Friday Takeaway: Kaddish for my father

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home.

For the Bulletin
Thursday, March 28, 2019

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I loved him dearly: I was his son and also his pupil.

For years I had imagined the moment in which he would be no longer around, when I, as his oldest child, would recite the mourner’s Kaddish for him. But one invariably comes to such occasions unprepared. Death always happens at an inopportune moment.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

A thespian by trade, my father made dozens of telenovelas in Mexico and other TV shows, such as the legendary “Chespirito.” People still remember his commercials for Zest and Vodka Nikolai. He was in a slew of movies with roles big and small, including a Zero Mostel comedy (I remember sitting on the actor’s lap as a child), a James Bond movie, an Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie vehicle and “My Mexican Shivah.”

Whenever he concluded a shooting, he would fill me with humorous anecdotes. “Ilan, Angelina kissed me,” he told me once over the phone. “I haven’t washed my lips in a week.”

It was theater that my father truly adored, though. It was his religion. He was a character actor with a miraculous capacity to make strangers laugh or cry. He seemed happiest when in a well-written play, from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller.

Since early on — especially when I was an adolescent — I envied his capacity to take a vacation from himself, becoming, for a short period of time, a Holocaust survivor, a hotel manager or a cabaret singer. He never hesitated in celebrating the ephemerality of the theater, that fact that, unlike most other arts, a show lives and dies in one single night. “No two theater performances are identical,” he would repeat.

One of his enduring bits of wisdom is that, no matter how often one plays the same part or how large an audience one faces, each performance must be made personal. Just before jumping on stage, he would feel a tightness in his stomach, he confessed. At the first opportunity, he would look at the audience and chose at random one person, a stranger, to whom he would secretly dedicate that evening’s show. “The play only succeeds if it matches the ‘I’ and the ‘thou,’ ” he would say.

B’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei.

Endings — why do they obsess us? At 86, my father had been in declining health. He had fallen not too long ago and was using a walker. The night before he entered the hospital, he had dinner with my mother. As she was cleaning the table, he got impatient and moved to the sofa in the living room. She didn’t pay attention to him until she heard him climb the staircase.

“Where are you going?” she asked him.

“I am leaving … I’m ready!”

The conversation suddenly shifted from the mundane to the symbolic. “Don’t go,” she said. “I love you.” But he was ready to die.

They talked about falling in love when they were young and about their first kiss. They talked about each of their children and grandchildren.

Then the two went upstairs to their bedroom and fell asleep. Twelve hours later, she couldn’t wake him up. An ambulance was called. Manuel, my sister’s partner, saw him shortly after they arrived at the hospital and before he was intubated. “I knew I would die in a hospital,” my father told him. He said he wanted to see his mother.

He was in a coma for almost a week, from which he never came out. In large part, it was left to me to rally the troops to finally put him to rest. This part felt understandably unnatural: our parents are supposed to go before us, but we aren’t supposed to decide when.

B’chayeichon uvyomeichon uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael.

He was buried less than twelve hours later. At the funeral, halfway through the Kaddish (a prayer that, wisely, makes no mention of death), I realized the Aramaic words distilled an unforeseen healing quality. I was propelled forward by them, as I was by the Shiva, the days of mourning swiftly organized by the chevra kadisha, the volunteer group that handles burial rites for the Jewish community.

Hundreds of people showed up: schoolmates I hadn’t thought about for decades, relatives I didn’t know existed. And lots of strangers. Each had a story to tell about my father, a line they wanted to utter as effectively as he once had.

The tributes in the media were equally intense. From Brazil to Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, not to mention the national media, radio, newspapers, and TV channels featured photographs, recordings, and movie footage.

It felt like a charade. The clash between my father’s private and public personae was excruciating. Not that any dirty linen came out; it was just the obfuscation of knowing how much more complicated the man behind that effigy was.

Ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: “amen.”

I kissed him goodbye not long before he died, whispered to his ear that his life was an open book from which I would read every day. Then, after the doctors disconnected him, I kissed him one last time. By then his body was stiff: it had become a corpse. But his face displayed such peace, it made me laugh.

Was he acting?

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.