Shortly after my mother left him, my father started going to synagogue regularly for the first time in his life. He would bring 7-year-old me with him on Friday nights as the official start to our weekends together, usually followed by banana splits at Baskin-Robbins.
He’d been untethered before, living in an abandoned factory in Brooklyn with other artists, hitchhiking to Mexico, but this time was different. He’d settled down and given up his Kerouacian fantasy, and was now a middle-aged man who had lost his family, and it was suddenly important to him to have heritage. When we started going to synagogue, his family was no longer just a dead mother, a father who returned his letters unopened, a sister who lived far away, a wife who had left him and a daughter he lived in constant fear of disappointing; it was thousands of years of history.
Until then, my childhood had been about as Jewish as his had been: Hanukkah presents in addition to Christmas presents, and a few Yiddish words thrown out here and there. Papa also tried to teach me about my own Jewishness by showing me “Fiddler on the Roof” and reading to me from the Old Testament. We saw each other on the weekends only, so everything we did together became more important. Being Jewish was something we shared, that my mother wasn’t a part of. It was a bond he wanted to strengthen, to make me as much his daughter as possible.
I treated the Old Testament like every other book of myths he had read to me during my childhood, illustrating it while he read. I tried to make paper dolls of every person mentioned, but gave up around the “begot” section. “Fiddler on the Roof” introduced me to the troubled history of my people , imbued me with a deep sadness for it, and gave me an appreciation for the comedic potential of overly analytical elders. It also resulted in months of Papa randomly breaking into song while walking down the street belting “If I Were a Rich Man,” his sonically impressive imitation of Tevye made even funnier by his slim frame and by the chain that attached his wallet to his keys jangling loudly as he shook his body back and forth.
I saw him cry once, when he said his mother’s name at synagogue during the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. We studied the prayers together, learning pronunciation, but when we looked at the translated versions and I asked him if he believed in God, he responded with:
“Good question. Do you?”
He didn’t want to taint my answer with his own. This had the benefit of allowing me to come to my own conclusions about God and religion, but the detriment of me still not knowing how much he believed now that he’s dead. If I could ask him again now, I wonder if he would give me a straight answer or if he’d again answer the question with a question.
My answer to his answer was “maybe,” with the qualification that I definitely didn’t believe in a guy with a beard who sits on a cloud all day. I was obsessed with Greek mythology, and liked the idea of “gods,” but wasn’t sure how I felt about “God.”
He bought me a necklace with a little silver chai pendant, traditionally worn by Jewish women. I didn’t take it off at all for about 12 years, and I still wear it whenever I want his presence near. Its value for me is not as a signifier of my Jewishness; it is as a magic talisman with the ability to conjure him.
We had fun learning to be Jews together, but I think that, for him, even more than a sense of heritage, the strongest pull toward the synagogue was a curiosity about the ritual that was described in the religious books he’d read into the “advent of the poetic image.” He wanted to know where the images that the artist is driven to create could possibly come from. It was inevitable that some kind of mysticism would make its way into his search, Kabbalah books and the Talmud mixed in with stacks of art and literary criticism.
In a letter to his sister Amy he wrote of being a Jew: “I’ve learned it’s like being an artist, it’s a process, a become-ing, a state of become-ing. More of a verb than a noun.”
While marriage and fatherhood forced my father to shift his priorities, to go out into the world to make money and be a provider, this low point in his life allowed him to back into himself, like a hermit, and examine what drove the most powerful force in his life. It was almost a chance for him to reset, to commit to his art once again.
In “Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic” by Perle Epstein, one of Papa’s books that now sits on my shelf, “God” can be seamlessly replaced with “art,” and “the Jewish mystic” with “the artist,” transforming the book into guidelines for how to strive toward an unattainably perfect level of devotion.
“He is expected to be engaged in social, political, family, and community life and at the same time to live in perfect undistracted communion with God,” Epstein writes. Maybe if he could learn how “he” did it, my father could take his own artist sacraments anew, clear his mind of the distractions of heartbreak and responsibility, and focus everything he had on being the best artist he could be.
In another letter to Amy he explained, “My initial contact w/ Kabbalah came about not thru any sort of religious (per se) quest-ing, but, rather, thru my researching the advent of the poetic image.”
He went to the synagogue looking not for comfort in God, but for a clue on his hunt to understand the creative drive. Or maybe he found both, for what else is God if not the origin of inspiration, the force that propels us through life?
Lilly O’Donnell is the deputy editor of Narratively. This is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about researching her father’s life and art.