Lessons From My Father
It wasn’t easy getting up from shiva for my father Thursday morning. All the support that you and the community gave me with your visitations, supporting the minyans and shiva meals was outstanding. Leaving the shivahouse was like a baby leaving the womb where all its needs are provided for. A baby cries when it enters the world not knowing what it may face just as I cried leaving the house as I walked around the block—not knowing how to face the world without my father. I’ve helped hundreds of people deal with and face the reality of the death of a loved one. But when it’s your own, it’s different.
Someone once said to me after a funeral, “Rabbi, I listen to your eulogies and you’re always saying how this person is so special and that person is outstanding and this one is unique. How can everyone be so great?” And then I remembered what my colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, once told me he answered to a similar question, and so I told him the same thing: “Don’t worry, when it comes your turn, I’ll lie about you, too!”
The truth is that I never lie when I give a eulogy. I look to find the good in the soul that has passed and every soul is holy and has some good—and there was a lot of good in my father. Sid Kunis was a holy soul who left the world much brighter, much better off for his having lived. He was a man who always took care of others. He took care of my mother Harriette until she passed 5 years ago—especially through 10 years of lung cancer surgeries and treatments.
Sid adored Harriette, idolized her—dare I say it—worshipped her. For 66 years he proved to be the best “go-for,” the best “honey-do” imaginable. They were not very demonstrative in their love in the usual way. It came out, I think, more in the way they spoke with each other—or better yet, more in the way they argued and spared and parried with each other—even over such little things. But there was nothing in the world that they wouldn’t do for each other. They even sat every day in their den in a special 2-seater couch-chair so they would be next to each other. And in their last few years together they actually fought to live just to take care of each other. Each one told me in confidence that they had to live because who is going to take care of the other one if they die? It was soooo sweet and inspiring.
And then Sid took care of my uncle Tep—his best friend from childhood who married his sister, who lived in the same building, who became ill after my mother’s passing. Imagine, Tep was 95 when my mother passed and my father who was 93 took care of him for 2 years! He made sure there was food in the apartment, that he ate lunch and dinner, that the aids would come and on time, that he would make it to his doctor visits…and that he would have company and someone to talk to every day—a 93-year-old taking care of a 95-year-old till my dad was 95 and Tep passed at 97! It was only when he had no one to care for and when he couldn’t get around so easily to find someone else to care for that he began to decline.
Dr. Stuart Bernstein—the pulmonologist who lovingly treated both my parents for years—summed it all up best when he said: “Sid taught me so much over the years. Sid taught me how to be a better husband as I watched how loving he was with Harriette. Sid taught me how to be a good friend because of the selfless way he took care of Tep, and Sid taught me how to be a better person—how he never spoke disparagingly about anyone, how he made everyone you met feel at home.” And just to show you he wasn’t just saying something nice, he also added that my mother taught him endurance!
My father taught us to be dedicated our people. As I shared with you at shiva, when WWII started, he lied about his age, left college and career behind so that he could fight the Nazis. Of course the Army sent him to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Although he wouldn’t like me telling you this, Sid was a war hero—an army/aircorps officer who then trained other officers—a navigator and bomber who flew 76 missions—25 is the usual limit. Once he returned in a plane that had over 200 bullet holes. He mapped New Guinea and was the chief meteorologist of the South Pacific for the Army.
After the war, as the State of Israel was struggling in its battle with 200 million Arabs, he was asked by the fledgling Jewish State to help found and run their Air Force. He wanted to go and would have if my mother—who had already lost her 1st husband in WWII and didn’t want to chance losing another—hadn’t stopped him. He did, however, use his army surplus business to smuggle arms to Israel. Later he became active and helped build his shul—Beth Shalom in Brooklyn—and became president and Chairman of the Board for more than 20 years.
My siblings and I learned from him to think and care about the world around us, to understand its ideas, be passionate and get involved. That’s why my brother Arthur got arrested protesting the war in Viet Nam and why I got arrested chaining myself to the UN protesting for Soviet Jewry. Arthur started out as a sculptor and a poet and wound up helping make the workplace safe for thousands as an OSHA inspector, as well as a volunteer for hospice care. My sister Suzy became a parole officer and then a therapist and I a rabbi and a couple’s therapist. My father made us feel like we could do anything we set our minds to.
We ate dinner as a family. Everyone had to be home for dinner every night at 5:30pm. Those dinners were sometimes spirited, but we were together. We may have disagreed politically or religiously and our voices were often raised… but we still loved each other, respected each other and remained a family. This is something many families today need to learn in our politically divisive climate. There was a family member who didn’t come to the funeral because my sister had voted for Donald Trump!
But most of all, we learned from my father how to be a mentsh. Everyone loved Sid Kunis because he was always polite and caring and giving—whether he liked you or not. May Gd bless us that we may learn from him to love and appreciate life like he did…and when we hopefully reach—Gd willing—our 96th year, may we be the mentsh he always was and drink al’chayim, as he did every day, thanking Gd for life. Amen!