I feel a little unsettled this Father’s Day. It’s an odd feeling — of loss and strong obdurate silence where once there were words, sounds and a linguistic joie de vivre.
My father, Robert Perloff, a bombastic and loquacious connoisseur of words and language (Yiddish as well as English), died in April of respiratory failure at Magee-Womens Hospital at the age of 92. An emeritus professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, he was an insightful iconoclast and indefatigable contributor of letters to newspapers. He loved language and puns, irreverently, if enthusiastically, emailing a word play he particularly enjoyed, like the rabbi who is reported to have said, “let’s win this one for (the) Yom Kippur.”
Growing up among Jews in Philadelphia, he developed an ear for Yiddish phrases and cultivated them with glee. When he came across words such as schlep, kvetch or big macher in the newspaper, he would send me the clipping, underlining the word and kvelling about the ways Jewish culture had made it into the American mainstream.
A couple of years back, I received an email titled “L’Shana Tova.” His wish for a happy New Year contained a variety of Jewish ditties to be sung to the Casablanca classic, “As Time Goes By.” Here is one he delightfully came across and forwarded to me:
“You must remember this,
A bris is still a bris,
A chai is just a chai.
Pastrami still belongs on rye,
As time goes by!”
My dad was not particularly religious. But he was a cultural Jew, who cherished Jewish expressions, respected the bountiful achievements of American Jews, and took irrepressible joy in sharing the linguistic, aesthetic, and intellectual attainments of Jews worldwide. When in Cleveland, he relished our delicatessens — their pickled odors, in-your-face waitresses, nonstop bustle, and cornucopia of delicacies. He never met a corned beef on rye he didn’t like.
He bequeathed to me a love of language, infatuation with Jewish idioms, and an appreciation of the multiple, enriching contributions Jews have made to this country. Growing up in Indiana, which, decades ago, offered a homogenous, vaguely intolerant attitude toward Jews, I was introduced, courtesy of my father, to memorable Yiddish words — and to the spirit and sparkle that Jews have injected into the bland conventions of American life.
On this Father’s Day, I sense the silence — the absence of my father’s chortles, bombast, letters to the editor poignantly protesting social policies and his email celebrations of Yiddish expressions. He loved the teeming fecundity of Jewish culture, its verbal richness and the gastronomic vitality of delicatessen — think Weinstein’s and Gazebo — offerings. But we must move on.
When I hear Yiddish expressions, I can hear his chuckle of delight. If I told my dad I was kvelling about the accomplishment of a noted American Jew, he would immediately take note of the word. A day later I might receive a clipping of a newspaper article that used kvell, with the word circled and a prideful exclamation mark attached.
(Rick Perloff, who received his master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, is a professor of communication at Cleveland State University and the author of books on persuasion.)