I am starting this new page with a video recording of a siyum, the celebration of concluding the study of a book of Torah. I presented this siyum via Zoom on June 14, 2020 as a belated conclusion to the year of mourning for my father, Rabbi Ephraim S. Greenberg. You can view the video of this siyum and some family reminiscences that followed at this link on Vimeo.
I would like to add a few memories and thoughts about my father here.
This siyum had three parts. The first dealt with the two Biblical commandments of giving honor and respect to one’s parents. The latter term (yir’ah in Hebrew) is also often translated as fear or awe. Ironically, this was probably the last thing that my father ever wanted or expected from his family. He wanted our love, appreciation, and esteem, but he never expected us to treat him as an authority to be feared and obeyed. He was always kind and eager to help his children and his extended family. I did not fully recognize or appreciate until my conversations with his many cousins before and after the siyum that as a second-generation oldest child and one of the first college-educated members of the family, he often filled the role of the wise, older friend and advisor to his cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. I remember that when my children and cousin Joel’s were young, they spoke about him almost like a magical fairy tale character who would often appear (or more mysteriously, send packages) with delightful gifts, stories, and visits. Whenever I or my children encountered any problem or obstacle, my father was always quick to offer his advice and help. Even when the problem was not one that he was knowledgeable about or able to solve, his love and desire to help us were so strong that he would try anyway. It didn’t always help us with these challenges, but his care and concern for us were always clear. There was never any doubt that we were the most important part of his life.
The theme of the second part of the siyum was legacy. I think that the story that I told in the siyum of my grandmother demanding that my father surpass her represents one of the major forces that drove his life and his accomplishments — His education, his rabbinic and business careers, the demands and rewards of his struggle as a single parent to provide for and nurture the growth of two children, and his investment of so much of himself in his children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments and happiness. The story also highlights another aspect of my father’s pride and pleasure in our successes — that he always saw them in relation to family. A graduate degree, a new job, a raise, or promotion was not just good news for a child or grandchild. It was also a building block in the structure that would help to protect and support his family in the future. This, I think, is why he startled his then childless and mostly single grandchildren at his ninetieth birthday party with the wish that he be able to meet at least of some of his great-grandchildren. He was able to meet two of them, to his great delight. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than seeing the continuity of his and his ancestors’ legacy in a new grandchild or great-grandchild. As I write this, I am in the process of preparing a book for publication. When I look at my own words in the manuscript or learn about yet another of my children’s accomplishments and life milestones — a major publication, an award, a wedding, the birth of a child — I see the spirit of thoughtful creativity and the drive for accomplishments of lasting value that my father exemplified and transmitted to us.
The third and final part of the siyum was about ambiguity. My father experienced, and in some ways, embodied a good deal of ambiguity. He lived for many years as a single custodial father, never a common experience, but one that was nearly unknown at that time. Like many rabbis of his generation with Orthodox ordination, he often stood and mediated between traditional and liberal Judaism. In many ways, the years of his marriage to Dahlia later in his life seemed like a reward and respite from the struggles of his earlier years that enabled him to live at peace with the ambiguities and uncertainties that life presented. In facing these challenges, he encouraged us to face them with prudence, perseverance, and patience, and showed us how, a wise example that has served us all well, and for which I am grateful.