Lessons from Dad

Me & Dad


It is amazing how much life takes place in a relatively short of amount of time.  Three years ago, I blogged about my aspirations as a parent and a principal on this exact same day on the Jewish calendar – on the morning of what will soon be Kol Nidre and the beginning of Yom Kippur.  They feel newly appropriate.  Three years ago we were new to this community, this synagogue and this school.  We had had a great transition and were full of excitement about what the future would bring.  We had plans, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns and a whole host of other emotions.

And I had a father.


Of all the myriad of changes that has taken place between now and then, this one looms largest even though it is sometimes difficult day-to-day to always understand how.  There are days when it feels like it happened years ago.  There are days when it feels like it never happened.  And there are days where it feels like it is happening all over again.  I am assured that this is all normal and I am sure that it is.


Now that I have been blogging for a few years, I am sometimes moved to revisit prior posts and see how they hold up over time.  Occasionally, I am inspired to update in light of new realities.  This is one of those times, as I revisit words of prayer written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from his Likutey Moharan (2:7) that now speak to me with the same words, but with new meaning…

Dear God,

teach me to embody those ideals

I would want my children

to learn from me.

Let me communicate

with my children – wisely

in ways

that will draw their hearts

to kindness, to deceny

and to true wisdom.

Dear God,

let me pass on to my children

only the good;

let them find in me

the values

and the behavior

I hope to see in them.

I now read those words of three minds – as a son who lost a father, as a parent of two and a principal of many.  It reminds me why our faculty handbook quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, saying, “We need to have more than textbooks, we need text-people”. We can have the best books, most well though-out curriculum, and the most sophisticated technology – and hopefully we either do or will soon – but without the right people what does it really amount to?

And we can have read all the best parenting books and have our children in all the best schools and extracurricular activities – but without us parenting as our best selves, what can it really mean?


Among our traditions during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  For my part, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.  I look forward to working on myself to be the best “me” I can in the upcoming year.  For me, my mother, my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my teachers, my students and their families – I hope this year to live up to the words of Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Heschel.

And I hope to take the lessons of my father of blessed memory to heart as I now follow his footsteps on the journey of my own fatherhood…


To everything there is a season…


Life does move on…

A friend who came last week to pay a shivah call who had recently lost a parent of his own, shared with me that although you would think the goal of shivah is to provide the mourner with ample quiet time to grieve, reflect and reminisce; that, in fact, it is to exhaust the mourner to such a stark degree that any return to normalcy is welcome.  I do not believe that explanation is sourced in Jewish tradition, but I do second the emotion.

And so I have returned to school, to work, to synagogue and to life.  Return is bittersweet – I am glad to be home and welcome the opportunity for meaningful work to fill the void grief left behind.  But it also makes it way too easy to forget that I am still grieving.  I am embracing Jewish grieving rituals – continuing to wear the keriah after transitioning from the shivah to the sheloshim, attending minyan daily to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, refraining from participating in overly social or joyous occasions, etc., – because they provide opportunities to remind me that I did, indeed, lose my father and to reflect upon all that that means.  And after sheloshim comes the rest of a year of mourning…and I will explore how I intend to commemorate that phase when I enter it a few weeks hence.  But now it is time to turn my attention back to matters at hand and what is at hand is the beginning of an exciting school year at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School as faculty and staff prepare to return on Monday (!) for an action-packed “Pre-Planning Week”.

 The Transparency Files: Pre-Planning Week

At the beginning of the summer, I blogged about our expectations and plans for faculty to use their summertime for professional growth.  I blogged about my summer reading and how it has impacted my thinking heading into another year.  In the spirit of transparency, I would like to share with you what we will be thinking about and working on next week – a week dedicated to ensuring the first day, week, month, etc., of the 2013-2014 school year is full of wonder, discovery, meaning and success for our students.

Here’s the scoop:

Monday, August 12th

9:30 – 10:00 AM                                 Continental Breakfast & Welcome Activities

10:00 – 11:00 AM                                Team-Building Activities – The Transition Cafe

11:00 – 12:30 PM                                Work in Classrooms

12:30 – 2:00 PM                                  PTA Preschool & Day School Lunch & Teambuilding

2:00 – 3:30 PM                                    Lower School & Middle School Faculty Meetings


Tuesday, August 13th

8:45 – 9:00 AM                                    IT

9:00 – 9:30 AM                                    Student Advisory

9:30 – 11:30 AM                                  “7 Habits”

11:30 – 12:30 PM                                 Student Advisor Meeting & New Faculty IT

12:30 – 1:30 PM                                  Lunch & Learn w/Rabbi Olitzky

1:30 – 2:00 PM                                    HR w/ DuBow Preschool Faculty

2:00 – 3:30 PM                                   Work in Classrooms


Wednesday, August 14th

8:30 – 9:30 AM                                   Brunch & Learn w/Rabbi Lubliner

9:30 – 10:30 AM                                  Summer Book Club Groups

10:30 – 11:30 AM                                “Square Peg” Alum & Mom

11:30 – 12:30 PM                                 Lunch [JS Faculty Working Lunch]

