Thursday, February 27, 2014

When A Priest Remembers his Russian Jewish Father or Sadness at a Hospital Bedsidep

I was sitting by his hospital bed. He was dying from a painful cancer of the mouth, after years on chewing on cigars, the hall-mark of the vaudeville performer of his era.  He was my father, Morris, the eldest son of Schmule and Hannah Rosenbloom, who had come from Bialystock, which was Russia or Poland, depending on which country held  territorial possession in the ping-pong political world of the late nineteenth century. They came here for many reasons and many hopes, one of  which, I fantasize, was a desire to practice their Faith freely,  to be “free at last” from the  brutal repressions of the Mother country,               

I, the Catholic priest, deeply  committed to my own religion with full belief  in its claim  to be the unique and fullest expression of God’s self Revelation, had  assisted many of  my flock to die. I had offered the comfort and courage of the “Catholic” Christ to those leaving this life for entrance to a “better place.”      But none of these Catholics came close to the love I had for my father whom I could not help as I had the others. I could not help him. He had, in one of those bedside moments, told me that he wished he knew the answers of life. And I, the articulator of meaning, the Guru, the psychologist became the essence of frustration. I was blocked. What was so clear to me was not so to him. I could not reach that area of  his soul.
 He had married and adored his bride, my Irish Catholic mother, who was pretty, lively, laughing, gregarious whose every wish he strove to fulfill. Except that he join  us in our attempts to live  what we saw as the godly life. They were   show biz people.  She, starring for years in the Broadway ginmill, the Metropole as a popular singer of the Ethel Merman style, with a huge memory, featured in the Bob Ripley “Believe it or Not” column, and he, a novelty dancer capable of  doing the impressive and difficult “Buck ‘n Wing”  which always brought “ down the house.”  He had done Shakespeare and slapstick and straight man/ comic and even had been invited to be the partner to Gracie Allen. B. G.—before George. He did it all with gusto and abandon all the way to his old age.
He had met many of the priests whose community I would later join, good men of intelligence and integrity. None made any impact on his thinking. His strong  willed stance was beyond  Catholic logic and mysticism. There was something very powerful at work in his psyche,  outside our ken. One of my brother priests asked him directly  as he lay dying “Would you like to become a Catholic?” and my father, ever the independent thinker,  said: “ No. My wife and children are Catholics and I am glad that they are happy in it.” This was his honest position.
So, when some well meaning but poorly informed, if not stupid, priest, in response to my mother’s tearful lament that Morris was not Catholic, surreptitiously baptized my comatose father.  Oafishly, he squeezed water from a face cloth upon his forehead and mouthed the words of Baptism.. When I heard of this, I lost my calm and exploded. I felt this was an attack on my father’s personhood and an enormous disrespect for his conscience. Not only did this cleric brutalize my father but he actually trampled on his own Faith by knowingly (he couldn’t be that  ignorant)   administering a Sacrament, invalidly. Still, I suppose, it is kinder to say that he acted out of stupidity or misplaced zeal and not malice.
As I sat by that bed, I was 53 years old with a very heavy heart, flooded with images from the past. I saw him playing catch with me on 61st  street near San Juan hill and teaching  me to box with huge 16 ounce gloves  gleefully taunting me to try to  hit him and  giving  me the dime to make the movie before one o’clock. I saw him teaching me how to study and how to do research. I saw my rebellion against him when he made me perform on stage in theatres. He made me dance an Argentinian tango, with my sister, costume and all, in a comedic, mimicking rendition of his classy, authentic one with my mother which  “wowed” the house immediately before. And I was 5 years old and my sister was all of seven! I hated it!
I saw how I hid under the bed at show time to escape my vaudeville chores in the Borscht circuit where we spent summers as the “Social staff.”  He made me dance on stage and take part in skits and Bingo-like evenings for fat, old ladies and balding gents in funny looking shorts who patted me on the head. Here he taught me the vaudeville dogma: The Show Must go on! It doesn’t matter how you feel.  Top of the world or flat in the dumps. Like it or not, put on a smile, get out there and do your job. He taught me that life is not a silver platter, that we work for what we get. In a sense, he echoed S. Freud who argued that the meaning of life is work and love.
When I was twelve or so, caught in the romanticism of the priesthood, like many a Catholic kid, I wrote on  my copy book, Father James Lloyd.  He saw it and went into a frenzy.  He had always been extremely  gentle with us.  I had seen him deck an offensive loudmouth backstage with one  punch but with my sister and  me, he was tender and gentle, no matter what we did.  Strict about “bad” language yet he would hardly raise his voice to us. But here he screamed and shouted as he almost violently erased the scribble from my book. I couldn’t understand his reaction.  Why? What had I done to open his fury?  It took me years to understand, even superficially.
