With Father’s Day approaching, I can’t help thinking and writing about my late father, Abe Weisblat. I paid tribute to him this morning on our local public-radio station. You can listen to that brief broadcast here–or read a slightly expanded version of my thoughts below.
My smart, funny father would have turned 100 this year. He has been dead for 20 years, and sometimes I almost forget what it was like to be around him. Then a sight or a taste or a sound brings him back in full force.
Improbably, one of these triggers is … herring. He and my mother were often separated by their work. My father wasn’t much of a cook. When he was on his own his customary evening meal was a martini with stuffed olives and a jar of pickled herring accompanied by matzo or crackers.
He found this a perfectly balanced meal, pointing out that it provided protein (the herring), fruit (the olives), and a vegetable (the pimientos in the olives). He was proud to note that if he ate the crackers straight out of the box and the herring straight out of the jar, he needed to wash only two things at the end of his repast: a glass and a fork.
Eating—or even just seeing—herring now brings him vividly to mind.
I also think of him when I hear composer Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” Like my father, Berlin was brought to this country as a child by immigrant Jewish parents. Both Berlin and my father hurled themselves into American culture.
My father highlighted his Jewish identity. He came of age in an era in which discrimination against Jews was rife in the United States, but he turned his frequent status as a token Jew to his advantage.
His charm and his professional skill at bringing disparate people together came in large part from his status as an outsider. He understood what it meant to be on the edge of society—and helped people celebrate both commonality and difference.
Berlin seems to have been a bit more cautious about his Jewishness, trying to fit into mainstream (a.k.a., WASP) American culture and even composing “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” Some scholars and singers theorize that the title “Russian Lullaby” is actually code for “Jewish” or “Yiddish Lullaby.” The voice in the song is that of a mother singing to her baby about the possibility of a better life in a far-off land. The melody is minor and haunting, with a hint of Eastern Europe.
At a party in the 1980s, friends were trying to remember the lyrics. My father suddenly launched into the chorus. I don’t know that I had ever heard him sing all by himself before that. Like his personality, his singing voice was sweet and true.
This year I’m singing the song a lot in his memory. Sometimes I think I hear him singing along.
Rock-a-bye my baby.
Somewhere there may be
A land that’s free, for you and me,
And a Russian lullaby.