12:30 – 3:00 PM                                  Hebrew Faculty Webinar  

12:30 – 3:30 PM                                  Work in Classrooms


Thursday, August 15th

8:30 – 9:30 AM                                   How to talk to parents about “Square Pegs”

9:30 – 10:15 AM                                  “Wonder”

10:15 –12:00 PM                                  Work in Classrooms / MS Faculty Meeting

12:00 – 1:00 PM                                  Lunch

1:00 – 3:30 PM                                    LS “Meet the Teachers” & MS Work in Classrooms


Friday, August 16th

8:00 – 9:00 AM                                    Final Nuts & Bolts

8:30 – 11:45 AM                                  Middle School Orientation

9:00 – 9:30 AM                                    Final Fine Tuning

9:30 –12:00 PM                                   Work in Classrooms


A few things jump out at me…

You can see that Square Pegs has taken on a life larger just one of the books from the Summer Book Club.  A number of teachers and administrators have read it and we believe its message has great resonance for our school.

You can see our belief that the 7 Habits may provide a common language for students and teachers to continue our 21st century learning journey .

You can see in “Student Advisory” the first tangible fruit of having an in-house Community of Kindness Coordinator.

You can see our ongoing commitment to Jewish learning through our “lunch and learn’s”.


But more than anything, I hope you can see our dedication to lifelong learning, our desire to be our very best, our devotion to our craft, our love for children, our passion for education, our acknowledgement of our sacred responsibility to teach, our respect for the whole child, our emphasis on personalized learning, and our promise to deliver “a floor, but no ceiling” for each child we have been entrusted with.

I say it each year, but only because I sincerely mean it.  This year is going to be our best year ever.  And that is because of who comes walking through the door Monday morning.

Welcome back MJGDS Faculty & Staff.

My father, myself…

My father, myselfIt has been only four days since my father passed – only two days since his funeral – and it still hardly feels real.  We have been overwhelmed by the amount of well-wishes, prayers, words, and deeds of consolation that have come pouring in from our families and friends from all the many stops life’s journey has taken us.  It is impossible to convey the gratitude we feel towards those who have taken the extra step and gone the extra mile.

I managed to get through the eulogy I delivered on Monday and a number of people who were there and an even larger number of people who were unable to be there have requested a copy.  I realize that a significant number of people who read this blog do so for professional purposes.  And although I do occasionally weave personal anecdotes and information through my posts, I typically shy away the overly intimate.  But life is not so easily compartmentalized…

Last week, when I thought things were headed in a positive direction, I blogged about how I believed this experience would be make me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better person…and most of all, a better son.  I am still hopeful.  But that last one will be awfully bittersweet for an awfully long time…

To my father…

My father was in the best shape of his life when he passed.

This was an irony that was lost on no one, including him, during the week he spent fighting back against the stroke that eventually took him from us.

“Why get in such great shape to have this happen?” he said in the hospital.

At the time, I believed it was to give him the strength to survive it. To suggest that it was to give him – and us – sufficient time to say goodbye today seems cruel, but perhaps in time will be a comfort.

It is easy to make fun of my father.  He certainly had his shticks.

Expressing his political opinions too loudly at the risk of confrontation was a frequent occurrence.  Hopefully heaven has MSNBC…

Treating each part-time tax return like a full-time job.  Hopefully heaven has an Internal Revenue Service…

Eating cereal with warm milk was a daily meal that never seemed appealing to the rest of us.  Hopefully heaven has Cheerios…

Reading book after book after book after book.  Hopefully heaven has a Nook – and good customer support…

A childhood filled with such puns as “Jerry Rice and his brother Fried”.  Hopefully heaven has a generous sense of humor…

Baseball caps and T-shirts from wherever he had just visited. Hopefully heaven has a gift shop…

Checking his messages with obsessive regularity well into retirement.  Hopefully heaven has voicemail…

Taking out the garbage was the one household chore he could be counted on to perform. Hopefully heaven collects the trash…

Changing hotel rooms to avoid noise or the potential for noise was commonplace. Hopefully heaven has a corner room…

Nicknames for the ones he loved most.  Hopefully heaven has my dad…

But my father was more than shtick, although it wasn’t always easy to see.  Expressing his deepest emotions did not come easy for him, but there was never any doubt they were there.  He understood his primary role in life was to take care of his wife, his sister and me and the successful performance of that role was his greatest pride.  Even through their darkest times – the lost pregnancies of my youth and the lost jobs of my teenage years – he was there to protect us and to shield us from life’s difficulties.  He took it all on and mostly kept it all in.  He would bear the weight so we would not have to.  Maybe that took such a toll on his heart that it didn’t leave space for some of the words we sometimes wanted to hear, but his actions spoke loud enough.  It now falls to us to ensure those actions continue to speak on his behalf so that his memory endures.

