Whenever someone greets me, it’s inevitably, “Hi Lynn, how’s your father?”
My incredibly interesting and unusual father departed from life as we know it a few months ago. It is still extremely difficult to put that z”l after his name, and even more difficult to have to relate the news to each one of these inquirers.
But what was it that made him so indelible in these people’s lives and minds? And in mine and our crisscrossing of journeys?
Michael Roth z”l was ordained an Orthodox rabbi at Torah V’Daas in [New York City. Immersed in the atmosphere of traditional learning, the dogma felt unnatural, constricted, and questions started to bubble up within him.
He then moved toward Conservative Judaism at a synagogue on Long Island, where he served for eight years before he was offered a pulpit in Los Angeles. For him, L.A. represented a place where he could experiment in his thinking and his observances, 3,000 miles away from his ultra-Orthodox parents. And his journey continued.
I am his elder daughter — and I think he saw me as a creative type with a flair for the dramatic. He lovingly told me that I did an imitation of Jimmy Durante singing “Inka Dinka Doo” when I was 4.
In the 1960s I was a teenager and became a bona fide hippie, captivated by transcendental meditation, experimenting with drugs and an expanded consciousness. My father was mildly interested in these explorations; I could certainly talk to him about all of it, although he was slightly skeptical and remained a protective father.
I had enrolled in a sculpting class. I was on my way to that class, but instead I met up with a boyfriend who had some good weed and we wound up staying out all night. When I returned to my parents’ home at sunrise, my father was sitting in the living room, waiting for me. “ Maybe you shouldn’t take sculpting classes anymore,” he said with quiet wisdom.
Our individual journeys accelerated in the early 1970s. As I was about to graduate from college, he decided to enroll at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for a doctorate of Hebrew letters in mysticism and Kabbalah. He began talking about the Baal Shem Tov, Gershom Scholem and Abraham Joshua Heschel. For about a half a year we enjoyed mystical, “groovy” discussions. Right about the time he started his thesis on Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century founder of Prophetic Kabbalah, I decided I wanted to be in show business. I sold my first script to the comedy series “All In The Family.” Almost instantly I put away marijuana and all its paraphernalia and traded in the tie-dye for suits. Dad grew a beard and told me that Abulafia was able to achieve an orgasm just by contemplation. This is so what I didn’t want to hear from my father. I remember thinking at the time: Why can’t I just have a normal rabbi father?
“Why do you and Daddy look so awful this morning?” I asked my mother.
“We went out with the Weinsteins last night and smoked Tahiti stick,” she replied.
“Ma, there is no such thing as Tahiti stick. You don’t mean Thai stick. Please don’t tell me Thai stick! It’s very strong!!”
“ Yes, that’s it.”
“Well, I got nauseous and had to put my head between my knees, and Daddy had hallucinations.”
I bit my lip. “ Maybe you shouldn’t go out with the Weinsteins anymore.”
Dad read Alan Watts, I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. He got a mantra, I got an agent.
Our “far-out” ships were passing in the night.
But what was really happening during this period was that he was becoming deeper, more curious, his mind expanding in an attempt to reach the highest form of spirituality. In one of his notes that I found recently, he had written, “I am changing and feel distanced from the people around me who are resistant to change.”
I asked him to read my scripts. He always gave them careful consideration and responded with invaluable notes. He recited brachot, blessings, over each of them, and even more blessings when the programs were aired, to ensure good ratings. When I went to Las Vegas, he would ask me to bet on numbers representing important words in gematria.
In his later years he sat mostly in the den, in a very majestic yet comfortable chair. His head was always covered — with a yarmulke embroidered in Israel, or a wool cap that he bought in Ireland, or a Dodgers’ cap. He was surrounded by books. Literally. He made a circle of books around his feet. All of them with scribbled notepaper sprouting from their pages, some books falling apart from use, held together by rubber bands. And there it was before him, the full scope of his interests and everything he admired and cherished “at his feet”: Talmud, Zohar, Henry Miller, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Walter Ang, Carl Gustav Jung, Jacob Glatstein, William Blake, the Rebbe of Kotzke.
“Dad, you’ve got to be careful. You’re going to trip on these books,” I told him.
“I’m already ‘tripping’ on these books,” he said with a smile.
I understand perfectly why people always asked “How’s your father?” He touched them with his emotion, his erudition and his uncanny ability to always find the exact, right words. Never the right answer — he thought that was audacious. He was a teacher who could consistently cast an insightful, original perspective on something that happened today or 2,500 years ago.
Eventually, through his own authentic process, he was able to create an amalgamation between his traditional roots and his mystical, rebellious thinking. I am profoundly grateful that I was finally at a place in my life where I could now fully comprehend the incomparable gift I had been given in life: a father, a rabbi, a mystic.
Now I sit in his library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding almost 2,000 books. I think I may have been a flight attendant on one of his journeys, but I realize that his “traveling” has been so extensive that the scope is staggering. Each shelf another world: Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Bible, Talmud, Mishne, Zohar, psychology, philosophy, humor, science, poetry.
I marvel that he opened and most likely read every single one of these books. And if only, if only, each time I visited him I had picked up a new book and said let’s discuss this one today, I would have a small part of what he took with him in that thriving mind.
Where did he take that mind? Did he meet his creator? Was he returned to the source? Did he confirm that there is Ain Sof — infinity?
How satisfied he would be to hear me asking these questions.
And in going through his voluminous papers of notes and thoughts, I came across this question he asked himself:
“For some of us, God is a quest. The quest is endless. I am one of those. For some us the quest is painful and anguished. The longer the anguish, the further the destination. Nearness is only for the fleeting moment. Then the pain and anguish begin again. Even more so. Would not denial or resignation be preferable? Perhaps. But some of us cannot live without continuous “birth pangs.” Even unto death. And later. I am one of those.”
Lynn Roth is a writer, producer and director. She was the showrunner on “The Paper Chase” and has produced and directed a dozen movies and miniseries, including “The Portrait,” starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall. She is currently adapting the bestselling Israeli novel “A Jewish Dog” for a feature film.
This story "My Father The Rabbi, My Father The Mystic" was written by Lynn Roth.