My father used to think Orthodox Jews were extinct. He considered himself a belly Jew --Jewish because of the foods he ate. The herring, the carp and the sable, the chicken soup and schav and kreplach, these survived the migration from Russia and Poland to America, but the rituals and spirit of Judaism did not.
Back in the 1960's, my father worked at a men's tailoring store, the Wohlmuth Company, in Nashville. His coworker was a man named Sam Golden, the first Orthodox Jew my father had ever met. He was astounded by Sam's kindness and generosity toward every schnorrer and ne'erdo- well who came through the store (or tried to). Once, a man in a black suit and hat showed up, asking for a donation. My father said, "Sam's not here" and sent him on his way. When Sam returned and my father mentioned something about a guy looking for a handout, Sam ran out the door and searched for two hours, trying to track the man down. He returned in defeat and told my father, "If anybody comes in here and needs anything, give it to them, and I'll give it back to you." Then, "I just want to tell you something, Mr. King. Don't think you're doing them a favor. They're doing you a favor."
My father thought Sam was crazy, and yet, a spiritual fire was lit. Soon after that, my father started putting on tefillin, then later, observing Shabbes and the holidays. My mother, from a traditional Sephardic household, went along with these changes. Still, my father wasn't completely given over; he had what some might call an attitude. He both admired rabbis and suspected them. He was convinced the whole kosher industry was a scam dreamed up by rabbis to make a buck. He was impatient with synagogue procedures. Whenever the shul president got up to speak, my father would later say, "That man loves the sound of his own voice." He didn't understand Judaism's preoccupation with religious laws and details. "When it's time for me to go to heaven," he'd tell us kids, "is God really going to say, ‘No, Bert, you tore toilet paper on Shabbes, you're not welcome up here'?"
And yet, it was his suspicion of rabbis and a desire to trump them that actually brought him closer to the synagogue to attend the rabbi's weekly Torah classes. He'd lean forward as the rabbi talked, waiting for an opportune moment to pounce with a question: "What kind of God would ask an old man to sacrifice his only son?" "How could Joseph's brothers sell him for a pair of shoes?" "How did Noah fit all those animals into the ark, anyway?" "And what was really going between Abraham and Hagar?" To my father's surprise, the rabbi was hardly startled or bothered by these asides. In fact, he welcomed them. The other congregants might give each other looks: "There goes Bert King again." But if they had a question they couldn't bring themselves to ask, my father would serve as feeder to the rabbi. "Tell Bert," they'd say. "He'll ask the rabbi." As a kid, I was embarrassed.
Over the years, my father became extremely devoted to the rabbi of the shul and, by extension, to the synagogue. The rabbi's wisdoms, both his biblical and off-the-cuff life insights, filled our Shabbes table conversations. When it was time to set up the chairs for an event at shul, my father would be the only one doing it every single time and the only one folding the chairs away. When it came time to put up the sukkah, there my father was, with maybe one other volunteer. People thought he was the janitor. This made me ashamed, too.
He barely knew Hebrew and said most of his prayers, with great feeling, in transliterated English. My siblings and I -- enrolled at the local Hebrew Academy -- were supposed to fill in the gaps. Once, my father asked us at which point he was supposed to bow down during the Shemoneh Esrei. I was seven. I took a stab: "Whenever it says, ‘Baruch Atah Hashem,' bend your knees and bow down." He followed my instructions until his rabbi told him that four bows would suffice instead of the 19 he'd been doing.
If only someone would've told me: "Your father is a ba'al teshuva (returnee to Orthodoxy)," maybe then I wouldn't have been so mortified by him, he who couldn't stop asking questions and doing things that other fathers didn't do. I didn't know what a ba'al teshuva was, not until years later. I'd never seen one before in my Young Israel community. Now there are plenty, but then it was an unknown phenomenon.
He taught me never to ignore another human being.
I served as my father's teacher, faulty as I was, when it came to halachah, or Jewish law. But my father was imparting knowledge to me, though at the time I was too embarrassed to realize it. Mostly, he taught me never to ignore another human being. He'd walk into a bank, see an obese teller with a pock-marked nose and chin, surely the most unattractive human being I'd ever laid my teenage eyes on, and he'd spread out his arms and say, "Darlin', you look like a million bucks!" (This was in the South, in the 1970's, where you still could get away with such comments.) She'd say, "Shucks, Mr. King, you just cut that out," but she'd be smiling and he'd be telling her a joke, and next thing you knew, she'd be bent over, chortling into her fist, then offering a joke of her own.
After we left the bank, I'd ask, "Dad, who's that woman you were talking to?" He'd spread out his hands, as if to say, "Beats me." He could never simply pass someone by. I used to think this was all Sam Golden's doing, the legacy of his coworker.
Once he saw an old Chinese woman, in traditional garb, wandering through the streets, obviously lost, mumbling incoherently. He said, "This mitzvah's mine," and he brought her home, and through hand motions and other charades, tried to get a family member or some other name out of her. She was terrified.
When her brother finally tracked her down, he found my father singing songs from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the only words of English that seemed familiar to the old woman. She was smiling and rocking her head to the song. This mitzvah was his, all right. He was ambitious to do a kindness.
His rabbi, the one he'd been devoted to all those years, announced from the pulpit that there was one man in the shul who was going straight to Gan Eden for his ability to make people laugh and feel good. His name was Bert King. It was my father's most treasured moment. Still, I couldn't let go of my self-consciousness about him. There was something vaguely disgraceful about his chesed, especially in the eyes of a teenaged daughter. I felt this even as I was becoming more religiously observant.
Once I asked my father, "Dad, what would you do if you found $10,000 in the middle of the street?"
He looked uncomfortable. He said, "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know? You'd return it, right?" He said, "I'd like to think so, but I honestly can't tell you what I'd do."
I was furious at him. This was my pious father? The one who'd inspired me to take Judaism seriously, to go beyond what I'd received at home and at school?
And then I read a tale of a rebbe who had posed the same dilemma to three students. The first answered, "I'd return the money."
"You're too glib," said the rebbe.
The second said, "I'd keep it."
"You're a thief," said the rebbe.
The third said, "I'd want to keep the money, and I'd pray to G-d with all my being to give me the strength to resist."
"You're a Hasid," said the rebbe -- an upstanding human being.
My father, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his contradictions, is a Hasid.
Now that I'm a parent, I wonder if I'll embarrass my own children. Of course I will. It's inevitable that we embarrass our children. The question is how -- with our good deeds or our bad ones?
This article originally appeared in World Jewish Digest.