Learning To Exist in a World Without My Jewish Dad

If I were to write my dad a card this Father’s Day, here's what I would say.

As the world prepares to celebrate the secular holiday of Father’s Day through a barrage of Home Depot commercials featuring George Foreman grills and flash sales on fishing equipment at Dicks Sporting Goods, I am encountering an unfamiliar anxiousness. A holiday that once filled me with an overwhelming sense of pride as I would scour the aisles at CVS in search of multiple Father’s Day cards, because just one couldn’t match his eclectic personality and dry sense of humor, now leaves me feeling broken. My father, Ned Goldberg, z’l, died less than six months ago from metastatic prostate cancer. He confronted his own death the way he lived — with conviction.

About a month before he passed, he told my brother and me that he wrote his own eulogy for us to read at his funeral. Before we had a moment to react, he began with a Yiddish phrase: “Man plans, and God laughs.” He followed this with a moment of levity: “I promise, this will be short,” which was surprising given his verbose statements regarding just about everything else in life. We chuckled hesitantly, unsure how to behave. Amidst our own sadness and emotional discomfort, we listened intently for two minutes as he carefully read the statements that would serve as his final wishes for his life, concluding with the words: “My biggest regret in life is leaving you all at age 72.” When he finished reading, I started to cry. My father has always been my guide. Now, as he neared the end of his life, I could only think one thing: How can I be in this world without you?

My father was extraordinarily eclectic. While other fathers took pride in their sleek power drills or shiny cars, my father found tremendous meaning in the mundane through his vast collection of rocks and fossils, dozens of rabbinic trading cards featuring prominent rabbis, and two dozen turtles, dozens of fish, and two salamanders: Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat. My father had a story archive containing 72 years of stale Jewish jokes and repeatable memories. He began each one with, “I’ll never forget this story…” because he believed each moment in life deserved to be celebrated. Ned was a self-proclaimed social media influencer who simultaneously used his Facebook page to build community amongst turtle enthusiasts and fossil collectors, and to share his pride in his childrens’ accomplishments with statuses like: “Son, Adam, 13 runs race in record time, daughter, Jodie, 15 leads Conservative service… what a great day to be a Dad.”

His gregarious personality and zest for life is what initially drew people to him, but his kindness and radical empathy for others is why people stayed connected with him for years to come. This was evident as he spent his entire career elevating the lives of Jewish children throughout the South as he served as the Executive Director of The Jewish Children’s Regional Service for more than 30 years. Many people never really knew how sick he was. He claimed there wasn’t time. Deep down, I realized it pained him to know that others would ever have to worry about him.

The time between my father’s diagnosis and his death presented the most harrowing pain I’ve ever experienced amongst the tedious logistical conversations that present themselves when a loved one gets sick. There were frequent late nights, numerous hospital visits, a myriad of uncomfortable conversations and eerie moments of silence. Everyone had an opinion about how we could fix this situation. It was as if a car engine had suddenly malfunctioned in the middle of a highway. Yet the truth lay in recognizing that we could call AAA, but they contained no spare part that could mend our broken hearts. And then there was hospice, a process created to optimize the dying’s comfort. The irony was in my own father’s comfort, I’d never felt more uncomfortable, as if I had lost my own voice and, at moments, my own ability to breathe.

I’ve never known intimacy the way I experienced it in my father’s final hours of life. Our family completely surrounded all four sides of his 36”x 80” hospital bed, holding each other and gripping onto him as if this would lessen our own emotional distress. Moments before he passed, he shed a single tear followed by a final breath. And with his death, it felt as if pieces of my own identity had died too. No longer would I hear him yell, “Jodles,” his nickname for me from birth, from across the hallway just to tell me he loved me that day. My father was just so proud of me for sharing my most authentic self with the world. Amongst moments of self doubt, who would be there to remind me that my voice matters?

At the end of shiva, a seven-day period of Jewish mourning, I was confronted with my greatest nightmare: I had to start existing in a world without my dad. I wondered, “Who am I without you?” I was physically depleted and emotionally paralyzed, and yet, Judaism teaches us that even in our own extreme discomfort, we must find a way to walk around the block at the end of the shiva period. So I did, holding my breath for the new reality that came next. Channeling my father’s conviction, I am attempting to take small steps forward, and yet some days it feels insurmountable.

As a way to feel close to my dad, I’ve started writing down every moment I want to share with him. It’s in those moments of deep connection that I feel hope that our conversations will continue in very unconventional ways through old memories, symbols, stories and travel between space and time. If I were to write my dad a card this Father’s Day, I would say: “While I will forever mourn the person who I was with you, I am the person I am today because of you. I love you, Dad. Until we meet again.”

Courtesy of Jodie Goldberg

Jodie Goldberg

Jodie Goldberg (she/her) is a Jewish educator and writer living in NYC. Jodie’s family has written a picture book entitled, “The ABC’s of Ned” to commemorate his life which is available for purchase here. All proceeds benefit The Jewish Children’s Regional Service (JCRS) the non-profit where Ned devoted his career assisting Jewish Children across the South.

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