Speech by Rina Neiman given at a memorial for her father, David Neiman, on November 1, 2004 in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In his public life, my father was tremendously accomplished. He wrote, studied and read constantly. To my father sitting down to read a book on the history of the cosmos, or an 18th century biography of Pope Leo X was light reading. He cursed television as a waste of time and a few years ago got rid of his big TV and the cable.
At 77 my father sold his house in Newton and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his daughters and also to escape, what had become at this point in his life, the unbearable New England winters. “Retirement” for my Dad meant pounding the pavement in his sunny new hometown to look for teaching opportunities. In Los Angeles he found a willing and eager group of students. At one point a couple of years ago, he was teaching classes at St John’s Seminary, Loyola Marymount College, as well as the University of Judaism. “My dance card is full!” he would tell me when I’d call from San Francisco. He even went back to studying Talmud at a Yeshiva every evening. To my father this was living.
A year ago August, I flew in from the East Coast for two weeks to help him through his radiation treatment. Even though he was enduring a ten-day course of radiation therapy for his cancer, I drove him to and from his three classes at the UJ through the entire treatment. At that last lecture, he stood for three hours and lectured to a rapt audience, all the while holding on to the table, the blackboard, for dear life. At the end of the class, looking extremely pale, he whispered to me “I didn’t think I was going to make it. If I would have sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get up again.” A few days later he ended up in the hospital and my husband and I drove back from the East Coast to help take care of him.
That visit to the hospital would be one of many over the next six months. We turned the study in his two-bedroom Studio City apartment into a second bedroom. We brought back the big TV and the cable. One of us was with him every night until he passed away. We cooked him breakfast, lunch and dinner and made sure that he had all of his favorite foods in stock. We kept the place clean and started organizing his papers and books. We wanted to make sure that he could do what he wanted to do, and he wanted to keep teaching.
In the fall, he had to stop teaching at the UJ, but still led three private bible study groups. He taught an occasional class here and there when he could. In January, a month before he died, he even made it through one of two lectures at a UJ elderhostel. Too sick to make it to the second lecture, my sister Becky, negotiated that she would come over and set up one of his taped lectures to play for the class, if they agreed to pay him his full fee. They agreed. He was thrilled.
These last months of his life, were probably some of the best, and hardest, for all of us. For the last few weeks of his life, his apartment was filled with friends and relatives. We all tried to fulfill his every wish. If he mentioned a movie he wanted to see, we would buy it on Amazon and have it delivered the next day. We even made an all out effort to find an advanced copy of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, to no avail. But he wasn’t too bothered. He knew that story really well. On the day he passed away, he had everything that he wanted—he was in his own home with his family by his side.
In March, Becky and I started cleaning out his apartment and office. We sorted and organized the 4000 book library that he donated to Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. We filed and weeded through thousands and thousands of papers that he saved starting sometime in 1948. We always had an inkling, but now we knew for sure – he never ever threw anything away.
When we started this task, I suggested that we start with the closet, thinking that since none of us would wear the suits that he favored, it would be pretty easy to get rid of this stuff.
Well, it wasn’t.
It started with the ties that I used to give him. Whenever we asked my Dad what he wanted as a present he would answer “A tie.” “But that’s so boring!” we’d complain, even though we knew he didn’t need or want anything special. (The only times I ever heard my father say he needed something was when he wanted a particular book.) So, I decided to keep buying him ties but with meaning. I found this Babylonian tie in London. This Bayeaux Tapestry tie in Washington DC. At the airport in Atlanta I came upon this hyroglyphics tie, and the one here (that he seemed to favor, although he called it wild and bright), is adorned with letters from the Syriac alphabet. How could we just get rid of all this stuff?
I had a brainstorm. “I’ll make a quilt!” I told Becky, and with a huge sigh of relief, whenever we came across some piece of clothing that we didn’t know what to do with, we’d throw it in the box marked “QUILT.”
My last sewing project was sometime in the seventh grade, but that fact didn’t deter me. I said I was going to make a “quilt” and I was darn sure going to do it. I bought a sewing machine on Ebay for $20.00, a sketched out a design, and this is the final product.
