossible for dad to honor the religion of his great-grandfathers. To him, Judaism was as much an opiate of the masses as any other faith.

Little did he realize (as I realize now) that he was in his own way as pious as a Chassid. Like most old Jewish lefties, my father simply replaced some components with others: Marx for Moses, “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital” for Torah and Talmud, global socialism for “the world to come.” The fall of the Soviet Empire did nothing to diminish his faith.

I grew up steeped in his beliefs, believing them until adulthood. But as I began thinking for myself, I rejected much of his leftist orthodoxy and, to his and my surprise, came back to Judaism, or more precisely, came to it. He never understood why I did this, why I couldn’t be content to simply “know” I was Jewish, and leave it at that.

In his philosophy, once you make up your mind what you are, you stick with it permanently. Watching me evolve into someone quite different from him challenged both his politics and his fundamental belief about human nature. Turns out, people do change.

However, there was no deathbed conversion for my father. To the end, he hated capitalism, scorned religion and never doubted that some day humanity would triumph. Because of that, I’m glad he never lived to see the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. He died exactly one month earlier, on Aug. 11.

I wish he could have appreciated his Jewish heritage beyond pickles and borscht. He might have found in Judaism an even better medium for making the world a better place.

He had nothing to lose but his chains.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.