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Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.

 

Friday
Dec232016

On the Shloshim of My Father

Howard David Greyber (z”l)

Hershel David ben Avraham HaCohen u’Bella Miriam

Apirl 2, 1923 – November 22, 2016

16 Nisan, 5683 – 21 Mar Cheshvan, 5777

 

My dad loved rye bread toast. That was one of my jobs as a child, to make him tea with milk – he had learned to love that after living in London for a time – and toast with butter and jelly. Lots of butter and lots of jelly. There were years when my mom and later I and my brother and sister tried to convince him to eat better. I remember his round tummy as a child. He never exercised – he liked to quote Mark Twain who said something like, “The only exercise I ever get is being pallbearer for my exercise-minded friends” – and ate fatty foods with copious amounts of butter and fat and salt. He was a prime candidate for a heart attack, but the heart attack never came. He gulped down vitamins – convinced that he had found the secret to long life that the medical establishment in all their wisdom had missed. He sent me vitamins at college, offered to give me bottles and bottles each time I visited. His love had a blunt side – when my friends got cancer, he would keep suggesting vitamins, for him and them. In my pain it was hard not to hear his suggestions as implying that if only my friends had taken vitamins, this wouldn’t have happened to them – after all, he took vitamins and didn’t get cancer. What he meant was, “I love you. Your friends’ illness scares me because I don’t want you to get sick. I love you. So take vitamins.” But he couldn’t say that, I don’t think he understood where his need to tell me to take vitamins came from, and it was not always easy to interpret or translate then what I accept now. He just loved me.

I feel like I am a reasonably intelligent person, like I have a reasonable grasp of history and the world – but not compared to him. He was a theoretical astrophysicist. I like to say that he is one of a few people in the world who can give you a very accurate account of what happened in the first few seconds immediately following the Big Bang. Temperatures, particles, forces. He looked at the stars and was not merely overwhelmed by some general sense of “the vastness of it all.” He looked at the stars and felt awe at the grandeur of the universe enhanced by really knowing how very very far the stars stretch, and how infinitesimally small are the grandest things we see in the scope of the cosmos. I remember a story about his mom, Beatrice. She taught piano. It is said she used to have problems going to hear classical music performed because rather than be able to step back and listen to the sum-of-its-parts, to the whole music, she found herself listening and analyzing the themes and how they were developed and how they changed and remained the same. The performance, it seemed, was overwhelmed by her enormous knowledge of the complexity and technical expertise of the composer and conductor and symphony. I don’t think that happened with him and the stars and the natural world that he understood so much. He was constantly surprised, constantly full of energy, enthusiasm, exuberance – a youthful passion for science and the natural world. But it didn’t stop there.

12th century Chinese history – no problem. Shakespeare, check. Classical music – yep. Poetry, even poetry. He loved poetry. Some people’s parents have a song they just singing out of nowhere – there were certain poems my dad just loved to recite, or certain lines at least. L’allegro by Milton: “Hence loathed Melancholy Of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born…” he’d say, for no reason whatsoever.

 

There was another line: “Strive not earthen pot to break the awl.” We’d heard that line over and over, but none of us could ever found where it came from. My aunt has a doctorate in English Literature and was a professor at Tel Aviv University. My mom is a librarian, her friends are librarians, my brother a poet and a lover of poetry – they searched and searched to the point that we were all convinced – and told Rabbi Berkenwald last night around the table – that he’d made it up, made the line real with his conviction and passion and by sheer repetition. A Howard Greyber original. So much so, that a few years ago, my brother wrote a beautiful poem about that line, and about my father’s creative imaginative memory. But after we told this to my friend, Rabbi Josh Berkenwald, who performed the funeral, the next morning he sent us a link to “The Ballade of Good Counsel” by Geoffrey Chaucer, in which he writes, “Strive not, thou earthen pot, to break the wall;” – we thought he’d made it up, but he was just one word off! And the rhyming line before reads: “And war but kicks against a sharpened awl;” – there was the awl, not made up, but conflated with its rhyme – so he didn’t have it, but pretty close. Not bad for a physicist.

 

And politics. He loved politics. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history. For many years, he spent time with the Biddle family – Francis Biddle was the attorney General of the United States with FDR. Frannie Biddle (who he always called Francesca) and her husband Randi Biddle (son of Francis), were close friends in the 1950s and early 60s in the years of his bachelorhood before my dad met my mom. He used to vacation on the Cape and shoot the breeze with towering intellects of American political life. He ran for Congress in Massachusetts as a Republican against Tip O’Neil. He lost, badly, as any Republican did, but he did better than all the others before him. “Put a Scientist in Congress” was his campaign slogan.

