Living a ‘Hineini’ Life

My father was justly famous — or infamous — for his rendition of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Every year at Rosh Hashanah, he’d chant the Torah portion with all the terrifying drama of a camp counselor telling a ghost story. He’d do different voices for God (booming) Isaac (tentative and terrified) and Abraham (halting, ambivalent, yet resolute). The big moment was when Abraham lifts his arm ,holding a knife to slay his son, and the Angel of God stops his hand. Dad would slowly raise the yad, the Torah pointer, holding it high over his head; you’d think he was about to plunge it right into the scroll. In the silence of the shul, you could have heard a slice of honey cake drop.

When I was tiny, I loved this performance. How thrilling to have everyone spellbound by my adored father. How wonderful his voice was; how much more exciting this was than the standard Torah reading. But as I entered the delightful sullen teen years, I found my dad’s showiness mortifying. Couldn’t he be less flamboyant, like other people’s fathers?

Well, no. The three words that everyone used to describe my father were “larger than life.” He loved drama. He loved to sing, especially great opera arias and choral music. He made inappropriate jokes. He had huge appetites; he’d send multi-screen e-mails describing divine restaurant meals. He loved to be an enfant terrible. He often made reservations under the name “Phunn,” for the sheer giggly, infantile joy of hearing the maitre d’ announce that the table for the Phunn family, party of four, was ready. And at the end of the meal, if a non-native-English-speaking waiter said: “You finish?” he’d reply: “No, Jewish!” and crack up at his own Noel-Coward-like wit.

The keyword in the Akedah story is “hineini”: here I am. That’s what Abraham says when God calls on him. And my father, who died August 12, lived a hineini life. Whenever someone needed help, he said “hineini.” (He was a psychiatrist, and loved the least glamorous and the neediest patients. He started a community mental health center, volunteered at a medical van that served the homeless, and worked with the elderly and with troubled youth. He didn’t want glory. When at least two of my own friends were in crisis, my father was there. It wasn’t until after he died that they told me how much he’d done for them.)

My father lived a “hineini” life when it came to his relationships. He was fully present. He’d had a heart attack at age 39 and needed to be resuscitated, and after that he never hesitated to let us know how much he loved us. He knew that sentimentality embarrassed me, and would dryly warn me before saying something loving: “Marjorie, I’m about to become a Moonie.” (Apparently once in the aforementioned sullen teen years, I accused him of talking like a follower of the Reverend.) And when good food was around, my dad definitely said “hineini.” He codified the Ingall family ritual response to a delicious meal (imagine this chanted in unison, with a Yiddish accent): “I’m ‘stoffed.’ I’m bloated. You have to give me the recipe.” He lived by the words of musician Warren Zevon, who said, when asked by David Letterman what he’d learned by living with terminal lung cancer: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

He didn’t go gently. He always wanted the next sandwich. He was obsessed with thwarting the Moloch ha-Moves, the Angel of Death (on whom he was understandably fixated — childhood polio, resuscitation at 39, major heart surgery, dialysis and a stay on a heart-kidney transplant list will do that to a guy). Immediately after being brought back to life that first time in the ICU, he yelled for a pen and frantically began writing an ethical will. An excerpt of his advice to his children: “Rule #1: Never, never take anything too seriously. Especially yourself. Belch loudly at the dinner table. It is a compliment to the chef, and a long-established Ingall tradition. Teach your children this, above all.” (Fifteen years later, Josie delighted him by learning this early. He always thought she was a prodigy. But I’m farklempt that he died without hearing the news she was so thrilled to tell him as we entered the hospital: “My boyfriend, Maxwell, passed gas!”)

My dad’s ethical will concluded: “To my children: I am so proud of you. I would not want better children. I would like you to do the following: Be what you choose. Help other people, whether this is your work or not.” He meant that. When other people’s fathers told them to be doctors and lawyers, my father urged me to become a comedienne. And my father told the truth. If he loved one of my columns, I knew it. And if he thought I could do better, I knew that, too.

Josie knew that Zayde was sick. She’d visited him in the hospital before. And when we got the call to come, quickly, and I warned her that Zayde might not be awake and might not be able to talk, she said confidently: “We’ll go in and his eyes will be closed and I’ll kiss him and he’ll open his eyes and say, “Oh! It’s Josie!” It didn’t happen that way, unfortunately. But she always knew he adored her.

Josie’s recent drawing for Zayde, of a plate of hot dogs on a table, was up on the hospital wall. He died the next night, without waking up, as I was putting Josie to bed.

Thanks to wonderful advice from the social worker who runs the Parenting and Family Center at the 14th Street Y, I knew what I needed to tell Josie. I said that Zayde had died, which meant that we couldn’t see him anymore. And I said that we were all sad, because we knew how much we’d miss him.

And because Josie loves to garden, I explained death by talking about how flowers die. She sort of understood. (But not really. During the next few days, she kept making more drawings to bring to Zayde, and when my cell phone rang, she said: “That’s Zayde.”) Josie’s visceral first reaction, though, was: “I want to make Bubbe feel better.”

So with Bubbe, before the funeral, before we were actual mourners, we went to the butterfly garden at the zoo. It was Bubbe’s idea. Surrounded by butterflies, Bubbe crouched down and told Josie: “Remember how yesterday Mommy told you that Zayde died, and we’ll miss him very much? Well, we can think of Zayde as often as we like. And do you see how butterflies look a little bit like kisses, flying through the air? Maybe when we see butterflies, we can think of Zayde blowing us kisses. And we can think of happy memories of Zayde.” Josie squeezed Bubbe’s hand and yelled: “Remember when we flew kites with Zayde? And one looked like a squid? And Zayde got me lemonade?” Yes.

In the couple of weeks since then, we’ve looked at lots of pictures of Zayde, told stories about how Zayde fought the raccoons and took Josie to look at the lobsters, and read the silly book that Zayde gave us, called “What Can You Do With a Shoe?” It’s not enough. It doesn’t let us witness Zayde’s show-stopping Akedah again (I stopped being embarrassed by its Vegas aspects by the time I graduated from college, by the way); it doesn’t ensure that Josie will remember Zayde; it doesn’t change the fact that Zayde won’t know Josie’s baby sister. But it’ll have to do.

Email Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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Living a ‘Hineini’ Life

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