Living Out A Chaim Potok Novel

When I was 14 and 15 (1980-1981), my family and I read all (or almost all) of Chaim Potok‘s novels about Judaism. They reminded us of what dad had gone through with the legalistic — in our view — Seventh-Day Adventist church.

I was fascinated by the world Potok portrayed but never thought for a second about joining it.

Then in 1988, I started listening to Dennis Prager on the radio. By the end of 1989, I was determined to convert to Judaism. I reread Potok’s novels.

After my Reform conversion, I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and got to know Chaim Potok’s son Akiva. I’m not sure I realized until recently (or I just didn’t think about it) that my friend Akiva was Chaim Potok’s son. I don’t think we ever talked about his dad or my dad. Not until Shuvuot anyway, when a group of us, including the director of The Chosen, Jeremy Kagan, ate dinner together.

I told them that I liked to reread all of Potok’s Jewish novels every decade. That I have a hard time davening (as did Chaim Potok) and much prefer to study in shul.

You meet amazing people in Jewish life. The primary purpose of shul is not to pray but to mingle with other Jews.

As a 14-year old Seventh-Day Adventist, I never mixed with people who were influential outside of the church. I had no notion of ever mixing with Chaim Potok’s family and the director of one of the first movies I ever saw, but as a Jew, I routinely run into people at shul who went to school with American presidents (YICC’s Don Etra with George Bush at Yale) or helped run presidential campaigns or are among America’s most powerful congressman (such as Henry Waxman) or are great actors (like Dustin Hoffman at Ohr HaTorah).

I like being at the center of life where things are happening rather than wasting away in some isolated community removed from worldly events.

Here is Akiva Potok’s eulogy of his father:

Two and half years ago I had a vivid dream. I dreamt that I wasstanding here before you eulogizing my father. In the dream the location of the eulogy was the Nanuet synagogue, from which we buried my uncle, my father’s younger brother, whodied of this same disease six years ago. There, I eulogized my father, and I wept. I told everybody that I loved my Aba. I told them what a beautiful man he was, how proud I was of him. I talked about sitting at the Shabbat dinner table and listening to the fascinating and never-ending conversations that would take place with friends and family. I eulogized him, and I wept; I wept, and I pointed at the coffin and said things like, “This man… what could life possibly be like without him…” and tears were rolling down my face, and then I woke up. There were tears in my eyes. I had been weeping in my sleep. Tears were running down my cheeks. They woke me up! I had eulogized my father in my sleep! I sat up in bed and looked around the room and wondered if I should call home, but decided not to. About a month later my Aba was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was not surprised. Somehow, I do not know why, I had been warned.

Cancer is, in its way, a very kind disease. It robs you of a parent slowly. It warns you. You get lead-time. A family can think, it can gather, make plans, talk about what is happening. Last Friday, Aba became bed-bound. He simply could not remain awake long enough to be brought down stairs. Not being able to join us downstairs for Shabbat dinner, we put Shabbat dinner together and brought it upstairs to his room. And the family all sat around his bed and ate dinner and surrounded him with him with love, attention, and adoration. We said Kiddush over the Shabbat wine and he joined us, saying what he could, which was much of it!!! A week earlier he had actually led the Kiddush himself, and it was a pleasure to hear his voice again. He could barely form new sentences, but he could still daven, pray. On Monday, the afternoon before he passed away,we gathered around him on the bed, and sang zemirot, songs sung after Shabbat meals. Beautiful songs, songs about love, about Jerusalem, about the Sea of Galilee, one song about a sailing ship filled with sleeping sailors, that drifts off to sea! We sang to him. We sang to ourselves. We loved him, and we loved being all together, which is how he wanted it.

Aba. I am talking to you. I miss you horribly, and you only left yesterday, and I love you so much. What should I tell people, Aba? That this is strange? Have I lost my compass and my bedrock? Is life now without authority, and do I suddenly have no real memory of who I am? You wrote about silence, and maybe for a time during your life you found it difficult to talk to your son, but later on both of us worked very hard and we found our way to each other. I came back after college and lived at home for two years, and some might say that I was a touch afraid of the big blue world, not without truth, but I was adamant that you and I would form a friendship and break the quiet that was dominating our relationship. And so two years later when I went to California, it was knowing that you were now with me. That I could always come home to you and sit there and revel in your company. You told me then that if things didn’t work out in California I could always come back home. That was only ten years ago. But I guess it’s just not really true anymore, because the childhood home I left is no longer really there for me to comeback to.

Aba, how your voice filled me with confidence. How holding your hand spread dignity throughout my soul and filled me with the peace of knowing where I belonged. You were my guide. You gave me advice with such wisdom. And how your judgments scared me. Why won’t I be able to sit and talk to you anymore? Who will continue to teach me how to write? Where will I put my arms when I want to hug you? I have lost my ally, I have lost my enemy, I have lost a stranger, I have lost my twin! When I couldn’t figure out my writing, you would make suggestions and help. Sometimes you would even take over. We had to work on that one, too! In some ways for me this is devastation, but in other ways for me, this is truly a rebirth. What will my life be like without my father? What kind of journey could this be? I’m terrified. I am enraged that he is gone. I think that I am also excited to see what comes next! Soon we will travel from this building. We will carry this box, this coffin to a cemetery, and we will do what I never reallythought would happen to me, we will in fact put my Aba in the ground and bury him. What a dignified life. I can’t even begin to fathom it. How many people has he touched. It amazes me.

I guess if I were to tell you about the love between a father and a son I would say that it is to be surrounded by your father’s love as if by a bright white light, to be surrounded by it, but to find it utterly baffling and incomprehensible; and to cherish it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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