Like most immigrant men back in the mid-20th century, my father – Arthur Wilzig – did not have any easy time supporting his family economically. And like most native-born teenagers of immigrant parents, not only was I rather clueless about that, but also not very interested in his past life, or then-present difficulties. Indeed, our relationship might have been more fraught than most – mostly my fault (in hindsight). But what is most striking (and paradoxical) to me today is how much of myself is a reflection of what he did – and also what he didn’t succeed in doing – back then.
Mark Twain was said to have said (but didn’t): “history doesn’t repeat, but it sure rhymes”. That’s one of those fake aphorisms that contain more truth than many that were actually penned. It’s true on a societal level, and in my case, quite true on a personal level as well – up to a point.
In thinking back to “dad”, several striking parallelisms become clear. First, he was not a religious man but became heavily involved in our New York synagogue as a Trustee. My ideational “religiosity” is quite unorthodox (or should I spell it unOrthodox), but I too have served as president of one synagogue in Israel, and chair of the Ritual Committee in another.
Second, despite becoming a well-respected figure in Havana, Cuba – not to mention a man-about-town and popular ladies’ man – Arthur fell in love with my mom (Jenny) and after marriage agreed to immigrate once again (he was born in then eastern Germany; after WW2 the territory was transferred Poland), this time to New York City. I too fell in love with a “Zionist nut” and agreed (pretty soon after our first date!!) to eventually move to Israel – which Tami and I did three years after marriage.
Third, in New York, my father struggled to support us – among other things, at the expense of spending time with the family, given that he would get home quite late in the evenings from work. I had less economic pressure than my father, but perhaps even more (self)pressure professionally – “publish or perish” – and frankly spent far less time with my two kids than I should have.
Fourth, as “compensation”, dad would spend whatever “surplus” money the family had on summer vacations for my mother, brother and I – in bungalow resorts, overseas visits, or summer camps. On a somewhat different plane, Tami and I spent a huge amount of money on child psychologists to try and keep our two kids on an even keel.
Fifth, the famous Wilzig family “temper” was in evidence with dad’s raising his voice throughout my childhood, but here I unfortunately “outdid” him. More on this in a moment.
Finally, a sort of “reverse” parallel: my father’s death at the early age of 57 (heart attack; cigarettes; meat & potatoes; no recreation or sports; etc) incentivized me to do the opposite in quite radical fashion – the main subject of this essay.
It’s here that we arrive at the “pun” in the title of this specific essay: Fa(r)ther. Our parents can/should teach us many things directly, and they certainly do indirectly, as behavioral models. But in the final analysis it is up to each of us to take what we find useful and learn what not to do with other things our parents perhaps mishandled. Of course, 20-20 hindsight is easy; we do things that we think is fine – and in the future our kids will look back and say “what was s/he thinking?” Notwithstanding this generational truism, regarding our parents we should always try to go one or two steps farther than they were able to in their actions and general behavior. It’s called “maturity”.
My example here is just that – one of many that other people have to “overcome” in their own child-to-parent (and on to our next generation’s children) cycle. The following remarks, then, should be seen as merely illustrative.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that an explosive temper is not good for the heart (not to mention for everyone else around). But “understanding” is one thing; behavioral change is another. On rare occasions this can be accomplished purely from self-reflection (i.e. lots of looking in the metaphorical mirror). Normally, though, it needs some external push or motivation. By the time I was approaching my 50s – the same decade my father had his heart attack, I started worrying about my “prognosis” in this regard. This led to some soul searching (perhaps in this specific case, “heart-searching” would be a better term). And from there, I made a really big effort to temper my temper. I succeeded (about 90%), as my oldest son, Boaz, acknowledged to Tami several years later.
Easy? Not at all. But I had “help”: Tami. Not only did she constantly remind me (“complain” might be more appropriate) of my temper, but she pointed out something quite strange. When I was at work, even as a “boss” (chairing academic divisions, departments etc), I almost never raised my voice, forget about losing my temper! In short, this wasn’t an “impossible” goal; it merely meant transferring my behavior from one part of my life to another, more important, sphere.
There was another area of my life that helped as well. I have played basketball (and sporadically, tennis too) on a pretty steady basis since my early teens. Why? Mainly out of love of the sport(s), but also for health reasons. A byproduct, though, is “pressure-reduction”, otherwise called “letting off steam”. Actually, for this specific purpose tennis is superior – physically smashing a ball is a lot better than verbally smashing other people! In any case, I am now 14 years past the age of my father’s demise – still playing basketball (a topic for a future essay).
To be sure, every parent wants their children to “surpass” them. This usually means professionally, or in some cultures with more progeny. Less thought about – but in my opinion, of far greater importance – is behavior. This can entail how we treat family members; how we behave at work (customers, co-workers, employees); and in general, to what extent we find it easier to “look in the mirror”.
Just as there is no such thing as a perfectly smooth mirror, there is also no perfectly behaved human being. (The Bible goes out of its way to even find some minor fault with Moses!) But mirrors have become smoother over time; with lots of self-reflection, we too can attain a level that is a somewhat better reflection of our own parents.