My father was a giant in both his professional life and in our family. He was Captain Kangaroo at my grade school carnivals where he would take prizes for the kids out of each of his huge pockets. As a young girl I couldn’t have been prouder.
And then in 6th grade he taught our class about recidivism. A word I will never forget because he taught it to us.
Since dad died I learned about the parties he had with Margaret Mead and more about his unique contributions to sociology.
For example, I was deeply moved when I learned from Professor Rona-tos that my dad said “As a sociologist I have always been interested in how things become problems. My interest has been in the contexts of problems—how they come to be matters of public concern and how they become deﬁned. I like to say that if I am pressed to the wall, and asked, ‘How do you solve this problem’, I say, ‘Why do you ask?’
As a rabbi and a hospital chaplain, I rarely answer people’s direct questions, like “is there an afterlife?” or “is the story of the Exodus true?” Or “why is God punishing me?” I also respond with “Why do you ask?” That response opens up the conversation to a much deeper level. The inquiry we do together is more important at that moment that what I believe. Every day when I ask that question, I can feel my dad smile.
In his elder years he became a true artist, using color and poetry for inspiration. He also became an accomplished “shopping list poet”. Whenever he asked me to pick up something from the store, it came in the form of a poem. The following is one example.
Here again is your
Sorry that I
Make you bother’
For the cough of which I’m fussiin’
One large bottle Robitussin.
Peet’s coffee I like most.
Two pounds -French Roast.
Six small cans of juice Tomato
I’ll drink it much,much latuh..
A pack of cheese, wrapped and sliced
That will be very niced.
Six Bars of soap,the kind I love
For the face .It’s called Dove.
Most crucial-salt and pepper.
Thank you much
My helpful schlepper’
My dad grew up as a religious Jew but was not observant as an adult. However, after my mother died, two years to the day before he died, he started going to services to say the Kaddish for my mother. The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead said for an entire year. At 89, he became a regular at services. What a great role model for continuing to learn and grow into our elder years.
The origin of the Kaddish prayer to honor the dead is not entirely clear, but many think that it started in a house of mourning for a scholar, a teacher. Someone would offer a teaching in honor of the scholar who had died. Because learning was considered a pious activity which deserved words of praise, the son of the scholar would say the Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and life, yet says nothing about death. The version of the Kaddish they recited was called the Rabbis Kaddish or Kaddish de Rabbanan. It included a paragraph of blessings for teachers and students.
Over time, everyone wanted to say this prayer to honor their deceased and it became awkward to determine who was worthy of being seen as a scholar and who wasn’t. So a different version evolved that we all recite for all loved ones that doesn’t include the specific paragraph honoring teachers and students. That version is called the Mourners Kaddish many are familiar with.
However, our tradition retained the original Kaddish de Rabbanan to recite after study and to honor our teachers because it speaks of the centrality of learning, the continuity of knowledge, and it connects us with learning everywhere. It underlines the spirituality of learning.
The following is a translation of the Aramaic paragraph about teachers and students written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’l, may his memory be a blessing.
Please, accept our petition for all of Israel, for our teachers and their students and the students of their students … indeed for all these who invest themselves in Torah, be it here or in any other location…this is what we ask for them as well as for us:
Blessings in all endeavors, grace, kindness and compassion, long, healthy life and ample income as well as release from unnecessary burdens. May this be granted by You God as You embrace all creation as we express our agreement and hope [by saying],
Here we are today: all in some way students of Joseph Gusfield, or students of his students, across time and place. We came together to acknowledge and savor the continuity and transformative power of learning with him. We came together to remember, to honor, to mourn him. Therefore, I invite all of us here, colleagues, students, family and friends, to step into the place of the mourner and rise as I recite the Kaddish d’Rabbanan in my father’s honor and memory. (Words to the Kaddish d’Rabbanan can be found in the following link.)
All versions of the Kaddish end with a prayer for peace. May Joseph Gusfield’s memory be a blessing, and may his life of loving and learning bring us peace, and help us work for peace everywhere.