Years ago, my family spent Passover vacation at a resort in Arizona, where hundreds of Jewish families like mine came to tour the desert, lounge by the pool, and eat until we saw double (maybe that was just me). At the time, we were your typical American, marginally observant Jewish family – what my mother liked to call “Conservadox.” We attended synagogue weekly, my siblings and I went to Jewish Day School, and we gathered around the table for Shabbat dinner every Friday night. We were loose with the stricter practices of keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, enjoying dinners at McDonald’s and driving, flipping on lights, and watching TV on Saturdays, when the use of electricity is forbidden according to Jewish law.
Our lifestyle worked for us; it was the perfect balance between honoring our culture and heritage while maintaining a firm footing in modern American life. We were part of a loving community that maintained similar standards to ours, and close friends that were like family. Judaism was, for me, the warm and happy thread that held the rest of my life together. It was a treat to sit around the table once a week with my parents and siblings – Dad was constantly working – eat ourselves silly, laugh through the post-meal prayers, then go down to the basement to watch TV on the big screen. Sometimes, Dad would come down and play old ragtime ditties on the piano, music that sounded like children up to mischief, while the four of us danced across the couch cushions. This was how it had always been for us, and, I assumed, how it always would be.
That Passover in Arizona, my father, in search of the tea room where one could find drinks and delicacies around the clock, happened to walk into hall where a bearded man addressed a full house with a certain charisma that compelled my father to take a seat. It turned out to be a shiur, a class, on the Talmud, the 63-volume code of Jewish Law. Dad, a brilliant mind who had completed his PhD in Nuclear Engineering, understood only a few snippets of the talk. Nonetheless, he was intrigued.
Some time later, when my father was at work, two men in yarmulkes breezed past his desk, heading toward a conference room filled with what looked to Dad like balloons. Curious, he followed them, and was greeted by a smiling, red-bearded rabbi that barely reached Dad’s shoulder. Behind him was a festive spread of cake and cookies for the twenty or so men in the room.
“Are you having a party?” Dad asked.
“It’s called a siyum,” the rabbi said. “A celebration.” The rabbi went on the explain that they were part of a worldwide network of people in Daf Yomi, or “The Daily Page”, studying one page of the Talmud each day until all 63 volumes, or Shas, are completed – a cycle of seven-and-a-half years. This group, however, was celebrating a smaller milestone: completing one volume of the 63.
Dad eyed the desserts in disbelief. “So you do this every day?”
The rabbi laughed. “Well, we don’t have a party every day, but we do learn.”
“Too bad,” Dad quipped. “Those cookies look really good.”
“Well,” said the rabbi, sizing him up, “I’ll tell you what. You come learn with us, and I’ll make sure there are cookies.”
A deal was struck, and Dad began to learn Daf Yomi, embarking on a journey that would forever alter his life (and ours, too). He delved deeply into the intricate legal discourse of rabbis from 2,000 years ago that somehow combines the mathematics and sciences, sociology, history and logic that my father so loves. And as time went on, he fell in love with Jewish Law – and in turn, Judaism.
The other night, I hauled my brood to Manhattan for a celebration to honor my father, who recently completed Shas for the third time. To do it only once is considered an unparalleled achievement in Jewish learning; to do it three times, especially by a man who began with almost no Jewish Education, is astonishing. As I watched him address the guests of the party, I was struck by the power of his transformation: there he stood, an observant, Orthodox Jew, in a black fedora, a full beard, and tzitzit, or ritual fringes, swinging beneath the jacket of his black suit, as a room full of esteemed rabbis, sidelocked chassidim, and the students my father now teaches listened intently to his profession that God had been the guiding force behind his accomplishments. His speech was littered with crumbs of Yiddish and Talmudic references only the well-versed would understand, as well as a blessing for his grandchildren that they would grow to love learning as much as he does. He was a man completely changed from the one who accidentally stumbled into a Talmud class at a hotel in Arizona two decades before.
And it took only one page a day.
It says in William James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience” that for many people, spirituality is of “the educational variety,” evolving slowly over time as one’s personal experience and learning deepens. I am the type who wants instant transformation – just add water! – a lightning strike with trumpets blasting that will leave me forever changed. What this really means is that I’m allergic to hard work and waiting. It’s why I tried so many crash diets, so many shortcuts, so many easier, softer paths that inevitably led me, demoralized, back to square one by Monday morning. I had to learn that recovery, spirituality, creativity, or any goal I want to accomplish takes diligence, patience, and time. My father’s achievement is a testament to the power of progress in small steps, like Andy DuFresne’s tunnel, carved with a teaspoon over twenty years, from which he escaped from Shawshank prison. Just one page each day – which is all any of us really have – until we turn around after decades to realize how far we’ve come.
Mazel Tov, Dad. May you go from strength to strength.