If he was still alive, my dad would be celebrating his 86th birthday today. I'm living in Jerusalem now, a citizen of Israel, 5700 miles away from the Greater Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where my brother, sister, and me were raised. And, though I have been guilty, at times, of focusing too heavily on my parents' imperfections - and while my often caustic critiques of the homogenous and quite staid culture of my old 'hood has become part of my M.O. - the older I get the more and more I appreciate that, despite the profound changes in my life since I left my old neighborhood, the values I bring to this old-new land were shaped by the "great'' Northeast'' community where I lived and, especially, by the steady moral example of my parents' lives.
For both of my parents, raised in one of the many rowhomes in the mostly Jewish neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion - moving to a single-split level - albeit modest - home in the newly developed Far Northeast, was a clear step up, and represented a commitment to giving their children a better life than they had. Indeed, neither of my parents had the opportunity to go beyond high school, and it took me a long time to understand what an achievement it was for them to see all of their children graduate college. For my father especially, who grew up during the Great Depression - and whose family at times literally didn't have enough to eat - owning a home in the NE was "making it'', and the $20,000 they spent on the house on Dumont Rd., right by the traintracks, in 1970 seemed like a huge sum of money, especially considering how modest his income was as a debit man with the United Insurance Company of America.
I must have heard the story of my parents' first apartment (in 1955) a thousand times, told by my mother each time as if it was the first - a 5th floor walk-up apartment which was all they could afford on dad's $80 a month initial salary. Indeed, they sacrificed to eventually buy and keep our NE home in ways I wasn't fully aware of at the time.
You see, dad's job represented the abandonment of years spent playing semi-pro baseball as a young adult in pursuit of his childhood dream to play in the Pros. Baseball was his life - a passion for the game that was passed on to me and my brother - and, though he loved, and was committed to, his family, each day of work was a reminder that he would never fulfill his dreams, that a Debit Man was all he would ever be.
His work also required him to carry relatively large sums of cash in the more dangerous neighborhoods in Philly - a fact that soon became known among the more disreputable elements in these communities - resulting in him being robbed (often at gunpoint) over a dozen times throughout the years. I learned only recently that, on one such occasion, while being held-up by two teens, he heard the one tell the other to "off-him'', to which the other one replied, ''nah, let's just take his money and get out of here.''
I remember as a child being solemnly informed by my mom, at times, that my dad was ''held up'', and though I understood literally what she meant, I wasn't able, at that age, to appreciate the profound injustice he had just suffered, nor could I appreciate the strength he showed by dutifully returning home to his family and going back to work the next day - presumably hiding whatever fear he had deep inside. Nor was his passionate and principled opposition to racism - ahead of his time in many ways for his generation - in any way altered by what he saw. Derogatory comments about African Americans simply wasn't acceptable discourse in our family.
While I have no doubt that he would have supported my decision to move to Israel, I often wonder how he - a committed New Deal Liberal till the end - would have felt about my gradual move to the Right politically. Interestingly though, in many ways, I attribute my increasing identification with mildly conservative politics to the inspiration of my father's moral example - the quietly dignified way in which he lived his life, and the thrift, moral restraint, loyalty, and work ethic he displayed day after day.
You see, dad had almost no advantages in life by way of money, connections, or supportive nurturing parents, yet he and my mother dutifuly raised their children (including caring for my sister Randi, who died of a heart defect at age 2), and sacrificed to give us the opportunities in life they never had. While dad may have hoped for a few more breaks - and a system that distributed advantges a bit more fairly - he didn't wait around for such a world to be created, and knew instinctively what I think is the most empowering message anyone can learn, that the decisions he made each and every day of his life determined, more than anything, his family's success or failure.
He new that life is lived from the inside out...that strong individuals, families, and communities make for a strong nation, not the other way around....that the greatest thing my brother, sister, and I - as well as my friends in the neighborhood - were given was a community with parents (the only ''role-models'' that truly matter) who delayed gratification, and modeled work, responsibility, and decency. Though his life wasn't at all what he had hoped it would be as a younger man, he was quietly determined to do what he could in order for his children to have a greater chance of realizing their dreams - a moral sobriety shared by generations of American parents who, usually unknowingly, contributed, in ways impossible to measure, to the strength, character, and progress of our nation. My father never pontificated about the virtues of personal responsibility - he simply lived it.
Dad died on April 6, 1996, of a Diabetes related infection, at the age of 73. He handled his long bout with the disease - which included kidney failure, impaired vision, amputation, coutless operations, and at times crippling pain, as he did most things: quietly, stoically. My mother - always the committed and loyal wife and mother - cared for him with love, mercy, and competence till the end.
I know now that I owe most of who I am to who they were.