In a blog post last week Gabrielle Orcha asked, "What about the Jewish father? ... Who is he really?"
With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to start a dialogue about the Jewish fathers, or fathers (who may or may not be Jewish) of Jewish daughters. We put out a call for Jewish daughters to tell us about their fathers. We'd also like to thank the folks at Kveller.com, who took up the call and helped collect these stories.
As you will see from the stories below, we learned that our fathers are Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious. However, one thing stands out in our stories: Fathers are involved and invested in the lives of their Jewish daughters as teachers, advocates, entertainers, and role models. Considering the legacy of Jewish women -- their accomplishments and contributions recognized on jwa.org -- we think they're doing a pretty good job.
You'll meet 12 fathers in this post. If you'd like to add a story about your father, please do so in the comments. We look forward to reading what you have to say.
My Episcopalian dad proposed to my Jewish mom on their very first date over Irish Coffee and she laughed at him. But, my dad had charm, and she agreed to go out with him again. And again. And again. And over the next eight years when he'd ask her to marry him night after night, she would shake her head and laugh. But then, one night, while stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway near the Wilshire Exit, she said "Yes." But with one condition: They would have a Jewish home." And my dad agreed. Every Friday night, we lit candles for Shabbat. He went to Torah class with our rabbi. We kept Kosher. And my dad's love for my mom allowed me to grow up in a home where I grew up loving Judaism.
“What do you think is the nature of reality?” I gazed down at my untied shoelace, my skinned knee, the grass poking out of the sidewalk. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “What is it?” “There is no right answer,” my father said, his corrective shoes keeping time with my own. “But it’s our job to keep asking the question anyway.” My Daddy knows a lot, but that did not make sense. Questions should have right answers like in arithmetic.
What l did know was it was summertime. I was seven. I had 27 freckles and two little sisters and Mommy was wearing the blue shirt again that meant another sister was coming. And after supper Daddy asked just me to take a walk. In the soft Ohio dusk I was initiated into the Big Thinkers Club. That fundamentally unanswerable “nature of reality” question, one that would eventually be posed to each of his five small daughters, gifted us with the chutzpah to shake our small fists at the limits of human knowing in a deeply Jewish way. It was, more than anything else, our father’s sweetest gift.
-Deborah Fineblum Raub
My father turned 90 in February. Every day and year are special because he is a part of our lives. My mother died when I was five years old, so dad was both mom and dad to my brother and me. Growing up, and when he had grandchildren, he was more of a kid than any of us, challenging us to enjoy skiing, sledding, hiking -- everything with him and making it just fun! He is going to meet his newest great grandchild, my granddaughter Orly, next weekend and his excitement to meet and influence yet another child in the family comes through in his voice every time we are on the phone. Happy Father's Day, Dad. You are one in a million.
My Jewish identity became official on Dec. 21, 2009, with my mikveh – and three years after I lost my Catholic father to Lou Gehrig’s disease. My Dad loved my Jewish boyfriend the minute he met him (thanks, baseball!) and his support of our relationship never waivered. I see his proud face at our wedding, our son’s bris, our daughter’s baby naming. He did worry about our children not having “Santa,” but that didn’t last once he saw how much joy Judaism brought to our lives. I used to think I would never convert, but after I lost my Dad to a terrible disease, I knew I was ready. I had begun the journey and didn’t know it. He gave me a foundation of faith as a child, and a foundation of support for the path I chose for my family.
My dad is my rav. While he is not a rabbi, he is the one who opened my heart to the beauty of Torah. I remember participating in minyan as a 10 year old, looking up at my father beaming with pride. It is because of my father that I am now going to become a rabbi. My dad’s passion for learning and living Judaism permeated my childhood experiences. My parents moved us to Israel, heightening our awareness of what it meant to be part of Am Yisrael. Years have passed, but our relationship grows tighter as we bond over our shared love: the love of our tradition. My dad introduced me to what it meant to be a committed, dedicated, and loving Jewish person. He is generous, kind, and smart. As I become a rabbi this year, the ten-year-old inside will look up and smile. Thank you Dad, for instilling in me the love of tradition, Judaism, and Israel. I love you.
-Dani Gobuty Eskow
My father has always been a great father. Involved, loving, interfering when my mother has been impossible with me and my sister. Insisting in the 60's that I be allowed to go march in the Vietnam Moratoriums, insisting I travel in Europe with my boyfriend after high school because it would broaden my world view. Sticking up for my sister and me when my mother is being critical. My father was a wonderful son and son-in-law, a loving brother, uncle, and friend. He talks to everyone, cab drivers and scholars alike. He reads news constantly and listens before he states his opinion. I am blessed to have the father I do. And my uncles and grandfather were also loving gentle Jewish men.
