Monday, June 8, 2009

The Commander

Today, the 17th day of Sivan, is the first yartzeit (anniversary of someone’s death) of my beloved father Shimon Mayer Ben Nissan. Please indulge me as I pay tribute to him today.

It is hard for me to believe that a year of mourning my father, missing him, of wishing I could have just one more minute with him, has gone by. It has been a year of reflecting how this amazing man influenced not only my life but those of my sister and three brothers as well. My father led by example. He was always truthful, so we learned the importance of honesty. He was unfailingly punctual, teaching us that other’s people’s time was as important as ours. He always kept his word, and we learned the importance of being dependable. He trudged on through hard and sad times, and we learned the attribute of resilience. He openly appreciated his many blessings, and we learned to be thankful for all that we had. Nothing came before his family, and we learned to put family first.

My father embodied integrity. He displayed it in his work and in his relationships. He was a devoted husband and a loving father. He was friendly with an easy going manner who would give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Dad stayed abreast of current events and was extremely well versed in history. He spoke, he would say, only when he had something to say. Dad welcomed a difference of opinion but good luck to the person who couldn’t back up a basis of opinion with facts.

My father was born in 1922 in Boston, Massachusetts. The youngest of five children, he and his three brothers and one sister were raised primarily by his mother as his parents were separated when he was a young boy. His father passed away the day after Yom Kippur when my father was just thirteen years old. He said Kaddish faithfully for his father for 72 years. As a married man, with a young family of his own to support, he helped support his mother until her death in 1965.

Dad was a member of what is now known as the world’s greatest generation. He was a staff sergeant in the Air Corps in World War II serving in the South Pacific. His love for the P-38 fighter plane, of which he was crew chief, would last throughout his lifetime. He told me in his later years that his service in the U.S. army was a turning point in his life as he was able to attend college on the G.I. Bill.

Dad graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and went on to law school, also at Northeastern. After law school he met my mother, may she live and be well, on a blind date. They were married for over 51 years.

In my father’s youth, his Uncle Julius introduced him to Zionism by taking him to Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) meetings. My father would later grow up to be a staunch Zionist. He brought us to ZOA meetings as well. He took great pride in three of his children living in Israel. “I have three kids in Israel.” he would say bursting with pride, “And not just anywhere in Israel. All three of them are in Yehuda and Shomron.”

My father was an active member of the bar though he chose not to practice law. Instead, he enjoyed building power plants for Stone and Webster. He loved knowing that when he flicked on the light switch he had something to do with the light going on. After failing miserably at early retirement at the age of 62, he worked at Hanscom Air Force Base full time until he retired, successfully this time, at the age 84. He was admired and respected by his colleagues for his strong work ethic and well liked for a friendly manner and wonderful sense of humor. He amazed his family, doctors and colleagues by missing only a few hours sporadically as he underwent treatment for the blood disorder that would ultimately claim his life.

Among his leisure activities Dad enjoyed avidly following the Boston sports scene. He was a voracious fan of the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots. He collected first day covers and enjoyed classical music. He was an active member of the Beth El Atereth Israel Kiddush club in Newton, Massachusetts. When my oldest brother Nissan settled in Neve Tsuf in the Shomron, my father became a dues paying member of the Kiddush club there as well though he visited just once a year. “I am no freeloader” he would proclaim.

Dad was an attentive and hands on father. If someone said to him “Seymour, I met your daughter, she’s lovely.” He would respond “I have two lovely daughters.” My sister Sarita loved the Patriots so he took her to Patriots games. When my brother Jonathan was rebuilding a 1948 Willis Jeep, Dad took a day off from work to drive up to New Hampshire to find parts for the jeep. My father rarely missed any of my younger brother Sam’s many sports games. As a young teenager I liked a spelling book he had and asked for one. He told me that unfortunately the book was now out of print. He surprised me a week later with my own copy. He had contacted the publisher and ordered the book for me.

Dad knew how to balance discipline with unwavering affection. He knew that if a parent followed a stern reprimand with a hug and a kiss, the child would likely remember the hug and the kiss over the reprimand. He was right. We loved the simple word games he made up to pass the time during car trips. He made us laugh all the time. Our days ended with his tucking us into bed and lying down with us for a few minutes, which we called “Lay-withs.” When the grandchildren started arriving he had the opportunity to introduce this wonderfully beloved tradition to the next generation.

Dad was also a wonderful father-in-law. He accepted and loved each of our spouses simply because we had chosen them. He was an adored grandfather. It was his first grandchild Amir who coined the phrase that his grandfather was “the greatest man alive.” Jonathan wrote that phrase on the white board outside my father’s hospital room.

As each new grandchild arrived Dad’s pride grew exponentially. When my sister-in-law Revi gave birth to the first Sabra of the family my father started ulpan lessons at Hebrew College so that he would be able to speak to his grandson. My father was in his late sixties at the time.

Dad was also attentive to the larger, life changing issues of his children’s lives. When Nissan wanted to make Aliyah my father told him to get his degree at Tufts University where he had been accepted and then he could go to Israel with his blessings. Nissan did just that. Sam would make Aliyah years later. On the day I left Boston to make Aliyah, Dad hugged me and with emotion cracking his voice told me he was proud of me. I will be forever grateful that he made it to Gush Etzion for the first time when he visited us here in Efrat.

My father dealt gracefully with whatever came his way. As he lay in his hospital bed that last week of his life he told my mother that if this was his time to go then he was fine with it. He said “I have lived a full life, a life with you better than I could have ever imagined for myself. We have our wonderful children and grandchildren. I’m OK and I want you to be OK.”

A few days later he died being at peace with what he had accomplished and peacefully in his sleep. He appreciated all God had given him and was insightful enough to realize that what he had were the things that ultimately matter the most: a loving and fulfilling relationship with his spouse, children who adored him and grandchildren whom he cherished. He left behind a good name. He raised proud Jews who continue the heritage he bestowed upon them. He loved the State of Israel and the Nation of Israel. The last sound my father ever made, after hours of being unresponsive, was a grunt in response to his Rabbi’s reading of the Shema out loud by his bedside.

“One who walks in perfect innocence and does what is right and speaks the truth from his heart; who has no slander on his tongue… The doer of these shall not falter forever.” (Psalms 15)

Shimon Mayer Ben Nissan. May his memory be a blessing.

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