How Each Shabbat Is a Eulogy for My Late Father

November 21, 2016Ilene S. Goldman

I recently came across a box of old photos and mementos and found that at the bottom was a microcassette labeled “1998 Gomez.” Fumbling around for the cassette recorder, I wiped tears away. For more than 16 years, what I have missed most about my father is his voice. Unlike my siblings, I don’t have videos from kids’ parties and the like. When he died, I’d played this tape so many times I feared it would break. Then it went into a moving box and stayed there.

Just holding the tape took me back to my hometown of Livingston N.J.. At 6p.m. every night, the town whistle blew.: Time to go inside for dinner. Most nights, Mom and Dad didn’t care where we kids had dinner, as long as they knew where we were. But when that town whistle blew on Friday nights, all three Goldman children went straight home. We set the table, adding small Kiddush cups, putting out candles in Mima’s brass candleholders, and setting the challah in its basket.

Together, we sat down together for Shabbat dinner. Mom lit the candles and said the blessing, “Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat,” “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Then, Daddy lifted his Kiddush cup. In his baritone voice, he sang, “Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, borei p'ri hagafen,” “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.” We sipped our wine. Even when we were little, it was wine, not grape juice.

Finally, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz, aa, aa—meyn,” “Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” We passed the basket and everyone enjoyed homemade challah slathered with butter.

Eventually, my older sister left for college. On the first Friday night she was gone, Dad looked around the table and said, “Something’s not right,” then he picked up the phone and dialed Laurie. When she answered, he sang HaMotzi. That’s how our long-distance Shabbat ritual began. After that, Daddy called Laurie every Friday night, and when Hal left for college, he called Hal, too. When, in turn, Laurie and Hal got married, he called them at their homes.

When I went to college, he called me. Every Friday night, including when I studied in Paris for a semester and when I lived in Hoboken after college. When I moved to Illinois for graduate school, he called me here. He called me at friends’ homes in California, France, and Germany; at hotels at home and abroad; in Monte Carlo, Bogotá, Rio de Janeiro, and Caracas. No matter where I was, when the sun set in New Jersey on Friday night, my father called to sing to me.

Eventually, he added a new prayer: “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higianu laz'man hazeh,” “Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.” I’m not sure when he added this prayer of thanks, though I like to think it was around his 57th birthday, when he began to live the years his father never saw. This prayer became more poignant as he sang it in the last two years of his life, as he battled cancer.

My husband’s introduction to Shabbat was, quite likely, hearing my father sing on my answering machine. My dad scribbled Philippe’s phone number on a Post-it note so he could call me there if I wasn’t home, but he was never able to call us at our own home, together because on the first Shabbat of our married life, my father was too ill to speak. He died just before the sun set on the second Shabbat of our marriage.

Over the years, Shabbat has taken on new meaning. Philippe has converted to Judaism. Our daughter Charlotte is looking forward to becoming a bat mitzvah. On Friday nights, we use Mima’s brass candlesticks, sing the prayers, and dig into challah still warm from my oven.

I still miss my dad when we stop for warm, fresh bagels; when I play tennis; and when I have a particularly good bike ride. His absence was palpable at Philippe’s conversion ceremony, when Philippe took Daddy’s Hebrew name, Pesach. Dad was there every time my baby kicked, and at her naming, when the rabbi gave her the middle name Shaula, in honor of my dad Paul. Gazing out at my family, I thought of how Charlotte will never know her special Papa.

And each Shabbat, my eyes still tear up when I sing the Kiddush, knowing my dad would smile to hear Philippe’s bass baritone and Charlotte’s childish alto carrying on his tradition.

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