One night when my father was about ten years old, he came downstairs looking for his mother. He paused at the top of the cellar steps. In the basement, he saw his parents and his maternal grandfather savoring a local delicacy — Chesapeake Bay oysters. In later years, my father would say that this night in 1933 marked the end of any real feeling he had for Judaism. He loved and respected his grandfather, a successful self-made businessman who was a pillar of the shul where my father would be bar mitzvahed and confirmed. But even as a ten-year-old, he knew hypocrisy when he saw it.
Still, my father never failed to make a generous contribution to the Associated Jewish Charities every year; he was famous for his skill at telling Jewish jokes, and without ever using the words, he instilled a strong sense of tikkun olam in his sons (two) and daughters (two). Did he make the connection between the importance he placed on service to the community — a value he both lived and passed on — and his Jewish heritage? I wish I had asked him.
-Ellen K. Rothman
My father came from a large, Jewish family of extremely humble origins who lived in Kalisz, Poland. He quit school at the age of eight in order to help keep his family alive. He sold candy to street people, worked in a coal mine, repaired bicycles, worked as a fur piecer and madebatteries for cars. Eventually he became one of the top Schiffli embroidery manufacturers in northern New Jersey. He loved to work with his hands and worked to make things better for his wife and family.
Ten years ago, at the age of 76, he told me that if he died tomorrow he would die a happy man. He loved his life ... every minute of it. He could ride a unicycle, crack a walnut with his bare hands, and extinguish a candle with his fingers and and some spit. He enjoyed golfing, swimming, taking long walks on the beach, and watching nature documentaries (the bane of my mother's existence "Ugh, disgusting...I'm going upstairs"). He loved the mountains, the ocean, not to mention his wife, family, and friends. Max Smulen was a simple, beautiful, unpretentious, and humble man who took whatever card life dealt him. Luckily he was dealt a Royal Flush.
-Terry Ann Smulen
My dad is the son of Holocaust survivors, and for him, that is the basis of what it means to be Jewish. Growing up, my mom was the one who took us to shul. "Why doesn't Dad have to go?" we would whine. When I asked my dad if he believed in God, he would only repeat what his own parents told him: "If there is a God, I'd give him a zetz." But for him Judaism wasn't about belief. It was about family and community. It was about tradition and learning. It was about bagels and lox. I think I've always been an atheist, but thanks to my dad's strong Jewish identity, it never felt like a contradiction to be atheist and Jewish, and I am extremely grateful for this.
In recent years, my dad has gotten more and more involved with our synagogue. He still doesn't attend services except on the High Holidays, but these days he takes adult ed classes, attends lectures, and soaks up everything he can about Judaism, Jewish history, and Torah. I'm inspired by his Jewish journey, which reminds me daily that belief is not a prerequisite for engagement with Jewish life.
My father chose my name, and that cemented my connection to Judaism. He named me after his mother, Pruva, who died in Auschwitz. The “American” version of my name is Preeva, and it is on my birth certificate. Daddy took to me shul on Friday nights, and we came early so he could talk to his friends and show me off a little: He would say: “Preeva, explain your name.” And I would straighten my dress, and recite: “When God created man, on the sixth day he said to him, Pru U'Rvu Ee melu et ha'aretz, be fruitful and multiply and develop the earth. From that comes Pruva, which we pronounce here in America, Preeva.” He set an example for me by putting on t’fillin every morning before work, even when he worked on Saturday. He also took me to the Wailing Wall in 1968 and blessed me there. Unfortunately, he died when I was 16, but I turned out well. I was just named president of Etz Chayim, an independent liberal synagogue in Palo Alto, and I am working on a book about the facts of his life.
My Jewish father is the one who has always taught me how to use his tools -- many of which he has gifted to me, how to fix things, and how to make homemade horseradish. I know he is preparing me for the day when he is no longer with me and I love him for this. At age 91, his life is a blessing to me and I am grateful for every bit of wisdom he imparts to me, his oldest daughter.
My zaidy was a Holocaust survivor. After coming to America, he rebuilt the life he had lost. On a literal level, he was a carpenter, so he built storefronts for a living. My zaidy worked hard to support his family, waking up at 5:30 a.m. in order to pray and get to the shop on time. He instilled Jewish values in his two daughters, taking them with him to synagogue every Shabbat and holiday and putting them both through Jewish day schools. Although I was not privileged to meet my zaidy, I was given the honor of being named after him. His Hebrew name was Naftali. In Kabbalah, the name Naftali is read as nafat li, which means “sweetness is to me.” Although I can’t imagine my traditional European zaidy would wholeheartedly approve of my Jewish feminist sensibilities, I certainly hope that he is proud of me, his namesake.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "Our Fathers." 12 June 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/our-fathers>.
