A father with a daughter in his lap; vintage photo.

Confronting My Father’s Legacy

In my father’s obituary, the New York Times called him “one of the best-known rabbis in America” and described him as “a father of modern Christian-Jewish dialogue.” He gained  renown in the mid- to late twentieth century by participating in the Second Vatican Council, making speeches on human rights, and promoting humanitarian relief efforts. 

You would think that a rabbi of this stature, who preached on the world’s stage about caring for others, embodied these values in his real-life father role. Indeed, there was love between us when I was a child. My father gave me funny nicknames, made delicious matzah brei on Passover, and sat by my side at family meals. He once asked me to suggest a topic for his interfaith radio broadcast, and he smiled tenderly at my response. 

On the other hand, he often was absent from my day-to-day life, because he traveled for work much of the time. And although he was a rabbi, my mother was the parent who made sure that my siblings and I received a Jewish education. 

Even the positive childhood memories were eclipsed by what came next. My parents separated when I was eleven; apparently consumed by rage, my father turned against us during the divorce. I remember my mother keeping life as normal as possible for us, working part-time, and heading to court appearances. As my father’s occasional phone calls stopped, some new and very disturbing ones began. At different times of day and night, someone breathed on the other side of the line and hung up. Eventually, those calls were traced to my father. He was charged with aggravated harassment, but when his high-powered lawyer negotiated the charge down to disorderly conduct, the case was sealed, and the public never found out.

How did I feel about my father during those years? The situation was surreal. At the front of the stage, his influence as a faith leader continued to grow, while backstage, he was determined to stop supporting his own children. I learned to survive and didn’t talk much about this, but I felt angry and apprehensive: my father had turned into a bogeyman. At the same time that he championed the worthy cause of the “boat people” escaping from Haiti, a judge in the divorce case allowed him, our family’s breadwinner, to abandon us financially. I became so anxious about spending money, I thought twice even before putting quarters into a pay phone.

At the front of the stage, his influence as a faith leader continued to grow, while backstage, he was determined to stop supporting his own children.

When I was 16, I found myself face-to-face with my father. He physically cornered me, shifted the blame, and accepted no responsibility for our estrangement. As I hurried away for the last time, I understood that his reaction was consistent with a broader pattern of dishonesty and neglect. Twelve years later, he died; as an interfaith leader who, according to the New York Times obituary, “worked to heal nearly 2,000 years of mutual suspicion and animosity,” he had enjoyed a lucrative career. Yet, in his will, he left me just enough money to pay a few months’ rent, sending the clear message that he didn’t care if or how I would survive. Instead, he gave tens of thousands of dollars to foundations that would perpetuate his good name. That lack of financial and emotional support affected my sense of what I had a right to hope for in life.

Remaining silent in the face of such hypocrisy is a complicated choice. It may allow you to keep your dignity and avoid being maligned by a system that so often sides with the powerful. But silence brings its own trauma, and mine was on full display. As a young adult, when I said my name, people sometimes asked in admiration: “Tanenbaum? Is your father Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum?” 

My voice began to shake and crack, even in routine conversations. I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition that causes muscles in the larynx to constrict. My broken voice was a perfect symbol for the pain and outrage I had swallowed down for so long — collateral damage from my father’s cruel decisions. Ironically, he was a famous orator, and I could hardly speak.

Imagine how mortifying it was to be a living Rorschach test, waiting to see in every encounter how people would react when they heard me. Would they suppress a laugh, dismiss my words, or wonder if something was horribly wrong? The emotional burden of my broken voice weighed on me for decades, and I worried that I wouldn’t manage to support myself. It’s only because wonderful people continued to believe in me that I have been able to lead a meaningful life.

In this MeToo# era, I trust that it’s less common than it used to be for our court system and our Jewish community to ignore women and children who survive various forms of domestic abuse. Long ago, I had a father who loved me, but over time, his public image and his private conduct became completely disconnected. There are those who will remain invested in his legacy, regardless of what I have to say. All I want is for my account to be a part of the public record. Now, finally, it is.

Susie J. Tanenbaum’s publications include Underground Harmonies (Cornell University Press), the first book on New York City subway musicians and an article on the history of street performing for the Grove Dictionary of American Music. She holds a master’s degree in urban studies from Queens College of the City University of New York and is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

The post above reflects the opinions of the writer and not necessarily those of Lilith Magazine.