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Remembering a Father’s Spirit
I feel a little unsettled as we approach this Father’s Day. It’s an odd feeling — of loss and strong, obdurate silence where once there were words, sounds and a linguistic joie de vivre.
My father, Robert Perloff, a loquacious connoisseur of language — Yiddish as well as English — died in April at the age of 92. A professor of business administration and psychology first at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and later at the University of Pittsburgh, he was an insightful iconoclast and indefatigable contributor of letters to newspapers. He frequently sprinkled his correspondence with colloquialisms and double entendres.
He loved language and puns, emailing word plays he particularly enjoyed, like the rabbi who is reported to have said, “Let’s win this one for (the) Yom Kippur.” Growing up among other Jews in West Philadelphia (and later earning a Temple University B.A.), he developed an ear for Yiddish phrases and cultivated them with glee. When he came across words like schlep, kvetch or macher in the newspaper, he would send me the clipping, underlining the word and kvelling about the ways Jewish culture had made it into the American mainstream.
A couple of years back, I received an email titled “L’Shana Tova.” His wish for a happy New Year contained a variety of Jewish ditties to be sung to the Casablanca classic, “As Time Goes By.” Here is one he came across and forwarded to me:
You must remember this,
A bris is still a bris,
A chai is just a chai.
Pastrami still belongs on rye,
As time goes by!
My dad was not particularly religious. He was a cultural Jew, who respected the bountiful achievements of American Jews and took joy in sharing the linguistic, aesthetic and intellectual attainments of Jews worldwide. And he never met a corned beef on rye he didn’t like.
He bequeathed to me a love of language, infatuation with Jewish idioms and an appreciation of the multiple, enriching contributions Jews have made to this country. Growing up in West Lafayette, Ind, which, decades ago offered a homogenized, vaguely intolerant attitude toward Jews, I was introduced by my father to the spirit and sparkle that Jews have injected into the bland conventions of American life.
As Father’s Day draws near, I sense the absence of my father’s chortles and email celebrations. But we must move on.
The silence will be eerie, given my father’s verbosity and zest for life. On other Father’s Days or holidays, I might receive an urgent phone message, my father calling to let me know that a famous person in my field was appearing on a PBS program. One of his emails might appear at the top of my in-box, capturing attention with a title like “Kill the Death Penalty — An op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.”
I will read some of them again on Sunday, appreciating what at the time seemed expected, even predictable, treasuring what sometimes seemed prosaic, reveling in his emailed double entendres and remembering him with a sigh, a smile and everlasting filial gratitude.
Rick Perloff, professor of communication at Cleveland State University, is the author of several scholarly books.