Happy Home Depot Father’s Day

June 20, 2010 at 9:18 PM 10 comments

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Thinking about my father and Father’s Day in the same sentence makes me stop to take a breath. Jacob Finkelstein bears no resemblance to the dads in the Home Depot commercials who hope their kids get them a tool kit or to the pops feted by the whole family at Red Lobster. It’s not as if he doesn’t celebrate holidays. Between Sabbath and nineteen days of Jewish celebrations and fasts, he observes seventy-one holidays a year. And that’s not counting Thanksgiving. The fact is that my father is still too much a European Jew to think that he deserves a holiday for having cared about his four children for the better part of sixty-four years.

So when my sister Pesha and I were thinking of what to write on our Father’s Day card, the incongruity of the day’s sentimentality alongside our un-dad-like father had us doubled over. In the card, we referred to the Home Depot tool kit and a never-to-happen brunch at Starbucks and then presented this piece of puffery on a silver-plated tray. I’m not sure my father or mother understood what we found so hilarious. My mother said she was going to add the card to all the other mementos she has collected since the end of World War Two.

On our way home to our own adult lives, my sister and I confessed that laughing like dopes was preferable to crying that this could be the last Father’s Day we spend with our parents. Given the severity of my father’s diabetes, even last week’s Sabbath might be our last.

I, for one, am torn between committing my father’s eighty-six-year-old face to memory and blocking it out. Do I really want to remember Jacob Finkelstein, father and Holocaust survivor, as a frail, semi-toothless insulin injector? Isn’t it better to think of him as the father who set aside the demands of Jake’s Poultry Farm to take us swimming at Atsion Lake or down the shore in Atlantic City? Isn’t it better to remember how he dropped everything to drive us from the farm to Hebrew School near Camden, New Jersey so that we would carry on the Polish-style Judaism that had been in his family for nine-hundred years? Better to picture him laughing at Myron Cohen and Robert Klein on The Ed Sullivan Show when the demands of running a chicken farm let up for an hour?

My father is starting to forget words in English. I finish more and more of his sentences for him. This the man with a sixth-grade education who taught himself English by reading The Wall Street Journal.

Taking unnecessary chances

On the day before Father’s Day, while my father was out at shul for evening prayers, I told my mother that I wished none of us had to get old. “I wish that we could all be twenty-five together, except that you and Papa would be our parents and we would be your kids,” I said.

“That’s not the way things were set up,” my mother said.

As night falls, my mother, Pesha and I go outside to wait for my father to come home. It drives us all crazy that my father thinks he can dash across the street from shul like a twenty-five-year old. “I’m going to head him off at the pass,” Pesha says. She crosses the street to meet him, but he is too fast for her.

“Idiot!” I say to my mother. “What if he tripped?”

“Talk to the wall,” she says.

In a moment, I realize that the three of us women look like double, double, toil and trouble, and reaming my father out for taking unnecessary chances will only make us sound like witches. My father has taken necessary and unnecessary chances his whole life, and they got him through the Nazi occupation, a displaced persons camp, a chicken farm and all the rest of his life to the age of eighty-six.

So off we all go, my father, mother, sister and I, into the house to say good bye to the Sabbath and take bets on my father’s blood sugar number.

My mother calls out, “A hundred and twenty!” An excellent number for a diabetic.

But on Father’s Day, his number is down to sixty-one, almost forty points below where it should be. My mother heats up breakfast — Sabbath lunch leftovers of chicken, meatballs and string beans — and the color returns to my father’s face. That’s when Pesha and I make a show of presenting him with the Father’s Day card.

And I think for the hundredth time that when that horrible day comes, I hope that my sister and I will be around, whether it’s on Father’s Day or Rosh Hashana or Thanksgiving. Because every single day with Jacob Finkelstein as our father has been a blessing that we will want to hold onto to the end.


β—Š β—Š β—Š

Watch Before Auschwitz, a short documentary about my parents that British cinematographer and film editor Richard Lovering put together. I was the director; Catherine Campbell our assistant interviewer.

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Entry filed under: Bookpod, Family, Judaism, Religion. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Malka Margolies  |  June 20, 2010 at 11:15 PM


  • 2. Max  |  June 21, 2010 at 3:05 AM

    Dont cross bridges before you come to them.

    • 3. modestine  |  June 21, 2010 at 7:17 AM

      Good advice πŸ™‚

  • 4. Mirel  |  June 21, 2010 at 7:51 AM

    Max is right. As my oboe teacher said yesterday, with reference to my embouchure, “Always set for the most relaxed option.” Good advice in general, I thought.

    That said, this was a lovely tribute to your extraordinary father.

  • 5. Urban Renaissance  |  June 21, 2010 at 9:22 AM

    What a beautiful post.

    You need to (and you obviously do) commit it all to memory, the vigorous father you remember from your childhood, and your father as he is now, weaker but still doing as much as he can. They are all beautiful memories, although the later ones are more painful.

    A virtual toast to you all, to 120.

  • 6. Sara Bennett  |  June 21, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    Yours is the best father’s day tribute I’ve read.

  • 7. Toby Winter  |  June 21, 2010 at 3:54 PM

    Crying…..honored to know you all.

  • 8. Brother Sol  |  June 23, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    β€œI wish that we could all be twenty-five together, except that you and Papa would be our parents and we would be your kids,” I said.

    Like our mother said, β€œThat’s not the way things were set up”. Of course it pains us to see what were once two dynamic parents become old, sickly and frail . But growing up on Jake’s Poultry Farm was quite an adventure that’s left us with many fond memories that are now forever ingrained into our psyche.

  • 9. Nina Kram Schlachter  |  June 27, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    Your beautiful writing brings tears to my eyes. My dear abba was the first and only one born in this country, to parents who had come to America, just before and just in time……….Polish also and chicken farmers in Toms River………

    • 10. modestine  |  June 27, 2010 at 7:39 PM

      Thank you for commenting, Nina. Sometimes I feel my parents are the last of a disappearing breed. I sense you felt the same way about your grandparents.

      Do you know my sister? She’s a therapist and lives in Atlanta.


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