As usual, I'm late picking him up. My father's still too gracious to take note of it, however -- even in the ninth decade of his life. He marches through the door of his apartment house lobby and never forgets to declare, "You look lovely." Typically I'm in jeans, while he sports a jacket and tie.
"Am I dressed appropriately?" he invariably asks, eyes twinkling, knowing he'll win swift and certain approval.
We enter the lecture room at the Ratner Bible museum in Bethesda, where we listen to various scholars, rabbis from the Foundation for Jewish Studies. Not that my father suddenly shares my interest in Bible study: A retired orthopedist, a scientist by inclination, a strictly nonfiction reader (you know the type), he would be much more at home at a National Institutes of Health lecture. It's just that Wednesday after Wednesday, he'd rather hang out with me.
"When Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, he is already 80 years old," the teacher points out. And when he dies at 120, his vigor is unabated. A merry grin settles over my father's kind face. "There's hope!" he whispers.
It's my place to be solicitous of my father, but I'm impeded by his enduring courtliness. If I offer him the one remaining seat, he urges me to take it and gallantly fetches a chair for himself. If I bring him a cup of coffee, he graciously accepts, then asks if he can get me more cream.
I take out my big yellow pad and begin scribbling notes as fast as I can. Likewise my father dutifully removes from his pocket a small medical prescription pad headed with his own name and address and begins scratching out cryptic notes in his always-illegible handwriting. But after a few frenzied minutes, he gives up and just listens. Soon his eyelids flicker. A shallow rattle emanates from his pursed lips. Yet I resist the urge to wake him. According to Genesis, Methuselah lived 969 years and Lamech lived 777 years.
"What does that show?" our teacher asks. No takers.
"It shows they couldn't count," my father pipes up, suddenly awake.
One day our teacher, a distinguished rabbi, relays a theory on the origin of the dietary laws forbidding shellfish and pork. Initially, the laws may have applied to the priests and only later spread to the people. "It wouldn't be fitting for a priest, who had to purify himself, to eat an animal like a shrimp," the rabbi poses, "because a shrimp is so . . . so . . ." The right word eludes him.
"So expensive!" my father trumpets, thrilled to come to the rabbi's rescue. The class explodes with laughter -- but, alas, our teacher is not amused.
Another day we study the Book of Proverbs, which instructs us not to get close to evildoers. Why would anyone get close to an evildoer? Our classmates swiftly respond: To appease him, or to benefit from his evil deeds. "To help him change for the better" is my father's soft answer -- a unique perspective.
In our last session, we examine the flood story. "Why is Noah chosen by God to build the ark?" the rabbi asks.
"Because of his gift for carpentry," my father suggests, completely serious. Not quite the answer to satisfy the rabbi, however, who was seeking something more along the lines of Noah being the one righteous man on Earth.
After 40 days and nights, Noah sends out a raven to determine if there's dry land. Yet the raven fails to return, prompting Noah to dispatch a dove. "Why did he have to send out a dove after he had already sent out the raven?" our teacher wonders. "Because the raven is no maven!" my father deduces. (It's obvious to him.) Chuckles all around. Even the rabbi smiles indulgently and pats his yarmulke.
I pretend to be slightly miffed that my father fails to take the Bible class as seriously as I do, but I'm secretly very pleased. I'm glad that even in his later years he remains true to his authentic self, the man he's been his entire life. My father does not ruminate about life, nor does he yearn to draw closer to God -- so far as I know. Instead he continues to devour his biographies and history books and explore his scientific journals with undiminished enthusiasm. And for meaning and joy and solace he clings to us, his family -- the people who love him.