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My father’s name is Israel. He pronounced his own name with the same deliberate care of any prayer. I can hear him, in my memory, speaking into the phone that hung by my parents’ dining room table: This is Israel Kaplan. Izzz-rehl. Much later on, echoing the community’s movement toward a further rejection of the American and modern, he began to call himself by the Hebrew version of his name more frequently: Yisroel. This is Yisroel Kaplan. Yih-srohl. The same precise method of speech, in English or in Hebrew.
I cannot speak with a pure female Jewish voice, because I don’t have a clear sense of what that is, but my interpretation of the Shema as a text that points to the deeper lesson that all of our diversity is deserving of equal respect, is of a hybrid nature: It uses the skeleton of male Judaism, the framework of picking at the rigid text to find meaning, to try and give structural support to thoughts that come from the traditionally female domain of the personal and the inclusive.
This entire essay is a hybrid of the masculine and feminine, and serves as an attempt to rope in Wieseltier and my father, to give strength to my own silenced voice. I need my father’s permission, Wieseltier’s permission, the Talmud’s permission, to lay claim to my place at their table.
We need to ask for love and permission from those who hold the keys. Even if they can’t or won’t ever give us permission, even if they haven’t spoken to us in two years and nine months, we still need to ask permission from their stand-ins in our heads.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this essay is a love letter to my father. I imagine this sentiment would anger him, since I have hurt him so through my work as a writer, saying things he doesn’t want to hear, does not believe are true, things that damage him and the people he loves.
Still, I do love him.
It is easiest for me to understand why my father has rejected me so harshly by acknowledging that I am a piece of him (and my mother). A piece that my father rejected in himself, that bloomed in me; when my father sees me, he sees the parts of himself that he has cast away, and he despises me for resurrecting them.
As a child, my father attended a co-educational school. He had a television in his home and dressed like any American boy, with only a yarmulke over his long bangs to identify him as a Jew. In his own journey into adulthood, he rejected progressive values for an ever more fervent attachment to fundamentalist rabbis and teachers. He erased his sister from his family for not following suit. Within him, he must have a voice for all he left behind, even if he has done his best to stone that voice into silence. And here I am, that voice, popping up. How he must hate me. And how I must love him, for giving me this, the thing in me that I love the most, my voice, my ideas, a branch off his tree, even if the tree refuses to acknowledge itself as the branch’s source.
Growing up in a family of 11 children, we categorized ourselves by who was like Mamme and who was like Tatte. My mother the heart, my father the brain. To be like my father was the higher compliment, but I was clearly like my mother. I had her round face and almond eyes, and I was emotional like her.
It is only recently, as my self-made life expands, that I have been told by the few siblings who still speak to me: You’re just like Tatte. You’re as smart as Tatte. You have Tatte’s brain.
Would I resemble my father, I wonder, if I had never left, if I was now a housewife and a Bible teacher with six kids?
I am, still, complimented by the comparison to my father.
Shema Yisroel, hear O Israel. Adonai Elohainu, God, our God — the one you have, the one I have, the ones that seem to be enemies, Adonai echad. Our gods are one.
Your God, Tatte, the fundamentalist principles to which you sacrifice your children and your happiness, and my god, the difficult truth-telling and embracing of life’s possibilities to which I sacrifice my comfort and dignity, are the same. The passion is the same. We are the same zealots, you and I.
Our God is not one because your god is identical to my God. Our God is one because it is two sides of the same coin. The brain and the heart. The text and the life. The father and the daughter. The adherent and the rebel.
The love for my father expressed here is not a response to an unanswered parable he posed. It does not bring me back to the conversation he and I were forced to abandon 17 years ago. I no longer know how to play that game with him. This is a strong love with its own voice, fed but not defined by his love and anger and hatred. I know he doesn’t want it as it is, but I can’t and won’t modify it to something he wants.
In “Kaddish,” Wieseltier gets to love his father with a Jewish man’s plush scholarly tome that spans the length and breadth of an ancient community of scholars. I love mine with the frail thoughts of a solitary Jewish woman’s personal essay.
Wieseltier’s father is dead. He will never know or be touched by the elegy his son has composed in his honor. My father will never know mine. Still we sing — Wieseltier in the power of his full baritone, and me, in my mezzo-soprano, a Jewish son, a Jewish daughter, telling our deaf fathers: I love you.
Leah Vincent is an activist and the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood” published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday