Yahrzeit, once again
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Yahrzeit, once again

Remembering my complicated father, the rabbi, with love

Esther Kook’s father, Rabbi Max Posnansky
Esther Kook’s father, Rabbi Max Posnansky

Before lighting the Shabbat candles, I turned to light the yahrzeit candle for my dad, once again.

Dad left this world on Shabbat. It feels like a lifetime ago. I still remember the phone call from my sister right after Shabbat, when three stars appeared outside my window. That moment is etched in my brain — where I was standing, what she said, and her tone of voice.

“Dad was niftar this morning,” she said.

That simple sentence was seismic in its power. Even though we knew this sad event was coming, it was jolting and a life-altering event. The death of a parent changes your life forever.

So many years later, on another Shabbat morning, right before I was about to say kaddish, another realization hit me. It seemed almost weirdly appropriate to be focusing and remembering my dad, Rabbi Max Posnansky, on this day.

Dad loved Shabbat with every fiber of his being. Shabbat soothed my dad’s soul. He unplugged physically and psychologically, and morphed into a more relaxed and peaceful person. Although those were the days before the advent of cell phones and the internet, there were phones in our home that rang shrilly at all hours of the day during the week.

Even in a small, out-of-the-way city, being a pulpit rabbi is an all-consuming type of job, almost 24/7 in its scope.

Not on Shabbat.

Because of Shabbat, it’s 24/6.

At shul, Dad would deliver his sermon. After, at the kiddush, he shmoozed it up with the congregants, made a “l’chaim” with schnapps, and ate some kichel. During Shabbat meals, Dad would launch into a kind of chassid mode, pounding the table with his fists while singing zemirot, closing his eyes, and getting into the zone. Then there was the afternoon to read, nap, and relax, without the ringing of the black rotary phone that perched somewhat menacingly on his desk.

During the week, the phone rang with questions about a variety of issues. I’d often answer the phone for Dad, and so I overheard snippets of conversation. That’s when there were calls from the local funeral director. Contrary to what you might think, the funeral director was always friendly and cheery, as he tried to engage me in chit chat. His daughter was also my age. Handing over the receiver to Dad, I’d whisper in his ear, “You probably have a funeral tomorrow.”

When I heard through the kid grapevine that a Shabbat clock could be used for television viewing on Shabbat, it seemed like a perfect idea, and a way to catch up on Friday night shows while still adhering to the laws of Shabbat.

I offered that idea up to Dad. He was adamant. “That would interfere with the whole spirit of Shabbat,” he said. At the time, I couldn’t understand his logic. But now, so many years later, I fully get it.

Sometimes it takes time to understand our parents’ messages. Now, on Friday afternoons before Shabbat, I’m happy to unplug as well. It’s a welcome reprieve from television, and all the technology noise of iPad, iPhone, and computers.

Although Dad was a proud modern Orthodox rabbi, he was really a complicated mix. He enjoyed his secular pleasures, including television, movies, and books.

He liked to finetune his speaking style, so I’d occasionally find him in the living room, watching Reverend Billy Graham on our one and only console television. Dad admired Graham’s oratorical skills. “He’s one of the best speakers,” he’d explain. While describing this rather unusual living room scenario, Dad didn’t seem embarrassed. This was just a way to improve his own oratorical skills.

As a community clergyperson, Dad reached across the aisle and befriended non-Jewish clergy members in the community, often referring to them by their first names.

It’s challenging being the son or daughter of a rabbi, especially a pulpit rabbi. You’re living in a fishbowl, and people tend to have pre-conceived notions of what is appropriate behavior for a rabbi’s child. A teacher once pulled me aside and chastised me for wearing short skirts, and said, “That way of dressing isn’t appropriate for a rabbi’s daughter.” I wanted to say, “Do you know anything about me?” I didn’t say anything. His message certainly registered with me.

I wasn’t seen as a person; I was almost invisible, a rabbi’s daughter, and I had an image to represent.

Actually, when it came to my clothing, Dad only seemed perturbed that my rolled up skirts appeared sloppy, which they were. “You’re ruining a beautiful piece of clothing,” he’d say.

Dad was a spiffy dresser. He loved clothes, especially suits. In his closet there were Hickey Freeman suits, a multitude of ties, and hats for all seasons. Dad enjoyed shopping for his three daughters too, and his favorite store was Lord & Taylor. Later, during my teenage years, he noted my “shlumpy” jeans, which I wore like a uniform. It probably annoyed him, but never made an issue of it.

Perhaps Dad realized my way of dressing, in all of its manifestations, came from a need to establish my own separate identity, or even a form of normal teenage rebellion. Dad wisely decided to leave that matter alone.

Indeed, my father was a complex man, with his fair share of private foibles and flaws. Like any human being, and parent, he made mistakes. As children, those foibles are certainly disappointing because we tend to put our parents on pedestals of perfection. Dad and I had our own rough patches. Hopefully, as adults and as parents we become more realistic, recognizing and understanding our parents as people. In order to grow up, we need to let go of some old childhood notions and move toward acceptance.

Looking back, though, the best gift Dad gave was allowing me to make my own decisions at an early age. The first major decision centered on my high school education. Since I was from out of town, and not living in the New York area, there weren’t many options for continuing my yeshiva education. While I attended the only local day school, there were only two choices for high school. There was a public school where many observant girls and boys attended, and a new yeshiva that was set to begin for my freshman year.

Dad enabled me to make that decision. Bottom line, he wanted me to be happy. I decided to go to public school, and he supported it wholeheartedly. Given those choices, for me, it was a very good decision.

To this day, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to expand my horizons. I’m also truly grateful that growing up, I had a father who let me be me.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and a freelance writer.

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