Heather's dad Joe beams with pride at her graduation
My father's last memory of his father Aaron was in 1937, dad was five. Aaron's car was parked and running outside of the house. In the front seat was my grandfather's new bride, Bessie. My father came running outside of the house to the car. Aaron crouched down to my father, gave him a five dollar bill and said, "Sonny, someday you'll understand." Aaron drove away and my father never saw or heard from him again.
My father, Joseph Hyman Zagrabelsky, didn't understand then and never will.
In 1917 my father's parents emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine to the U.S. miraculously escaping the pogroms of 1919. Aaron, my grandfather, was an Orthodox Rabbi and his wife, Bluma, a homemaker. Dad was the youngest of five. Early in their lives as Americans, the family made a tour of sorts of U.S. synagogues. Apparently, Aaron liked his lady congregants a little too much and was forced to leave several temples. No matter though, the family just moved from one state to another, starting in Maryland and ending up in Los Angeles where Aaron eventually found a suitable young lady to leave his family for.
His father’s departure was a traumatic event that loomed large in Joe's life. At 19 he hitchhiked from LA to New York to pursue his dream of acting. On the way he stopped in Memphis where he knew his father to be living. He looked him up and made a call. Bessie answered the phone and informed Joe that his father had died three months earlier of a heart attack and couldn't he please send some money for a head stone.
But dad made it. He landed in New York where he worked as an actor for many years, even understudying the lead role Come Blow Your Horn on Broadway. Eventually, in the late 1960s, he met Paul Sills, founder of Compass Players and Second City, moved to Chicago and joined his improvisation group.
The rest of the family wasn’t faring quite as well. Dad’s oldest brother Bernie had become a bonafide hermit, relocating to New Hampshire from LA, and eventually kidnapping my sick grandmother. His brother Nathaniel had committed suicide. His sister Diana was living in Nevada with her gentile husband and his brother closest in age, Hershey, became a Jew for Jesus, married and had a mess o' babies. Can you imagine?? Performing must have been, among other things, a welcome respite and distraction from his painful past.
Eventually, my dad met and married my mother, Hope, a granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants, whom he met in one of Viola Spolin's famous improvisation classes. They raised my older brother and I, baptizing us at the local Presbyterian church. Every Sunday, we dutifully went to Sunday School. My father would drop us off and say, "Tell Jesus I said hello. Ask him, can't I get into heaven by association?" We loved that one. But as time went on, I found that I did have to ask my father's question in earnest to those who taught me Christian doctrine. Would my dad go to hell? I posed this question to any poor schmo with a divinity degree. Some said it was up to God's discretion, but most said yes. I was disturbed by this. It took many years of interrogating clergy of all stripes before I settled on, no.
Heather and her dad, a couple of hams
I've always felt a kinship with my father. Perhaps it's because I have his dark hair and sallow skin, or maybe it's just the typical father-daughter bond. Whatever it is, I feel Jewish and have since I was a child. Currently, I am in the midst of the conversion process, a topic of conversation that I have found does not bring out the best in people. Some say, "Why does it matter? Why do you want religion?" My mother is nonplussed, my orthodox friends will never consider me a real Jew, and my father says, "Why do you want to be a Jew? People are always trying to kill us!" It's not that I want to be Jewish, or wish I was Jewish. I simply feel that I am and want to make it official. More than that, my desire to do so is not so much a measured cognitive process as it is a biological urge, like the urge to have children or go to sleep.
After twenty-four years together, my parents called it quits. Dad was single for a while, renting a small apartment and living in typical bachelor squalor. Some years later he married a nice Catholic lady named Jean. Hers, I thought, is a deep but personal faith; one I can tolerate, admire even. They quickly moved to a quiet neighborhood in Northwest Indiana to be near Jean's family. Later, I came to find out that many of Jean's family members are Evangelical Christians. Oy.
Now, I am not familiar with all of Indiana, or with all evangelicals, but where my dad lives they actually believe that Obama is a Muslim, and they’d have a problem with it if he was. They must have been salivating as his car pulled up, seeing the passenger as someone who desperately needed saving. Eventually Dad and Jean moved in with Jean's son's family, wonderful people who happen to display their faith in a way I find nauseating. But how could I complain? They love my dad and take wonderful care of him. Sure, when I told them my husband was going into environmental law they told me that environmentalists love trees more than people, but so what, right?
Dad will turn seventy-six this month. Who can blame him for wanting some measure of spirituality in his life? A tried and true hypochondriac—he once called to inform me that he had a new condition, and drove home the severity of the situation with the dramatic pause he had perfected on stage: “Heather,” he said, “I have conjunctivitis.” Yes, my dad had pink eye. And yes, he pulled through. I do kid him for his constant assumption that death is imminent, but getting older and seeing friends die must really reinforce his fears. It makes sense that he might want to chat with his maker.
Knowing Jean’s family’s evangelical bent, I guess I should have seen it coming. But when my dad called announcing that he was to be baptized, I was dumbfounded. Actually, devastated is more like it. Did I mention the baptism was to take place one day before a scheduled surgery? Dad thinks he'll die during routine teeth cleanings! The man was covering his bases. I sobbed. And sobbed. I tried everything. I made an impromptu visit to Indiana, speeding down the Dan Ryan toward the Skyway begging him to rethink his decision. I even took him to see a rabbi in Munster.
The rabbi respectfully inquired into his line of thinking. My dad replied that he now lives with Christians and added, "When in Rome..." Oh well. "What? It's just some water on my head," he barked in a perfect New York Jew accent. "I'm a Jew, Jesus was a Jew, period." When I asked if he believed that Jesus died for his sins and will come back to judge the living and the dead—payback for years of Sunday school I guess—he replied, "What the hell are you talking about?" Sigh...I had to laugh even through my tears. At least the trip wasn't a total loss. It was beautiful to see my father lay tefillin for the first time in more than fifty-five years. He still knew the Hebrew by heart.
A few days after my visit to Indiana, Dad landed in the emergency room (he is fine). Jean left me a voice mail saying, should my father die; it's my fault, just so I know. Nice. What could I do? He is my only link to Judaism and without that link, I felt very alone. How can I feel Jewish if he ceases to be a Jew? Can I still convert? I realized that my tears were in large part for myself and what I thought I had lost.
Two weeks after we visited the rabbi, he was baptized. I wasn't there.
How is a Jew whose entire family abandoned Judaism long ago and who lives amongst so many Christians to keep his faith? It would be difficult even for the most observant amongst us. Dad didn't stand a chance.
I think that truth be told, Dad’s baptism mattered more to me than it did to him. I can’t say for sure whether he was covering bases, or agreeing to the ceremony to provide some kind of comfort for the woman he loves. Maybe he doesn’t even see it as getting in the way of his view of his Jewish self, or suddenly at 75, he found Jesus—and I guess it doesn’t matter.
No matter what my dad believes, I am Jewish because of him. Now it’s up to me to figure out how to be the Jew I want to be, that I feel I am.