We celebrated my father's 100th birthday a few days ago. He was quite specific about how he wanted to celebrate: a Shabbat dinner with immediate family at the excellent Jewish elder-care facility where he lives; services the next morning where he received the Kohen aliya together with my brother, and I got to chant the haftarah, followed by a special kiddush for his fellow residents; and a celebratory dinner at a nearby restaurant with children, grandchildren, one great grandchild, nieces and nephews, some of whom traveled hundreds of miles to be there, his new life partner (my mother died seven years ago, and he has been fortunate to find a wonderful woman to share his life with since) and her family - 25 of us in all.
My Dad has lived a life typical of his generation: growing up in the Bronx in a far-from-affluent family; educated in public high school and City College; putting himself through dental school; marrying a super-smart Hunter College girl who went on to manage our house and his office; serving in World War II; returning home to start a practice and a family on Long Island. He had very little Jewish education, my mother even less. But, they joined a synagogue, got involved, became close to the rabbi and cantor, started learning, and after retirement became dedicated volunteers and adult education students. My Dad can no longer read the words in the Siddur or the Chumash, doesn’t hear well, and he's not especially pious. But, he still loves to learn - mostly video lectures that he avidly devours - and he goes to services fairly regularly because he likes some of the visiting rabbis and to sing along with the melodies he knows. He’s still mentally alert, with a remarkable memory.
What my father is above all is a good man, kind and generous, the living embodiment of Shammai’s injunction to "greet everyone with a cheerful countenance" (Pirkei Avot 1:15). I cannot remember him getting angry. He still answers the phone with a melodic "hel-lo," though if he isn't expecting my call, he sometimes can't place who it is that's calling.
I tell you all this because when it came time for him to make a brief speech at his celebratory dinner, he said something that surprised me, but shouldn't have. He said, "I'm so glad you are all here because everyone of you has made the world better in some way. Everyone of you has done tikkun olam." As I looked around the room, I realized he was right. There were teachers, mental health professionals, a physician, a public defender, other attorneys who work on public interest law and health care, a chef, a retired volunteer raising money for wounded veterans, a researcher on genocide prevention, a homeland security expert, and, yes, two Jewish educators (my daughter and me).
It says a lot about my father that what mattered most to him at this moment was being surrounded by people he perceived as trying to do good for others. It's also a reminder that in fact there are countless ways, both large and small, of making a difference in the world. One of the things I value most about Jewish teaching and practice is that these are not just about grand gestures. My colleague Cyd Weissman speaks about "quotidian Judaism," the Judaism of the every day. Yes, there are people doing tikkun olam in spectacular ways for which we must all be immensely grateful. But, there are others repairing small pieces of the world, in the way my father repaired cavities with care and compassion, more than once forgetting to ask for payment when he knew that to do so would cause a hardship for the family he was treating.
As a foundation we at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah are often privileged to support pace-setting, even heroic, work as we implement our mission to help people use Jewish wisdom to live better lives and shape a better world. But, it's comforting to know that one doesn't need to be a hero to make the world better. We can do it from wherever we stand, in small, but significant ways.
Oh, and if you're wondering what it takes to reach 100, my Dad says it's pretty simple: keep breathing.
To a hundred and twenty, Pop.