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Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. Headshot

Fathers Day: Lessons From My Fathers

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My father died when I was four years old. I woke up one morning to discover that my whole world had been turned upside down. My house was a house of mourning and my older sister and I were suddenly surrounded by grief and sadness, loss and fear of the unknown. People came and went as if in a daze, and I remember huddling together in the bedroom wondering what the future would bring and what having my father die would mean for the rest of my life.

Of course, at four years old I didn't have a very sophisticated view of death and dying. I kept thinking it was like he went on a long trip, and maybe one day he would suddenly reappear in the driveway, or come walking through the front door. I didn't really understand the permanence of death but I knew that he was no longer there, no longer tossing me up in the air, putting me on his shoulders, or sitting down on the floor hugging me to his arms. The loss was indescribable, a kind of emotional desert with an endless, gnawing anxiety stretching as far as I could see into the future. Yet at age four I had already learned one of the most important lessons of life from my loving father -- that life itself is unpredictable and you need to live each day as fully as you can because you never know what the next day will bring.

In the midst of that grief, it was my grandfather who stepped in to become my second father figure with his own, unique presence and brand of wisdom. I learned a lot from my Grandpa Manny. He had a particular view of life that included working hard for what you got, never taking anything or anyone for granted, and regardless of the challenges that life brought your way, always having an attitude of gratitude for the blessings that were yours.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned is what I like to call, Grandpa Manny's Maxim. Grandpa Manny always used to say, "Don't wish for fish, fish for fish." He taught by word and by example that if you want to have something you had to go out and get it. If you wanted to make something happen, it was up to you to create it. He loved to fish and I have fond memories as a child of standing on the beach of Santa Monica while he cast his long fishing line out to sea, stuck the pole in the sand and then waited for the tug on the line that would indicate dinner had arrived. I learned not only the valuable lesson that "If it is to be, it's up to me," but the importance of patience and faith at the same time. It took both to fish and both to get through life one day at a time, realizing that the best way to make sense out of life was to create the life you want to live.

And then one day something remarkable happened. My mother met an amazing, gentle, soft spoken man named Jack Reuben who wanted to marry her and become my father. I could not believe it. It was like a miracle happening right before my eyes, and suddenly in the midst of my despair the pain of loss was lifted and I felt whole once again.

My parents married and my sister and I were formally adopted by our new father and got a new lease on life. In many ways it was like being born again. Even though I would always cherish my biological father and keep him close to my heart (and as a child constantly look to the clouds and wonder if he was up there somewhere looking down on me and protecting me from harm), having my new father was the greatest blessing and gift of my life.

So on this Father's Day I look back on the last 58 years of having Jack Reuben as my father and thank him for all the life lessons that he, too, passed on to me throughout my life. He taught me that it's never too late to do the right thing, and that sometimes what you need in life is simply a strong, quiet, confident presence to hold you safe until the storms of life pass. And he taught me that love takes many forms.

He taught me that biology isn't everything, but loving is. Sometimes it comes in the form of coaching the baseball team, and sometimes it is standing up for your child when his constant motion and inability to sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time continually lands him in the principal's office of one school after another. From my father I learned right from wrong, and that love means volunteering to be the boy scout leader and chaperone on camping trips into the wilderness, whether you like to camp or not. I learned that a father's love is telling you that even though your report card wasn't that great, he knows you have great potential that one day will shine. He encouraged me when I wanted to learn to play drums, and I ended up Principle Percussionist of the Sacramento Symphony. He encouraged me when I decided to become a rabbi, and I have had a fulfilling life career for the past 36 years. And of all the lessons that I have learned, he taught by his life and example that the most important gift you can give to anyone is simply showing up and being there. His most precious present to my life was his presence in my life. So on this Father's Day I am grateful beyond words to all my fathers for the lessons they taught and the blessings they gave.