 

He believed in education. I have dozens of letters that he wrote – and an Op-Ed – to members of Congress, Presidents – anyone who’d listen to his idea: 435 high schools of science and technology, one magnet school for the best and brightest science minded kids in each Congressional district. He’d gone to Stuyvesant High school. Before then, he was a wicked smart kid, but so wicked smart that other kids – some Irish and Italian - in his school chased him home and threw rocks at him and called him “Kike” on the streets of Queens, either because they didn’t like Jews or because he knew the answers too many times. So he learned to keep quiet, to read and keep to himself – until he got to Stuyvesant where they awoke a sleeping giant. He joined the math team where they made fun of him at first because he’d gotten a 99, not a 100, on the Math State regents exam. So he retook it and got a 100. He was 3rd in his class and went on to Cooper Union (he got admitted to Columbia but got a scholarship at Cooper Union and a $300 annual stipend and his parents forced him to take it – something he never really got over because he desperately wanted a liberal arts education at Columbia rather than straight engineering at Cooper Union). He worked on the Manhattan Project in Oakridge, Tennesse, was a radar officer on a ship in the South Pacific at the end of WWII and told us he believes that if Truman had not dropped the bomb – that he helped develop – he likely would have died as part of an invading force into Japan to end the war. He cared deeply about America, was part of the Greatest Generation, and was part of a grand story, growing up in the Depression in New York – watching his own father’s haberdashery store close but they still had enough and he watched his father give apples and cigarettes to men waiting on bread lines in Columbia Circle in Manhattan, an act of kindness that deeply moved him. He grew up in the Depression and his life stretched into the 21st century.

 

At his core, my father was a scientist.  That means many things, but perhaps most of all, it means that he believed in the infinite possibilities of finite human beings.  Not only did he possess an unending curiosity about God’s world, but also an unshakable faith in the capacity for human discovery.  In medicine.  In science.  In invention. The building of a Temaple is based on one fundamental idea: that God’s presence can indeed dwell upon the work of human hands. My father believed that to the end.

 

There was one other thing that characterized my dad: when the Tabernacle was constructed, Aaron was embarrassed on his big day – he hadn’t had such a good experience with the golden calf and Moses says to his brother, “Why are you embarrassed? This is the task for which you were chosen.” 

 

Hang around my father for 10 minutes and he will have a suggestion for you.  I wrote a book. “Why don’t you write another?” He asked. Here is an article to read.  Try this restaurant.  Visit this museum.  Why don’t you run for Congress?  Go teach at Duke - they’ll be happy to have you! This voice, this unending stream of suggestions was not always easy to hear as a son or daughter – to understand that it does not mean, “you are not enough,” but rather it is a source of unending of love meant to nourish confidence and hunger and energy all at once.

 

My sister is a physician and marathon runner; my brother a business man, poet and water polo player, I am a rabbi, a swimmer – much of these journeys were traveled long after we left home, but all of us were nourished in an environment where we were asked, “Why are you embarrassed?  Whatever this is, it is this for which you were chosen.”  Even if sometimes it was too much, to be asked over and over again, “why are you afraid” – do not be afraid, come forward, and do that which you were meant to do, to be given the gift of knowing that someone in the world believes there is nothing of which you are not capable, well, if I can give that gift to my own children, dayeinu.  It will be enough, more than enough.

 

That Chaucer poem is one of his last gifts. Here are a few more lines…

 

Torment thee not all crooked to redress,

Nor put thy trust in fortune’s turning ball;

Great peace is found in little busy-ness,

And war but kicks against a sharpened awl;

Strive not, thou earthen pot, to break the wall;

Subdue thyself, and others thee shall hear;

And Truth shall make thee free, there is no fear

 

These days it is easy to be afraid, but I will try to not be afraid – “the whole world is a very narrow bridge,” taught Rebbe Nachman, “but the main thing is not to be afraid.” I am a son whose father died. Gone are my eyes into the past that may guide my way forward into the future with greater experience than my own. I stand on the frontline, protecting my children and those who will come after. I think existentially. Though it’s been some time since I lived in his home or sought his advice for much, I feel more vulnerable without a father in the world.

 

My father was afraid of dying – he didn’t want to talk about it. He told his doctors – you’ve got to keep me alive til 120. “There is no fear” said Chaucer, and Rebbe Nachman too. I hope you remember that where you are going, dad. We will take care of mom. I will try to subdue myself so that “others [I] shall hear.” We will look to the stars and think of you. And your memory will be a blessing.

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