secrets of the tzaddik

He wanted it spelled ‘poppa’ not ‘papa.’  He was definitive about that, but not about much else.  I always wondered why. It seemed anachronistic, that spelling, but maybe that’s the point. He was from a different era. How could he not be?  Maybe the word  ‘poppa’ made him feel warm and fuzzy, and maybe  ‘papa’ sounded — well, I don’t really know what.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Poppa was her protector.

He intervened, without getting in the middle.  He intervened secretly, for he could never protect her openly.  Even Malkah realized that explicit protection, verbal defense for example, was just too dangerous. And it was bound to backfire.

He kept secrets. And not just Malkah’s secrets.  He kept the secrets all over the place.  And not once was he tempted to reveal or exploit them.  He never threatened either, not once, to reveal a secret. He never said things like, “it’s for the best…” and tell you something you didn’t want to hear.  I think he knew it wasn’t for the best at all.

He was not, in other words, one for transparency.

But for that, Malkah loved her poppa. She could trust him.

Well, up to a point, anyway.  For while he kept things to himself, he was also somewhat unreliable.

He couldn’t, for example, maintain a car to save his life.  And his lack of attention to such mundane details as car maintenance led to some near misses in the so-called protection department.  No. He couldn’t be counted upon for the ordinary stuff. But for the extraordinary, he was magnificent.

When I think about it now, however, his parenting skills were fairly rudimentary.

Let them be.

That was it, really.  Nothing more. He was a minimalist when it came to intervention.  Never direct confrontation, Never direct caregiving. Benign neglect, he had down really well. Never gave an allowance, for example, in keeping with his motto:

anybody can do it with money

try and do it without

Never gave a present that wasn’t used or broken or both. Never occurred that she might not be okay. Never occurred that she might need medical attention.  Surely she could regenerate all by herself? Never occurred that she might not be able to solve most things on her own. Nope. She’d be fine.  And why not?  That worked. For most things.  But not for everything.

Let them just be.

And so. Malkah grew up autonomous and competent, and solitary and as secretive as he.

But one day, (not the only time, I might add) he called her in distress. This was the time that he told Malkah that he loved her.

Actually, that’s not what what he said at all.

It was one year during the Jewish Film Festival. And a family friend had made a film all about how damaged she was because her father never said he loved her. It wasn’t the best film on the planet, I might add. But it upset him.

And so the tzaddik called his Malkah.

“Did you see L’s film?” he asked. “She thinks he didn’t love her  because he never said those words.”

Malkah grunted.

“Do I need to say it?” the tzaddik asked.  It was clear to Malkah that he was very very upset.

“No poppa,” she said. “You don’t need to say it.”

He sighed in relief. He wasn’t about to say it.

Malkah grew up thinking words of love were pretty stupid.  The whole point was to show it, not to say it.  People said love-words like that all the time.And then they’d beat the crap out of each other, both verbally and not.  And sometimes words of love were just a tyranny. A form of entrapment. Words to bind you. Words to obligate. Words that weren’t true. Words you were expected to reciprocate. Words that put you on the spot.

He never said those words. He didn’t need them. Instead, like a soldier, he put his body on the line. He showed her. He did for her. He took her with him. He kept her secrets.  And so, as time went on, she did the same for him.

He took care of things. He could make things happen. He could make things not happen.  He could make bad things disappear. He could keep things to himself. He kept an eye out just in case. He’d go to the ends of the earth to prevent someone else’s disaster. He took things upon himself. He didn’t share the burden.

People resented it.

People whispered terrible things into Malkah’s ear.

“Do you know your father this / Do you know your father that?”

They were wrong, of course.

It’s just that he never explained. Not to anyone. He just took care of things himself.

And Malkah imprinted on that. Don’t ask. Don’t tell.  It’s like the tzaddik invented that.

How did he say ‘I love you?’ How did he say how much he loved, and why?

He didn’t have to.

He didn’t have to say anything.

Seymour Fromer 1922–2009
Founder and Director of Judah L. Magnes Museum