When I delivered my grandfather’s eulogy eleven years ago, I expressed gratitude that he had lived long enough to see me married and regret that he had not lived long enough to meet his great-grandchildren who were not yet.  Oh how he would have loved our Eliana, named for his wife, and Maytal, named for him.  One of the last things my father said was that he planned to bless the challah at Eliana’s wedding as his father had done at mine…

Oh how he loved his granddaughters…they were his pride and his joy.  Getting down on the floor with them and playing in the pool were his greatest delights.  My father’s father was such an important presence in my life and all I ever wanted for my father was to have a chance to be the same in the lives of my children.  My heart breaks to know he will not have a chance to watch them grow and it shatters to think that they will not have a chance to really know him and that, perhaps, they will be left years down the road with few memories of their own.

These last years were good ones.  For that I will be grateful.  He was slowly coming to terms with retirement and striking the right balance between keeping busy and finding purpose.  He was proud of his work with the IRS and with H&R Block and with good reason. He was proud of his volunteer work with NARFE and within our Jewish community.  He traveled to Israel for the first time and many trips were planned.  He was working out regularly, had lost weight, and was proud of his newfound strength and energy.  He had spent his whole life working and working and thinking about working and now it was time to finally relax and enjoy his wife, his children – for Jaimee truly was the daughter he never had, and his grandchildren. And in the space between his 44th wedding anniversary and his 71st birthday, his time simply ran out too soon.

And so it is left to those of us who knew and loved him best to keep his memory alive.  I am counting on you to share your stories with me and my children so they will always have their Grandpa to guide them, to protect them and to inspire them as they grow up in a world diminished by his absence, but better off from having had Michael Mitzmacher – shticks and all – in it.

“You know I’m going to be like him”



My father had a stroke Thursday night.

We got the phone call early Friday morning on our way up to pick up our oldest daughter, Eliana, from Camp Ramah Darom.  (I blogged two weeks ago about camping and the power of experiential learning.  Suffice it to say that her one-week “taste” delivered on all accounts.)  By the time my mother called, he had successfully had surgery to remove the clot from his right brain and was recovering in ICU.  After much conversation and thought, we decided that I should continue the trip as planned through Sunday and that instead of driving back with my family that I would fly out to Las Vegas on Monday morning.

Which I did.

When I arrived Monday to the hospital, they had just hours earlier removed the tubes for breathing and feeding.  I had missed the very worst, but what I had was bad enough.

My parent’s 44th wedding anniversary is tomorrow and my father’s 71st birthday is weeks away.  He will, thank God, be here to celebrate both.

First the status report.  He suffered a classic “right brain – left side” stroke.  This means that physically his left side is at risk for deficit and that emotionally his personality is at risk for irritability and unfiltered-ness.  Luckily he was already pretty irritable and unfiltered, so I feel good about his recovery to full “Mitzmacher”.

He has made a remarkable recovery these last few days.  He is eating.  He is sitting up. He has begun walking.  He has use of his left leg, arm, hand, etc.  He can speak and he sounds more and more like himself each day.  He has all his memories intact.  He knows who everybody is, knows what is going on in the world, and when awake fully lucid.  His vision out of his left eye is slowly coming back and, if it does not come back all the way, and that is the worst that comes out of this, a blessing it shall surely be.

I flew back on the red-eye Wednesday evening and as of this writing, he continues to make good progress, with the inevitable setbacks that come with his age and with the significance of the trauma he has suffered.  I am planning my next trip out to visit and hope that their next trip to us will be Thanksgiving and that we will by then truly have a lot to be thankful for.


I am writing this blog post, in part, because life required me to share this event with enough people that I wanted to take advantage of this vehicle to provide some sort of update and to thank all the people that have (and all the people who now will) reached out to me, my Mom, and our family with their well wishes, thoughts, prayers [my father’s Hebrew name for healing prayers is Mikhael ben Esther] and offers for help.  It has been overwhelming and overwhelmingly appreciated.  We will inevitably forget to include someone in this thanks and hopefully this will provide us with blanket coverage.

But I am also writing this blog post because it is impossible not to be impacted by this kind of experience.  Because there is nothing more clarifying than experiencing family pain.  There is nothing like watching your parents’ love to remind you to cherish the love you are lucky to have.  There is nothing like watching your parents’ vulnerability to encourage you to treasure your children.

To say much more will push me into cliche.  I have nothing to offer by way of wisdom that others more wise have not already said.  I simply pray that as a result of this unplanned and unwelcome reminder of life’s fragility that I will be a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better educator.

And I am grateful to still have a chance to be a better son.