It was centuries of genes speaking  and history and discrimination and injustice and disrespect and frustration and a kind of tribal loyalty erupting from years of repression. It probably enmeshed a huge frustration that he, the father of  two children, had little to do with  their spiritual formation.  He shared a railway flat with six Christians where he was overwhelmed with (to him)  their strange practices. There was no way, as a child, I could understand the dynamics of this complex matrix. I, thoroughly frightened by his a-typical behavior, took my little kid spirituality and buried it deep within my own soul. So, my sister and I continued to luxuriate in our rosaries and holy water and holy cards and signs of the cross and jangles of medals lapping around our necks. We never asked questions but simply followed the mores of our circumscribed society.
But the ultimate jolt to me (and him) was when I, at 21, told him that I was entering a seminary to “try it out.” He virtually exploded! He previously had assured me that he could get me an Army commission even with my limited ROTC training. When I persisted in my intention, he thundered: “You are no longer my son.” I was shattered and devastated-- over and above my then insecurity and doubt. But, somehow, I went ahead. I emotionally revisited this pain years later when I saw Tevyev in Fiddler on the roof shun his own daughter for marrying a Christian “out of the Faith.” My personal experience had all the dimensions for such an explosion.
Ironically, I was doing what he taught me to do. Think my own thoughts. Make my own decisions. Follow my own star.    The psychologist in me says that I had ingested—unconsciously—his own independence and  stubbornness. A strong “something “ in me—I call it the “Call from the Lord” Himself-- kept pulling  at me. God’s grace coupled with the Morris Rosenbloom syndrome made that Call irresistible.
How it must have hurt and confused him! Now, I, in my dotage, can ask, did we, especially me, unknowingly flood him with guilt and self recrimination?
Morris Rosenbloom was a good and sincere man caught between two Goods which he cherished, one, his ancient Faith which paradoxically he, under the seductions of the theatre, had abandoned at 21 years of  age,  and, two, his deep personal love for his own wife and children. His resolution of the dilemma, i.e., to permit his children to be Baptized and raised as Catholics, was made, no doubt out of love for us. It, nevertheless, must have brought him profound inner turmoil and some deep sadness.  Viscerally, had he violated some deep and ancient loyalty by marrying a Shiksa? Had he, on some deep level, played the traitor to his own Tribe?
His hidden inner tension must have generated deep pain which he masked with his theatrical skills. How could he give up his family of origin? Something of his very identity. Yet, how could he give up his little family which he loved intensely? Yet he did give his progeny over to a religion some of whose vicious members historically practiced so much repression and injustice on his people. That his children were Christians was difficult enough but that his only son would become a priest!
This was intolerable!  Psychologically, how could he, how did he survive this balancing act? This series of contradictions and antitheses. Whichever decision he made would carry sadness and perhaps even regret. But, I know he had a very strong basic ego with strong insistence that one should follow his own star—not someone else’s. He ,alone, made that  decision.
 In any event, the Rosenbloom family, with good intentions devised some kind of shared conspiracy by telling my very Orthodox grandparents that  Morris lived in a club for theatre people similar to the Friars or the Lambs where he supposedly lived to be close to his business but would return home for the weekends. When he would go back to the “Club” after a Sunday Rosenbloom dinner, Hannah would maternally slip an orange into his pocket  and remind him to be careful crossing the street.  (The source for these tidbits is my cousin David Chotin whose family shared the apartment of the senior ones.) It needs no psychological training to sense that such a situation would breed dynamics so painful that they would seep into lives of  others, like my sister and me.`
Meanwhile, he lived with a group of good, if simplistic, hard working  people. They were devout Irish Catholics who were seemingly unaware of his conflict. They were generous people who laughed through their days with their  “Catholic sunshine.” They enjoyed his good humor as did most people he met. But he had to feel a kind of existential and painful loneliness. My Irish grandmother doted on him so much that when she died, Morris who hid his emotions so skillfully, uncharacteristically, had an extremely difficult time dealing with this loss.
So seriously did the Rosenbloom family pursue the whole fiction that my 22 year old mother, pregnant with me, was approached by the elder daughter of the clan with a strong “hint” that for everyone’s benefit  the “bump” should be removed at their expense. She would always refuse to discuss this with me while my in formation was gotten from my Jewish cousins. Regardless, as might be expected I am eternally grateful to that simple Irish lass. It is patent why graphs and statistics and psychology   are not the reasons I am Pro-Life. I have enjoyed 92 years of joy and laughter and experience. If I had been “terminated” as activists like to euphemize this gruesome procedure, I would have missed a great life. In this case, the anecdotal example is more persuasive to me than statistical studies
For years, I struggled with my own resentment at being denied knowing  my grandparents. Who was to blame? My father? My mother? My Jewish family? The era? Who knows? The  French adage says that to know all  is to forgive all. Without knowing “all”, consistent with my own Faith. I pray for grace to forgive while at the same time pray for the energy to be thankful for the marvels which have entered my life.
