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Lessons from My Father


My father, Mr. Alfred (Shalom) Stern, passed away three weeks ago at the age of 88  in Brooklyn, in his home. He is survived by my mother, may she live and be well, 6 of us children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. (The photo shown was taken circa 1949).

Dad was born in 1926 in Antwerp, Belgium and traveled through France, Portugal, and Cuba to the U.S. from 1940 to 1943. They arrived in NY in January, 1943, and my father attended Torah Vodaath Yeshiva — Jewish High School and post high school  (“Yeshiva“) at that time, followed by Brooklyn College and Columbia University. In 1949, he married my mother.

Over the past weeks, I have been thinking about all the things I want to write about my Daddy, who was my children’s Opi (grandpa in German). I thought of all the lessons – both book learning and life skills – that my siblings and I learned. During the shiva (7 days of traditional mourning in Judaism), we kept going over and over these concepts that I just had to put them down in one place. I’m not sure that I practice all my father’s lessons 100 % all the time, but they are on my mind as I trek through my daily life.  Even if I’m not as perfect in inculcating these lessons, I am very much aware of them.

  1. Life is full of disappointments. When one of us would complain about something that wasn’t going the way we wanted, rather than lecture to us about learning to deal with the bumps of life, my father simply stated that phrase, often with a wink and a smile (because it was so old already).  It became kind of a joke between us and we would giggle at it and say, “Ya, ya…whatever..” but would know that my father a) sympathized with us b) was reminding us of a lesson. Interestingly, he didn’t throw in a long speech of how to handle the diappointment. That, he left for us to figure out.

  2. Everything in its place and a place for everything. A master of organization, my dad had a desk whose contents would rival Staples. No wonder we came to him for replacing lost pencils (that was me!), or lost scissors (that was my sister, the artist), or missing rubber bands (my brothers.).  Ditto for his red pens, blue pens, and black pens that he used for his accounting books. My father had a business and did his own bookkeeping. His organization was a tough act to follow. But we try!

  3. The teacher is always right.This may have been a by product of our generation, but I believe that many of the parents in my generation of baby boomer kids believed that teachers were perfect and incapable of poor judgement. Thus, if I complained about a mean teacher, my parents wanted to know what the students did to trigger it. It may be that behind my back, my parents did advocate for me to the teacher, but to us, he always maintained that united front with the teachers. Looking back, I believe that although I felt somewhat frustrated at his strong stance at the time,  I did have  that respect for authority because of my father’s strict attitude. I believe that I passed that down (with some tempering) to my children in my own parenting skills, as I always insisted on my kids respecting their elders and teachers. As my husband likes to joke to our kids, “Rule Number 1: The Teacher is always right. Rule Number 2: If teacher is wrong, refer to rule number 1.”

4. Make the garbage compact.  No, we didn’t have a trash compactor in our 1960’s style kitchen, but still my father was very conscientious about getting the trash to fit into the grey tin cans that were ubiquitous in our Brooklyn street. I have visions of my father pushing the trash down, so as not to waste space.

  1. Follow your passion and study hard. My father believed in hard work, and modeled that to us in his every act. Whether he was learning Torah, going to work in his jewelry business, or raising funds for the high school we attended, he did everything thoroughly. He expected each of us to follow our school studies and was supportive of our outside projects, to the point that he and my mom didn’t mind if we were out at a friend studying late, or at a school function. Our father was our cheerleader, whether he was rooting for two of my sisters’ artistic and haircutting talents, to my writing and musical interests, to my other sister’s acting hobbies, and my brothers’ athletic goals with their friends, and pursuing their intellectual and rabbinic studies

  2. Respect your mother. If we said or did anything against our mother, we were reprimanded big time by my father. It was a “wait till your father gets home” moment for us. My father was more particular about our respect for our mother than for himself. Although one of my sisters claims she got away with murder (her confession at the shiva), the others and myself claim that Dad would give it to us if we were “fresh.” (the popular term in those days for rude).

  3. Do loving acts of kindness. This was something modeled by my mother over the years, and my father would encourage and praise her deeds in front of us. Our home was open to all kinds of guests who needed a place to stay when visiting our neighborhood. Since we had a large home, my mother was happy to host people. Often, my mother drove people to hospitals in Manhattan – those who were too weak to drive themselves – for treatment for various illnesses. My father and mother had that kind of home, and stressed to us that it is the way to live. I try to emulate their ways in my own life.

  4. Take good care of yourself and do what’s right. As much as my dad was a man of few words, (my mother and sisters did most of the talking!), he did give me a lecture one time when I got into trouble in school. I think the issue was that the class was doing some shtick on the teacher, and I followed along. My father gave me a speech about taking care of myself and not following the pack or the crowd, if I know what’s right for myself. My father was a big believer in standing strong for what’s right – even if everyone else is doing something nutty.  (One big speech we got – “Just because everyone is jumping off the Empire State Building, doesn’t mean you have to!”)

  5. The chickens come home to roost.  This was said in the same manner as “life is full of disappointments,” except the scenario was different. In the chickens scenario, we were usually suffering a consequence of bad planning or poor organization. So, the message in that simple statement was “hey, you made your bed, now sleep in it…” but somehow “the chickens come home to roost” was gentler and cuter than the former one about making one’s bed. Just as my father was into accepting disappointments that are beyond our control, he was into dealing with natural consequences of something sloppy that we did.

  6. Write things down. Make lists. My father was a firm believer in making lists, both for what you have to do and what you delegate to others. My father often delegated chores to us, and put them down in writing. Also, he took copious notes when he attended classes given by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his guide in Jewish analysis and “lomdus.”  I learned from my father to underline and highlight when reading material in books and to take notes for later use.

  7. Look it up. My father was a lover of words. He spoke 7 languages, partly because he lived in several countries when escaping Europe during WW II, and partly because he was interested in languages and books. When my father would use what we felt was a “fancy” word, he would not translate it for us, but would say, “Look it up.” That meant we had to go find the unabridged dictionary in his study and look up said word. (Most of the time, we didn’t necessarily do it that minute, but it made an impression on us to expand our vocabulary and appreciate nuances of different words!)

There you have it. 11 things I learned from my father. As I go through my days in these weeks after his passing, I often think, “what would Daddy say?” or “what would Opi say?” and suddenly I feel an answer come to my mind. It’s very comforting for me to have these lessons as anchors to hold onto. By heeding these lessons of discipline and love in my daily life, I believe I am honoring my father’s memory, and carrying on the message to the next generation who observes me.

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