Five Important Life Lessons I Learned from My Jewish Father

My father, Lenny Leibowitz, passed away in October 2011. He passed peacefully in the way of many good Jewish fathers, as a semi-retired lawyer in the Florida night. It was very sad to lose my father early in life but with time, grief has turned into celebration. Lenny grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in the 1950’s. He became my father later in life, at age 47 and as such had a great many lessons to teach me.

In honor of Father’s Day, I’ll share five important lessons I learned from my father.

Lesson #43: The top three buttons can always be ignored.

Lesson #43: The top three buttons can always be ignored.

1. Salad is a waste of time.

You chew and chew and chew, and what do you get? Nothing. Very little return on your chewing investment. Do yourself a favor and eat a steak.

2. Your hometown sports team will lose, a lot. And when they do, it’s their fault.

Since moving to the Midwest, I’ve observed some of the most fervent sports fans in the world. Of particular note are those sweet, ultra-lovable Green Bay fans who quietly and graciously cheer on their beloved Packers. So deep is the love for their team, so solid is their belief that the Packers are a team of unstoppable destiny, that they temporarily dissociate from the reality that their team could lose every Sunday. And when they do lose, it couldn’t possibly be the Packers’ fault, right? There was that terrible referee call in the second quarter. Aaron Rodgers ate a bad sandwich last night. The other team is clearly cheating. The Packers deserve to win whether they did or not.

My father’s fandom was just the opposite. His team was the New York Giants, and his relationship can best be described as mutually abusive. Sure, the Giants would win sometimes, but Lenny never started watching a game with that assumption. To him, the purpose of their playing each football game was to break his heart.

The Giants are winning? They will find a way to lose this game. 

The Giants are losing? They don’t deserve to win this game.

The Giants were losing, and now they’re winning, and could accomplish an amazing comeback victory? They will find a way to lose this game, because they don’t deserve to win this game.

Now, while many may find this a pessimistic way to watch your hometown team, I’ve come to learn that it’s simply the most realistic. The most annoying thing about Packers fans is their unwillingness to accept the team’s responsibility for defeat. Lenny understood that your beloved, hometown, underdog team can suck sometimes. He went into every game expecting them to lose, and so when they did, he was fine with it. When they won, it was a pleasant surprise. But usually they didn’t deserve it.

Yep, it's breakfast.

Yep, it’s breakfast.

3. Breakfast food must be consumed as the first meal of the day.

One of my favorite childhood traditions with my father was weekend breakfast at our local Upper West Side diner, the Three Star Cafe. As I entered adolescence, I would often sleep until noon, then woke up ravenous. He would always, without question, wait for me to wake up to eat. I figured at that point, your meal choices are wide open — anything from cereal to sushi is pretty much okay. One Saturday, after sitting down in our usual booth, I announced what I intended to order: a cheeseburger for lunch.

“No, no, no, Max. You should have eggs or pancakes or oatmeal. It’s breakfast,” my father chided.
“Dad, it’s almost 2pm. I think it’s OK to have lunch.”
“Have you eaten yet? Is this your second meal of the day?
“It’s my first meal of the day.”
“Then it’s breakfast. Breakfast is the first meal of the day, and the first meal of the day is breakfast,” my father declared.

And so breakfast it was. The idea that someone could, at any point, wake up and immediately have lunch, was absurd to my father. And I still live by that credo. Thinking back on it, I have a hard time imagining how he dealt with the notion of brunch.

4. Ties and socks are unnecessary.

Lenny was an accomplished and highly respected labor lawyer. He loved and understood his clients and he was a brilliant union negotiator. His presence at the bargaining table struck fear into the hearts of management. Yet despite his impressive aura, there was one glaring omission to his wardrobe. “Ties are uncomfortable. Why would I walk around with a noose on my neck? ” my father grimaced. Because of my father’s sartorial distaste I still, to this day, do not know how to tie a tie.

His abstention from socks, especially in the winter, was a matter of pride. A former swimmer and lifeguard, Lenny loved summers on the beach. His desire for warm weather was matched only by his utter distaste for the cold. (Indeed, he never visited me here in Minnesota after October, or before May.) Yet rather than simply giving in to the cold and wearing appropriate attire, he protested. He never wore a winter hat or gloves, or even boots. It was loafers all year round. And socks? No way.

“If I wear socks, then winter wins,” he declared.

5. Never miss an opportunity to embarrass your son.

It was the spring of seventh grade and the entire school was gathered to recognize outstanding academic achievements, with proud parents watching from the back. Teachers presented various awards in the sciences and humanities. When the time came to honor the top scores in the National Latin Exam, I perked up. I knew that I was to be honored with a magna cum laude. My esteemed and mysterious Latin teacher, Dr. Vitale, approached the lectern:

“The National Latin Exam is taken by our most advanced Latin students. The test consists of 30 questions. This year, three students achieved high honors. With a score of 28, Jeff Nusbaum received a commendation of cum laude…” The audience applauded, and Dr. Vitale proudly shook Jeff’s hand as he presented his certificate. He continued: “With a score of 29, just one question wrong, Max Leibowitz received a commendation of magna cum laude…” I smiled and stood up, ready to receive my honor and the bask in the respect of my classmates. Then suddenly, from the back of the room, I heard this:

“How come he got one wrong!?!?!?”

Parents burst into laughter. Students looked around, puzzled. Teachers smirked at each other. My face turned an unfortunate shade of “get me out of here.”

My Dad was fucking hilarious. And I learned the value of impeccable comedic timing.

In memory of the best Dad ever, Lenny Leibowitz, I wish everyone a Happy Father’s Day!


Want to kvetch, kibbitz or kvell? Email me at [email protected].