After my young father suddenly died in 1976, Uncle Moshe came to visit and console us.
Moshe was my mother’s older brother and had always been a very close comrade of my father. The entire clan hails from Israel, where I was born. The two men fought side-by-side in Israel’s War of Independence and Moshe, chain-smoking, gravelly voiced, opinionated, and extremely adoring of his entire family circle, looked something like an Israeli version of Tevye the Dairyman.
He was never a particularly reverential man but felt things intensely.
He was no stranger to death, having killed men in war and witnessed many of his childhood friends and fellow soldiers slaughtered. He had little use for religion, but was a pragmatist who believed instead in solid, manual work and keeping an open door for his children and his friends. He was unquestionably the family patriarch.
On the night my father died, my mother called Moshe in Ashdod, Israel, and asked him to fly over to us in Cincinnati and spend a few weeks with us.
“I’m on my way,” I heard him say over the telephone receiver, shaken to also hear him sobbing.
When Moshe arrived after taking his first-ever airplane excursion—he had spent his entire life as an infantryman and then as a bus driver—he found a traumatized family in need of a father figure. My sister was twelve years old and had danced among the nearby tombstones while we put my father into the ground. My brother, then sixteen, had particularly idolized our father and emulated his athleticism and was emotionally immobilized. My mother, when she wasn’t holding onto her big brother, regularly went into the kitchen and cried into the sink.
But I kept wondering, as so many bereaved do: Where is my father now?
Two or three nights after his arrival, Moshe invited me to take a walk under the stars. He was never a particularly reverential man but felt things intensely. He did not attempt to disguise his grief; it weaved its way into his weatherworn face, moistened his deep dark eyes, and occasionally caused his normally powerful voice to crack. But there was some kind of peace, walking with just him, on that balmy night of shadows laced with the fragrance of the springtime geraniums. Looking skyward while pacing alongside my uncle, I recalled something I once read in a prayer book: “The stars are there even when you can’t see them in the daytime.”
“Are you looking at heaven?” Moshe asked me with tenderness.
“I suppose I am,” I replied, as he put his arm around me. His corduroy jacket emitted the familiar blend of tobacco and street wisdom.
“Your father and I used to do that many years ago as campfires burnt out during the war. The night stars were soothing to us because we feared death every day. We agreed they were the lights of heaven. I felt closer to that idea out there in the Samarian Mountains than at any of the times I ever went into a synagogue.”
The exchange, more mystical than usual for Moshe, prompted me to ask the question that plagued me the most since my father’s abrupt death. I asked, “Moshe, where is my father?”
Moshe stopped walking, thought about it, while wrinkling his brow. A bit of a knowing smile on his face was evident under the starshine.
“Ben,” he said, very deliberately. “I knew your father. And I can tell you that he’s in a good place.”
“But how do you know that?” I retorted.
“Tell me something.” My uncle focused on me, soul to soul. “Your father was very particular and he didn’t have patience for trivialities. So, if it wasn’t a good place, don’t you think he’d come back?”
This bit of raw theology has helped me over the years. I have shared the moment and the message with others from time to time when they were freshly bereaved and grappling with how to grieve—even with the liturgical rites, the psycho-therapeutic sessions, and the consoling input of friends who knew how to just listen. Uncle Moshe’s response and his conviction amounted to a measure of folk formulation; but it really was tender and intuitive. I was calmed by his roundabout way of telling me how much he loved my father. And the notion that my father would simply come back if he was unhappy has continued to give me a measure of comfort and a warm chuckle over the course of time.
Excerpted from my new book–link below: