Mein Yiddishe Papa: In defense of dad

Mein Yiddishe Papa: In defense of dad

By Ed Harris

Households across America this month celebrated Father’s Day. June, with its “Dads and Grads,” is probably a great month for Hallmark, especially now that most of humanity has embraced Facebook as a way to offer free birthday congratulations, a transgression I have committed more than a few times myself. You can get away with posting an online birthday greeting for most friends and relatives. But when it comes to parents, the Fifth Commandment — honor thy mother and father — has been interpreted by the rabbis to mean, at a minimum, a card, a gift, and depending upon geography, either a visit or phone call.

Dads are clearly regarded as the secondary authority figure in the average heterosexual two-parent family. This is true in popular culture generally, and especially in the Jewish community, where the term “Jewish mother” is iconic. The classic Yiddish song “Mein Yiddishe Mama” contains uplifting lyrics that compare a saintly Jewish mother, always ready to sacrifice for her children, as a “gift from God.” Note we dads don’t have a song of our own. If we did, it would probably ask whether the trash had been taken out or if we had done anything about the dashboard service light which came on last week in the minivan.

We dads enthusiastically relish this junior authority status. “Go ask your mother” is my general default response to any question requiring parental judgment.

When our kids were younger, they fought a lot, just like everyone else’s offspring. Sibling rivalry is the oldest story in the book, literally. According to the Torah, the first nuclear family in the history of the world contained two brothers — Cain and Abel — who famously could not get along. This theme was repeated a few generations later with Jacob, who tricked his brother Esau into giving up his birthright for a steaming bowl of lentil stew (before I became a vegetarian I would have entered into a similar bargain for the right corned beef and pastrami sandwich) and then in the very next generation when Joseph’s brothers, consumed with jealousy, threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. I am not familiar with the sacred books of all the other world religions, but I suspect most of them contain similar tales of siblings who could not share their toys nicely, with significant consequences for the rest of humanity.

In our home, whenever the roof was about ready to blow off the top of the house from the general commotion, I would calmly reassure my wife, “Don’t worry, if they need us to intervene, they’ll come downstairs.”

My placid demeanor, intended to have a calming effect, only made my spouse more hysterical.

“No wonder you never get worried. I’d be relaxed too, if I had your attitude,” she’d say. “You just sit there and do your crossword puzzle and tune out the rest of the world. Why do you think I’m so stressed out all the time?”

Yes, my point exactly.

Dads also expect greater recognition for their contribution to family responsibilities. However, this may be more than merely old-fashioned male ego. According to a recent study by a University of British Columbia researcher, the extent to which fathers participate in household chores has a significant impact on the career goals of their daughters. Dads who do more housework, according to the study, tend to have more ambitious daughters. See, honey? That’s why I make such a big fuss and expect a round of applause every time I unload the dishwasher or do a load of laundry.

My kids are now adults, or nearly so, but they love each other enough to engage in the occasional squabble. Fortunately, the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times has an especially large, complex and challenging crossword puzzle. I only solve it about half of the time, and doing so takes hours. What’s a four-letter word for “torpid”? It starts with an “l” and the last two letters are “z” and “y”. And it may be the clue to being a successful father. Just ask my wife, once she’s done untangling everyone.


Ed Harris, the author of “Fifty Shades of Schwarz” and several other books, was born in the Bronx and lives in Bellevue with his family. His blog, Fizz-Ed, and additional information about his books are available at