So, I was ordained a Catholic priest  which ceremony, my father refused to at tend. He did see me off when I left on a tiny freighter bound for Capetown where I spent seven exciting but difficult years. On my return as a weather beaten, tough missionary. I found things very different. He had softened. He would carry my picture in his wallet to show the guys who hung around the Palace theatre on Broadway.  He would brag  about Father Jim ( that was me!).He and I would go for late night walks after I finished at the Information Center for an ice cream soda. He so relished this relationship that he quizzed my Mother why we didn‘t do this before?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
When I was meeting with an Orthodox Rabbi and his two rabbi sons after I had baptized his adult Jewish daughter, all my confreres were awed by my bravery,  but it was my father who stood outside the Conference room  should I need any help! Not confreres but a religious outsider. Was it not ironic? My Jewish father joined me, his Catholic, priest son in an alliance against what he would have seen as his own very ancient tradition? How does one explain this? Isn’t there a deep and powerful drive of a parent for his child which trumps everything else? It isn’t who is right or wrong. It is the profound call related somehow to one’s own DNA .         
Our rift was truly healed when I joined him in some show biz gigs. I had hosted a television show on WNBC  for years and somehow  persuaded the big guys at NBC to do a Christmas show starring my mother and father. My mother, called the orig inal Strawberry  Blonde from the popular Metropole Cafe on 7th avenue and 49th street and her husband Morris the old time novelty dancer. I threw in a few ringers each year to placate the “Upstairs guys”, like   Florence Henderson and Cyril Richard and Johnny Desmond but I was really bringing back the old Vaudeville team, Lloyd and Ardell (Mom and Pop). My father, with the inevitable cigar stuck in his mouth, floated! He even joined us –on set—singing Christmas carols.
Our relationship became so close that twice without invitation or suggestion he came  up to me when I was saying Mass and received the Eucharist from me. I made a rapid consult with the Holy Spirit wherein I decided Morris would get Communion unless the Lord Himself shouted a negative order. There were many others there to see this and I would not for any earthly reason deny him.
But wait! What happened to all that anger and fury and isolation? I can only guess. Apart from the proverbial powerful grace of a loving God, it was the profound natural love of a father for his only son. 
By some kind of strange osmosis, I absorbed some understanding of his earlier disappointment. It was Names. I had no recollection of being James Rosenbloom since our name change came when I was 2 years old. I was always Jimmy Lloyd. By a  curious twist of things unforeseen, I was the only one who could pass on my father’s name, Rosenbloom or Lloyd. Through my progeny. This was his chance for immortality.
Further, he was upset that I would be excluded from marriage which was itself a tragedy for him. That I would never experience the joys of sexual love with a woman seemed utterly sinful to him. A viewpoint highly consistent with the ancient Jewish way. So it seemed to him that I was not only stupid but selfish and brainwashed. I would never enjoy my own children and simultaneously deprive him of immortality and deny him the joys of grandchildren with his name. So he blamed my Church for it all. It was a very dark time in my life.
But sitting at that bedside though full of` sorrow and much regret, it still somehow came together for me. He forgave me my insensitivity and self absorption, even warning me to avoid the modern “stuff” going on in the priesthood. “Stay where you are,” he said, noting the priests of that era who were abandoning ship. In fact, he was very astute.  Priests, some unbelievably  immature, others acting as adults sought what grass  seemed  greener on the other side of the fence. In the end he was proud of his son, the priest. He wanted me, as his son to be the priest.
So, I and brother priests whispered into his ear:  “God loves you, Morris, God loves you.” And so he died. We gave him a spectacular Funeral with scores of priests, nuns and Brothers and many laity, his friends, and whatever family could attend. I had asked a Rabbi friend of mine to attend and say some Jewish prayers in the big Paulist Church for Morris Lloyd Rosenbloom. He reluctantly had to decline because in his mind Morris became a Catholic when he received the Eucharist from me. While I was initially disappointed, a strange peace hit me. My brother cleric, the Rabbi, had somehow assured me of something I had long prayed for---Morris, like me, felt and accepted the great tug toward God.
The irony and mystery of it. The young Jewish tap dancer dies in the embrace of the loving God. He had been the rebellious acculturated finger snapper who made fun of religion and piety. But nonetheless, God was there for him in his final trial. It is so obvious to me. Anyone of good will, Morris and Schmule and Hannah and Flanagan and tucci and Lopez and the Hindu and follower of Mohammed, anyone can expect the flow of eternal love from the Lord. All that is needed is the good heart, as we saw in Morris--------the determination to do “the right thing” in whatever way one sees  “good” and  true and beautiful. The subjective “right” thing.
In my own old age as I face crossing the Great Dark River myself , I, Jim Lloyd  (nee Rosenbloom)  priest and psychologist, the one with the yiddisher kop and the Irish heart  proclaim to my world my gratitude to my God for so, so  many things, one great one of which is th

1 comment:

Barbara Braunstein Wilson said...

Father Lloyd, that was beautiful and so moving! I have known you for so long but never knew this story about your Dad