My Father Jonnny (אלכסנדר בן אלעזר) was niftar suddenly on the 3rd January 17th Tevet aged 65. His loss has created an enormous void for all his family friends and wider community. At his levaya I spoke giving him his last ‘dvar torah’ which he always asked me to do at the Shabbat table. At the shloshim I also reflected on the book of shemot that we are currently reading and how intertwined it is with my father persona.
For a printable PDF please click here:dad hesped shloshim
There is nothing that could have prepared us for the events over the past month. The overwhelming shock, grief, sadness, melancholy and nostalgia that came in cascades, and yet equally and quite surprisingly there was another side to this most despairing of times. The laughter of shared family moments, the comfort from all those who visited and wrote, the blanket of love and support from innumerable members of the community and most important the memories and stories. Every story that we told, every memory that we relived, every statement or saying of Daddy’s that was recalled managed to somehow soften the blow of grief.
Daddy was a man of stories. On his 60th birthday we made him a book that was filled with all the stories he would tell us and all his famous mottos and sayings. He was a man whose life was filled to the brim with happiness and enjoyment; his smile lit up every room he entered. He didn’t live in the past, but he bought the past into the present. He peppered our childhood with recollections of his own, using them to bring laughter, fun and entertainment to every occasion. Our father knew how to draw from the past to make it come alive in the present, all the while creating memories and values as building blocks for the future.
Over the last few weeks in the book of Shemot we have read about the story of the birth of Am Yisrael. The narrative in a strange fashion oscillates between two contradictory stories. The first is about a tyrannical leader, Pharaoh, whose self-imposed ‘memory loss’ results in further suffering and pain for his people. The other is about a God who impresses on his people, the Israelite slaves, the unequivocal act of ‘remembering’, both the pain of slavery so they are compelled to help others, and the awe of redemption so as to be a willing partner in His covenant. We are told again and again by Moshe והגדת לבניך You shall tell your sons. On the cusp of liberation we are taught how to tell our story, how to create a self narrative, an inner drama. A slave lacking in family and autonomy lacks an inner narrative. Memory has no role for there is no one to pass it on to and no one for whom it is important. The prelude to freedom is a lesson in story-telling, memory and creative dreaming. To move a people from slavery to freedom requires not just the physical transferral of the body, but perhaps more significantly the psychological transformation of the mind.
In contrast to this we have Pharaoh and his amnesia. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God is showing that Pharaoh lacks memory, he reacts to each plague as if it has been the only one. Pharaoh does not learn from the past, he does not integrate his experiences and those of his people into his future decision making and hence both he and his people suffer.
The story of Pharaoh’s forgetfulness juxtaposed to Moshe’s repeated command to the people to remember and tell the story should not be lost to the people of the book. We are a people who have survived thousands of years through exile, destruction and innumerable attempts of genocide where our persecutors have attempted to rob us of our identity, our memory, our self by turning us into numbers, by making us into objects. But we have somehow managed to retain our sense of self, we have emphatically reignited our memory and identity stronger than ever before by clinging to the traditions of the past to reimagine the present and the future. We sing ourselves, like Miriam and the women in Sefer Shemot, into a future redemption. Our secret weapon is the key word in the exodus narrative – זיכרון remembrance, but not just as a reminiscence of the past becoming overwhelmed by nostalgia and melancholy, but rather using our Zikaron, to generate hope and light for the future.
Daddy was a man who embodied exactly this aspect of the Jewish people. He created a self-narrative that was infused not only with steadfast values but also with bucketsful of love and laughter. He bought the strictures of tradition from the past and the stories of his own childhood and merged them into our family rituals and religious values of the present, all the while building for the future. Daddy would wonder with amazement every time he would come to Israel, he just couldn’t get over the miracle of its existence, the infrastructure, the buildings, the innovation of a country so young and so small, yet so old and ancient in its essence. It made him so hopeful for the future of his people and his own grandchildren, all of whom lived in Israel.
This idea of זיכרון takes on another perspective in hilchot pesach of the rambam. In his Mishnah Torah he tells us that we are not only to commemorate the exodus but to actually ‘relive it’ ‘lirot et azmo’ – to see himself as if he came out of Egypt. We are commanded to create our own memory of the event, to live through it again but in this generation at this time.
The memories of our childhood Seder nights are imprinted on each and every one of us. Daddy prepared for it (probably better than any exam he ever prepared for) ensuring not only that he had questions at the ready, but also plenty of treats to keep us all going. He knew how to make an eveing into something to remember, in later years with his grandchildren he would ensure he had all his stories and sayings at the ready, as well as dressing up and re-enacting the events at the yam suf. We all knew what was coming next, we all remembered the stories that had been told year after year, but this is precisely what chazal wanted, to make an everlasting memory, imprinted on our minds and in our hearts, to make the past into the present and the present into the future.
Daddy it seems inconceivable that you will not be with us for Seder, that you won’t be able to be with us anymore and share your stories, but we will carry those memories and those stories forever in our hearts and pass them on to the next generation because that is the legacy you left us.
The notion of carrying something as a sign in our heart and mind is echoed in the following fascinating verses from Parshat Bo that combines remembering the exodus together with the mitzvah of tefillin:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה ה” לִי, בְּצֵאתִי, מִמִּצְרָיִם. ט וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְהוָה, בְּפִיךָ: כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה, הוֹצִאֲךָ ה מִמִּצְרָיִם.
” And You shall tell your son in that day, saying: It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt. 9 And it shall be a sign on your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, so that the law of the LORD shall be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.
After Auschwitz the sign on our hand as a memorial cannot be lost on our generation. Daddy grew up in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy to hit the Jewish people, he lost many in his family in the holocaust yet he remained steadfast in his emunah in Hashem. Daddy did not miss one day of laying tefillin and even when he was very ill in hospital the last two weeks before he died he insisted on us putting his kippah on before he put anything in his mouth. This was his sign of unadulterated loyalty to Hashem and to his yiddishkeit. There was a partnership, a love, a sign, a memory of both the bad, the holocaust that slaughtered his people, but the good, the beautiful and miraculous state of Israel.
For Daddy to be part of the Jewish people meant being bound by זכרון, not just history, but memory, identity, collective hope and despair that comes from reflecting on the past, living in the present and building for the future.
It is painful at times to think about daddy, to remember his steadfast opinionated and often stubborn personality together with his gentle, loving and character infused presence, but at the same time it the greatest comfort. He created for each of us, his children, the greatest memories any child could dream of. Together with our incredible mother (lehvdil ben chanim le chaim) they built a home that was a magnet for so many people. They nurtured, fed, helped so many to become who they needed to be. Not just us their own children, but our extended family, our friends, and many others who discovered at 29 wykeham road the warmest of homes, the strongest of values and the greatest of debates and laughter at every meal.
Daddy will never be forgotten, his memory will live on through every person who was privileged to be touched by his joie de vivre, who knew his yashar ve tov – straight and good reputation in business, who felt his warmth and experienced his humour and even those who were unlucky enough to be on the other side of a heated debate or argument about something he felt strongly about. Once you met him, you would never forget him, he was a truly special person who will be missed deeply but whose indelible spirit will never be forgotten.
יהי זכרו ברוך – may his memory be for a blessing.