By: Ari Schwartz
In his more youthful days, my father was filled with energy, hope, and passion. Particularly, during his early 20’s, he seemed to have the thing that all beings capable of consciousness really want on a most basic level: a concrete dream, and the means of turning that dream into a reality. It’s weird for me to think of my father in this way. For one thing because this description of him is so completely different from the man who raised me during my formative years—a man without dreams, without drive, and without direction. But even on a more basic level it’s always weird for a child to think that a parent was ever anything other than just that—a parent. My father could have never had youthful exuberance, or gone through the agonizing awkwardness of puberty. He could never have, in a word, been me, just as I could not possibly be him.
Eventually, however, every child learns that this is not true, that our parents were not always parents, that they existed in a time before we ever came around, however difficult that may be to wrap one’s head around. For me this happened when I was around 14 or 15. My sister had decided that it was time for her to pass on to me the great Tradition of knowledge that she had acquired over the course of her early 20’s, regarding my parents’ enigmatic lives and infuriating decisions. I remember the scene both vividly and vaguely at the same time. I cannot, for the life of me, recall the time of day when we had this conversation, or even its location. I can still see though, in some ways more clearly than the objects that surround me now, this strange mix of triumph and gloom that made up my sister’s face, as well as that peculiar sensation you have when you sense the true gravitas of a particular moment. Those moments that your body compels you to remember, even as you try, frantically, to erect some sort of emotional defense system to prevent this destructive story from embedding itself into your being. This story that could very well ruin your life.
My father was intensely devoted to religious Zionism, and dreamed of getting married and raising a family in Israel—a dream on the cusp of turning into reality. After marrying, he planned to make aliyah within the next six months. Until then, he would continue working at his father’s fur store, as he had been doing already for several years.
My father worked at the fur store along with his older brother, who had been employed there for years before my father began working. His older brother resented him, probably a result of the favoritism he received from their father. He had quickly risen through the ranks of the business, finally surpassing his brother, who did not exactly take too kindly to this change in status. His brother’s jealousy and hurt eventually bubbled to the surface, leading to a shouting match with his father one frigid snowy day, in that weird in between space that some stores have between the door that leads outside, and the door that goes into the store.
From inside the store, my father surveyed the argument, looked on at the bulging veins in his brother’s neck burning bright with rage, for all the world looking as though they were desperately trying to break free from the confines of their bodily cage, bellowing aggressively muffled white noise, while simultaneously gesturing furiously inside toward his younger brother. A palpable fear paralyzed my father, causing his body to tighten up, like a tree immediately before a storm, anticipating the ghastly and ferocious winds that are sure to rupture its roots, almost seeming to vibrate from its intense stillness. He saw his father getting agitated, screaming back, refusing to surrender. And that’s when it happened. His brother, words no longer enough, shoved his father against the wall in that small claustrophobic area, that area that both pulls you in and pushes you away, and stomped away into the twilight. His father didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything really—except slowly lift up his right arm to clutch the left side of his chest. In that moment, time became fluid, seeming to go fast and slow at the same time, and my father found himself next to the old man without any recollection of how he got there. He knelt down to where his father lay, slumped against the wall, body drained of energy, face drained of the anger that had but a minute ago been woven around the individual wrinkles lining his 61 year-old face. He lifted him into his arms, but as he lifted, the weight grew heavier and heavier. And then it was over. He was no longer holding his father—he was holding a limp body composed of dying cells and failed organs—a body, and not a person. He had stood by as the argument took place, was distant during the shove that lead to the heart-attack, and then held his father as he died in his arms. In his mind, a passive participant in his death.
My father didn’t move to Israel. Following his father’s death, which in some way he felt responsible for, there was no one to run the family’s business; no one to keep his father’s name alive. His mother asked him to stay, to run the business he had never wanted to run, and give up on his dream of moving to Israel. And so he did; sacrificing his most fiercely protected desire on the insatiable altar of familial obligations.
When I finished hearing this story, I felt like I finally knew my father. Well not necessarily knew—his eyes harbor secrets no child could possibly fathom—but understood. I now knew what happens to a dream not followed. It doesn’t disintegrate, like so many grains of sand, but turns on you, burrows itself into your very being, reminding you of what once was, but can never be again. I saw the price of sacrifice, and witnessed its reward every time I looked at my father’s empty gaze, a gaze that yearns for, and romanticizes, a One Thousand Year Sleep, a ticket out of the draining labyrinth that is his life. I resented my sister for showing me what can happen to youth, to passion, and to dreams. Showing what could happen to me.
Nevertheless, I was determined not to let that be my story. I had dreams of my own—places I wanted to go, ideas I wanted to experiment with, things I wanted to be—and I was not going to allow myself to be shackled by the chains of family. I too was caught in that weird in-between space of my father’s store—freedom, and the pure, burning, air of reincarnation beckoning through the outside door, just one final shove away, but family’s inescapable gravitational pull, sucking me right back inside. I had to get out. I vowed to never make the choices he made, to never be passive, and most of all to never sacrifice my dream for anybody, to chase it no matter the cost. I wanted to be a writer? Well goddammit, I was gonna be a writer. I wanted to leave my town? Throw away Orthodox Judaism? To hell with it all, and no one was gonna stop me. There was a sort of high to be had from making these dramatic declarations—the sense of power that surges through you when you believe that your words can shape worlds. God, my 15 year old self was such a badass.
But here I am, four, or five, years after hearing what could very well be my fate. I look at my life, and I realize, I’m scared shitless to chase my dream. I watch my life race by from a puffy leather chair in a local movie theater, passive in everything that I do, watching life happen to me. I sacrifice everything for my family. I want to be a writer? Apparently, the odds of being a successful writer are very slim, and the family needs financial assistance; so I’ll major in economics. I want to go to a regular university, meet new people, distance myself from Orthodox Judaism? The idea of a child throwing away their tradition is unthinkable; so I’ll attend an Orthodox college. Goals, experiences, my very identity, all dictated by what is best for the family. After living a life like this, I realize something. I can’t chase my dream. The concept is alien to me. I have to sacrifice for my family—it’s the only thing I’ve ever seen. But I cannot become my father. Except I already am my father.
Maybe there’s something comforting about following my father down his path of misery. I see my future, see what the next 30 years will look like, and while I may not like it, while it may be depressing as fuck, at least I know what it is. I feel safe. Dreams are our hopes for taking the universe as it is, and making it into something else. That’s terrifying. What happens if I fail? What happens if I chase my dream, and I’m just not good enough? Because when that happens, I can’t blame my parents for forcing me to sacrifice for them. I can’t blame my father for giving me a model of life that consisted of sacrifice and emptiness. I would have to look at myself, and figure out what and who I actually am. And I’ve never actually done that before. And to be honest, I never really want to.