This week, the school buses will roll through my town of South Orange again, as the kids go back to school. I always loved "back-to-school," the new pencils and pens, the new school clothes, getting settled in a new classroom. But this time of year has turned especially bittersweet for me. This week marks my father's fifth yahrzeit. We lost my dad very suddenly, after surgery. It was a beautiful September day, just like the weather this week is supposed to be. Five years later, I still feel the shock of the sudden loss and the pain of his absence.
Joe Dannin, z"l, was born in Philadelphia in 1934, a child of the Depression and World War II. He and his parents lived behind my great-grandfather's barbershop in a not-so-great neighborhood. My great-grandmother only spoke Yiddish, so as a consequence, my father passed down to us what he could of the mamaloschen, the mother tongue. (My son used to say that he was the only kid at his college who used "Oy!" without irony.) He carried the scars of being beat up by South Philly thugs simply for being Jewish his entire life, but those battles only served to make him proud to be Jewish and to instill that pride in his children. He always said that his parents' move back to his father's hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, when he was 10 years old saved his life. He had a close group of Jewish friends in Newport who were essentially brothers to this only child.
My father loved the New England Patriots (although if you looked hard enough, you could still detect some affection for the Giants from the days when we only had the Boston Patriots to root for), the Boston Red Sox, fishing, and golf, and would watch almost any sport on television. He loved to eat and never had a bad meal in his life. He was an accountant who took on each client's problems as if they were his own.
He involved himself in the causes of the Jewish world to the utmost. He and my mother were founding members of the Conservative congregation in Newport, while still maintaining a loyalty to Touro Synagogue. He loved Israel and was deeply devoted to the Jewish Federation in Rhode Island. In fact, the first time I ever spoke to a federation audience was when my dad hosted a parlor meeting in our home and I had just returned from my first trip to Israel. "Just tell them how you felt, honey," he said. That was easy.
Doing what my father asked me to do was easy because my parents had instilled in me a love of Judaism and a love of Israel that was waiting to blossom as soon as I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion airport. My father's devotion to the Jewish world continued to be my guide for years thereafter. He served as president of Temple Shalom, the Conservative congregation in Newport, shortly before I served as president of Oheb Shalom Congregation here in South Orange, and we loved to compare notes and problem-solve together. As any synagogue president knows, no matter the size of the shul, many of the issues are the same!
The fall that my dad died was one where the Jewish holidays were "early," and I was confronted with reciting the Yizkor prayer very soon after losing him. The Yizkor service is one no one wants to be at, and my heart was breaking as the service began. But as I read the actual words of the prayer, I found comfort in them. "In loving testimony to his life, I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to him." I take the meaning of the word tzedakah in the prayer to go beyond donations of money but to the actions I take every day in doing the work I do. And it is again easy to fulfill this pledge, because I am only doing what my father taught me to do by word and by example. Although I miss my dad every day, I know that I keep his name and his memory alive by helping the Jewish people and working toward the repair of the world. I know his memory is for a blessing.
For all of you who have lost your dad, for all of you who still have yours, find joy in the things you do that further their ideals.