My Dad who was a gruff man born in NY in 1907 was the 2nd of 5 children who took care of his parents, siblings, and their families, when needed. His sense of family and caring the nucler and extended members has left a lasting impression on me, my late brother, and my cousins. My brother helped to financially support my parents in their later years, they both lived until 91 y/o, and my dad's once successful business had failed in his sixties, and he needed help. Fortunately my brother and sister-in-law were in a pposition to help them and I in the last 5 years of thier lives was able to support them as well. One of my nephews once said to his father, my brother, "you taught me how to take care of my parents", this was by example, as my father had taught us, also by example. Recently, when my daughter was experiencing some emotional and financial difficulty as a result of a congenital disease of my young, 14 month old grandson, one of my cousins called me and asked if she and her husband can help financially, they are in a position to do so, as my father did for her family when she was a young child. She said, "your father taught us how to take care of family". I was very moved by her comment and how my dad's legacy reaches other members of the extended family.
Thanks so much to all the writers who took the time to share these wonderful anecdotes about their Dads and Zeidehs! Each one is a poignant, precious love poem.
Interested in this issue? Check out Bridges 14:1 from 2009. Here's link to table of contents. http://www.jstor.org/stable/i4...
What a beautiful collection of stories and recollections. One feels the tight binds between fathers and their daughters. The selection here is as wide and diverse as American Judaism itself. The age range, the professions, and regions are as complex as are the stories of observance, identity, and the meaning of community.
Wonderful idea. Mazel tov!
I am an artist and activist working in the San Francisco Bay Area, exhibited internationally, and daughter of Specs Simmons from Roxbury Boston, later, Newton when the family "moved up". I am working on a documentary film about my father and his world famous bar in San Francisco's North Beach, Specs' 12 Adler Museum Cafe". You can view the short on my film on my website at ellysimmons.com. After a several year hiatus whenI stopped working on the film twice to save my thirty year marriage, for my daughter and I, but he left me anyways, so I am now finishing the piece, in the midst of a very difficult divorce and in a hard economy. My father now has Parkinson's and time is of the essence in completing the film. All of this is not to gripe, this is just the reality in which I am working to complete this film that honors extremely important Jewish values and heritage in a time that needs as much hope as possible.
My film on my father will be a triptich portrait, the man and his personal history, the bar and it's offbeat and famous denizens and the neighborhood of North Beach, filled with artists, musicians, poets, hotel and restaurant workers, lawyers, business people and everyone else! I am honoring the activist, labor oriented, music and art driven culture in which I was raised. San Francisco was a working class town at the time of the inception of Specs' Bar. We opened in April of 1968 in the height of the major changes in American Culture, the women's movement, the anti war movement, the many minority power movements, black, chicano, Native American, Asian American, etc. Our bar was a nucleus for organizing and much of the genesis of the environmental movement was brainstormed over beers in Specs. Soon, I will have a new short incorporating recent footage, which will be posted on my website and facebook and kickstarter. Any ideas as to funding and any direct donations would be greatly appreciated! My artwork is in museum and private collections nationally and around the world, sales of art now also go directly to supporting the making of the film.! Enjoy!
facebook: elly simmons (the one with myself and my blond friend from Australia).
Splendid stories. Our family was unquestionably Jewish, and very minimally observant: Yom Kippur and Passover were the two markers in the year. Passover was celebrated in our father's father's house. We used Hagaddot that were almost falling apart; my sister and I learned the Four Questions in a Hebrew that was pronounced the way our grandfather had pronounced it in Bereczacz--Hungary then, now Belarus. In 1939 my father, who then was 39 years old, became involved with the Joint Distribution Committee; its focus then was largely on the Jewish world. With the support of his partners, he took a leave of absence from the firm and became an "ambassador" for the JDC. Twice he went to Europe before WW II to talk to Jewish leaders in England; on one of those trips he went also to Austria where he met with Eichmann to negotiate for the emigration of Jews Austria. He, as the agent of the JDC, was prepared to present a "ransom".... No success (as we all know). Two days later he was in Germany on the same mission--it was the day after Kristalnacht. As soon as WW II began he went into the Navy, in charge (as we've often said) of a battered desk in Washington, DC (he was too old to go to sea). In 1944 the Navy allowed him to take a leave of absence so that he could return to his work with the JDC. He went to London, blitz or no blitz, and began helping to make arrangements for the Jews who had survived. This work continued until mid 1946. At that point he came back to the USA and resumed his life as a husband, father, son--and businessman. He never talked about what he had seen or done in Europe. My own more formal identity as a Jew began two days after I arrived in Cambridge to start my freshman year at Radcliffe. My cousin Jeremy called, invited me to have ice cream, and asked, "What are you doing for Rosh haShanah?" "Um, er...." I said. "Hillel," said Jeremy, and took me to the Reform services so that we could sit together. My identification has grown stronger through the years; that's why I am and have been so admiring of the work of the Jewish Women's Archive. It keeps alive--and invites us all to keep alive the memories of our parents, grandparents, cousins: our worlds of being Jewish and American, observant and almost not observant, learned, ignorant--and the opportunity to be aware of our history and our hopes.
Thank you JWA and the women who shared their vivid memories of their fathers. As a mother and a writer, I am ever present to the memories I am creating with my children. And the portrait, or the short story, I may one day become for them. May it be one they cherish...