So, briefly, I’d like to tell you a bit about my father’s personal side through his clothing.
I’ve already mentioned that the ties reflected his interest in history and art. In the center of the piece is a pompom from one of his high holiday rabbinical hats. Surrounding that is a pinwheel made from the yarmulkes that he favored. He loved the gold and silver embroidered ones the best, but being my father, he also like to fix them himself, and he would buy gold and silver brocades for that purpose. They never came out like a thing he envisioned, but that never stopped him.
As many of you know, my father wore suits and ties almost every day. He hiked in a suit and tie across the dunes of Santa Cruz with me. He went to the famous Venice Beach in Los Angeles to see the beach front body builders and roller bladers, in a suit and tie. He ran errands, went to the grocery store, and taught – all in suit and tie. This panel here is made up of a piece of one of his suits.
You’ll notice that the shirt cuff that’s attached here is slightly dirty. Why would I do that? Well, my father, although incredibly dignified, was not necessarily the most fastidious about his wardrobe. When Becky started to record his lectures a few years ago in LA, a couple of his students wondered why she couldn’t make sure his shirts were clean. This drove her crazy, because, seriously, what parent is going to let his daughter dress him anyway?
Knowing this, when I got there in September, I thought, OK, I’ll try and keep his shirts and suits clean for class. So, I took his shirts to the cleaners, had them pressed and starched. Within one wear, the cuffs would be black. This happened over and over again. Exasperated, I confronted him one day. “What do you do that gets your cuffs so black??” I said. He looked at me and explained that everyday, he reads the entire paper and does the crossword puzzle, and during this process, the ink rubs off on his shirt. “That’s why,” he stated. Now, for those of you who knew my father, you know that he had an amazing memory and command of history. He also had an amazing knowledge of current events and was constantly pointing out how something that was happening in the world today, had already happened before. In that moment, I realized that the black cuffs were just a side effect of his vast knowledge gathering, not something to be ashamed of.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s, my father led several archeological digs to Israel. These were always great for my family, because we got to spend the summer in Israel with my mother & father’s extended families. This shirt is from that time period, and is one of the rare times in his life when he didn’t wear a suit.
This ratty yellow fabric here is from his old ratty yellow bathrobe, which we all hated, but he felt made him look like a Roman Centurion guard. Becky replaced it with a luxurious white robe, which took the place of his usual suits for those last six months.
Much to our horror, every winter my father would start to work on his Russian fur hats. He would go down to the Hadassah Thrift store and buy an old sheepskin coat for $5 or $10. He would then begin to construct one of his hats. They went from somewhat presentable to downright embarrassing, but that didn’t stop him ever. He loved to make those hats. My sisters and I were thrilled when we realized that in LA he would never need a winter hat again! I’ve adorned this leftover piece of fur with the labels from his rabbinical robes.
Now, whatever anyone thinks of this quilt, or fabric art, I know my father would love it. I know he wouldn’t mind that my stitches weren’t straight or my hems crooked. I know this because these last two panels were taken from his work pants, pants that he hemmed himself. Yes, there were times when my father eschewed the suit and tie, put on a pair of jeans with a funny hem (again, to our horror) and worked in his woodworking shop. Sewing was not his forte, but he got the job done nonetheless.
I also know he would love this because my father was an artist. Starting at a young age, he wrote poems in English and in Hebrew and was especially proud of his acrostic poems. He took voice lessons for years and even performed in concert. He studied Hebrew calligraphy and began to write ketubot. For a while he made candles out of crayons, and then there was a long phase during which he decorated home made pencil holders with spray paint. One time when I came home to visit he had painted a counter weight orange, stuck it in a frame and called it “Narangement.”
My father appreciated art for art’s sake — as an expression of an inspiration. And that’s what this is.
I also know that he would love this because he had unconditional love for his three daughters, no matter what we did, how crazy the things were that we pursued. Whether he understood them or not, he always believed that we did a great job, and was so proud of that. That is an incredibly hard thing to lose.
I miss him very much.