essays Seymour Fromer z"l tzaddik stories

the paintbrush

“What you really want is closure,” he said. I had called him knowing I was in peril. I asked him what he thought I should feel. He’s pretty good at feeling stuff.

But I’m not so sure he’s right. I’m not sure closure is attainable in cases like this. Just as I’m not sure there could be such a thing as forgiveness or redemption.

“You’re so detached,” she said. It really bothers her. It’s always bothered her.

“Detached works for me,” I replied. “That, and laughter.”

She frowned.

“If you can’t get closure for yourself,” he said, “then get it for the children.”

We were talking about whether I should fly down and pick up my inheritance from the biofather.  To be distinguished from my father, the tzaddik. And make sure that the children’s share was handled properly.

I’ve always known that this would be it. That were there redemption in the world, this would be a good time for it. And if there were redemption, then there might be room for a little forgiveness.

The sins of the fathers…

“He wanted to abort you,” she said. “He and his mother too.” She tossed the latter in for good measure. She was talking about the biofather. I’d heard this story about a million times before.

“The way he told it,” I said, “it was you who wanted the abortion.” I’d only heard this one once. He told me this tale just before he died. He had had a great big smile on his face.

She’d been seething about this all week. Not at him for his version of the story, but at me. She thought I believed his version over hers.

That’s when the thing about detachment had come up.

Detachment works for an anthropologist. In my business, who am I to decide whose truth is really true? I’m more interested intead that people tell these things at all. And in this case, I’m afraid laughter wasn’t going to work too well. So. Detachment was all I had left. It’s a pretty good default setting, in my opinion.

On his tombstone for some reason it is written “Husband, Father, Grandfather.” Cognitive dissonance. I keep thinking, did this guy deserve to have these words written on his stone for all posterity — as if, maybe, he took these roles seriously?

What I’d really like to do is tell them there’s been a mistake. That must be someone else’s epitaph on his stone. They need to get it right. But no. Detachment. Just stand back. Further back. And watch it all unfold.

The house with the swimming pool goes to his wife’s brother.

The art and antiquities and the rest gets divided into five parts. Two of which belong to his grandchildren. The kids whose inheritance their dad says I must protect.

For his daughter: his own artwork and his art supplies. He was a Chinese painter. Those long scrolls, with little people climbing up into the jagged mountains. Or pretty birds or flowers. Or just bamboo. He painted one masterpiece. A Mongolian on a horse in the steppe. It won a prize at a show somewhere. The only non-indigenous Chinese Chinese painter to win a prize.

That painting is mine. And the paintbrush he used is mine.

So. Here’s what I feel. I feel honored that these things belong to me. They’re much much more than I expected.

And when I’ve got my paintbrush maybe I’ll be free. Or maybe it’ll be just another piece of junk collected.

He didn’t want a kaddish. He didn’t get one either.



A newer copy of biofather’s will was found.  And by my name, in his handwriting, was one word:  OMIT.

So.  Here’s what I feel.  I feel honored that I was raised with the tzaddik, a lamed-vavnik, one of the 36 tzaddikim of his era.  That is so much more than I could ever have expected.


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

5 replies on “the paintbrush”

An equal opportunity mourner, you. You have a much more generous spirit than I do! Above, however, I wasn’t trying to be churlish. I meant that he (and his wife) were adamant that there be no kaddish at their funerals. And their wishes were respected.

I used to ask the Tzaddik what ‘use’ this one was, or that one, when they brought such torment into the world. I’ve written about this. And he always responded that one could not know the fragment of good that might come from the most seemingly malicious source. I’m not sure he believed in ‘evil’ per se at all. I’m not sure I do either. But there are humans in this world who do great harm. And they too perceive themselves the heroes in their own tales.

Again, who am I to choose a righter truth?

I’m not sure it was all that generous of me—it was one of the angriest Kaddishim I’ve played to date, right up there with Eichmann’s.

This idea of people not wanting a kaddish at their funerals, though—I wonder how this might relate to the phenomenon I’ve been describing in our “backstage” private conversation of people who’d describe themselves as some variant of Christian not wanting funerals at all.

Is it wrong to choose your own truth?

There may well be more angry recitations of Kaddish than not — maybe that’s why there should be a congregation right behind us as reinforcements. What we’re doing here may still be way too solitary to feel that we’re not just standing on our own two feet after great loss or good riddance.

I don’t know about the no-funeral people. There are probably many variables entailed for each of them. I’m sure their motives are not all the same. We could make a list of possibilities, but they would be speculative. We could do a study… But instead —I’m so much more immersed in what I myself want! Bellydancers. Thoth playing violin, singing and dancing on my grave. You. Biblical drag. Henna. Jokes. A Tinaleh song. There’s a spot for a picnic. Good Sephardi food. Borekas. Yaprakas for the meat eaters. Kalamata olives. Spit out the olive pits upon my grave — maybe we’ll have an olive grove one day… Which doesn’t mean that any of us ever get what we want.

Choose our own truth? We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Well, if there’s Kalamata olives and pit-spitting, count me in! I’ll either be there as the dusty ash that gives everyone else asthma attacks or as the one hogging the Kalamatas and yaprakas. I’ll bring the akevit.

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