My father would never consider himself a religious man.
Born in Berlin in a Jewish household that our family always called the most assimilated of the assimilated, he was raised without a Jewish education; his parents’ home had a Christmas tree every December, but no Chanukah menorah. Fleeing with his family in 1938, he made a new life in the United States and established his own family.
Dad had no interest in organized religion: his eyes would glaze over when guests in our home, Jews or Christians or Muslims, began talking about things theological. It was a cause for long-distance calls when Dad, erev yom tov, would wish Mom a "Happy Holiday," or on a rare instance, "Happy Passover" or "Happy New Year."
But, surprisingly to me over the years, and gratefully appreciated after I adopted a lifestyle of Jewish observance as an adult some two and a half decades ago, he never objected, never criticized, never mocked. Would that all parents of baalei teshuvah were as accepting.
Dad never let on that he felt his values being rejected. This, although I could not join him at his favorite non-kosher restaurants or travel with the family on some outings that took place on Shabbat. My new way of behaving, which his German family thought had ended in the Dark Ages, was undoubtedly a mystery to him. I always liked to say that Dad didn’t understand what I was doing; Mom, who was raised in a religious home, knew what I was doing but didn’t understand why.
Dad’s brand of secular spirituality, his innate patience for others’ foibles and respect for others’ beliefs, his quiet acts of kindness (things that religion preaches) became clearer to me during his final illness, the latest of myriad ones that plagued him as long as I can remember.
To cite the illnesses that afflicted him over the years would take more space than this column allows. To cite the times he complained takes no space. Dad simply didn’t. He was stoic, a typical product of his Teutonic upbringing.
When Mom shared stories the night the rabbi came to our house before the funeral, when people came over to comfort us during our period of grieving, I learned more about Dad, about the way he had unknowingly led a religious life.
In Dad’s last few weeks, a series of debilitating medical conditions, some long-term and others of recent derivation, steadily robbed his strength. For 44 days he was bedridden, hooked up to tubes and monitors. A psychiatrist in the rehabilitation center where he spent a brief respite walked into Dad’s room one afternoon to evaluate his mental state.
The psychiatrist asked a series of questions, mostly about Dad’s physical condition.
Then he asked, "Do you feel depressed?"Dad looked as though someone had asked if he came from Mars. "No, I don’t feel depressed," he said without emotion.
If you knew Dad, it was a stupid question. He bore what he had to. At the end, he wore out. He had a breathing mask over his face, a feeding tube in his stomach. Heavily sedated, he was only vaguely aware of his surroundings.
The breathing mask drove him crazy. It was tight and ill fitting and chafed his skin. Agitated, he had to be restrained, his arms tied at his side. He would try to rip the mask off or ask Mom or one of his children to lift it for a few seconds of relief. We couldn’t accommodate him for more than a few seconds; the pumped-in oxygen was keeping him alive.
One day Dad asked me to untie the restraints. He struggled, unsuccessfully, to put his feet on the floor. "I’m going upstairs soon," he said. I thought he may have become delirious. Did he think he was at home? A few days later, before I had to leave the hospital Friday afternoon to get home for Shabbat, I said goodbye. Dad nodded. "Aren’t you going to wish me a good Shabbos?" I asked. Even in his well days Dad rarely offered that greeting.
Under a haze of medication and the uncomfortable mask, the whirring of air obscuring his words, he mumbled "Good Shabbos," the final coherent words I ever heard him utter. As I left the room he waved his tied-down right arm vigorously.
The thought came to me that some privileged people are granted the gift of knowing when their end is approaching.
Dad, I think, received that gift. He had not been delirious. Two days after waving me goodbye, Dad’s soul went upstairs.