Yitzhak Taub, 1927-2014

My beloved father, Yitzhak Taub, passed away on his birthday, January 17, 2014. I wanted this eulogy to be saved somewhere, even in this electronic day and age.

Had my father thought that I would stand on his grave and say he was a righteous man, he would not have been pleased. My father had an aversion to self-righteousness, and a suspicion of righteousness. If there was ever a moral lesson he insisted on – and succeeded in – teaching me, this is it: Gadi, beware of do-gooders.

So I’m not going to say he was righteous.

But then how to explain the fact that so many people looked up to him, for his opinion and judgment, with such deep respect, sometimes in awe?

We could say he was wise. And that’s true. He was exceptionally wise.

We could say he was generous, and that too is true. He was exceptionally generous.

We could say he was honest, and, indeed, his reputation for honesty reached far and wide.

We could say that he was independent minded, and once again, it would be true. He was uniquely free from the opinions of others, which is also what made him sometimes distant and hard to reach. But independence of mind too, is not it.

If I have to pick one word to describe what made so many people love him, and hold him in such high regard, that word would have to be “decency.”

I think that my father was decent to a very rare degree. I never met a more decent man than he.

Decency is a more modest and less flashy trait than righteousness. And it is more important too. Because decency knows how to balance, in a humane way, between abstract principles and two other things: recognition of human weaknesses, and loyalty. The ethical stance it describes is therefore deeper, wiser, than the coldness of principles when they stand alone.

It is not easy to balance these things, and they often collide. But my father knew instinctively, steadily, deeply, to choose the decent thing over others. And people were grateful for that. It is why so many can’t forget him, even those who knew him for a short while, a long time ago.

Decency is not a lukewarm compromise between principles and flesh and blood human beings. My father’s judgment was often piercing and stern, and his conclusions far from easy to follow. Decency sometimes demands lifting heavy weights, doing difficult things. But righteousness, as anyone who lived and walked and breathed in the twentieth-century knows, can easily turn to cruelty. Decency, though it can be stern, is never cruel. It leads to the human, and points away from the absolute.

My father had a sober faculty of good judgment even as a young child. He was born in Bratislava, in 1927, and lost his mother when he was 12 years old. Not long before her death, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and my father remembered the German officers who came into his family’s apartment to ask for water. They needed it to cook pasta outside in the courtyard.

A thoughtful child who read newspapers, my father urged his own father, still broken from his wife’s death, to immigrate to Palestine. They traveled to and fro in ships, for months, and no country in the world would let them ashore.

I teach courses on Zionism and I’m familiar with the controversies over it. I know the different arguments to justify it, and I believe that when all is said and done, it is indeed just. But my own Zionism is instinctive. It precedes arguments. Because I cannot forget this picture: a Jewish boy, my father, who has only water under his feet, who has no piece of land under the sun to stand on.

After months of traveling, Yitzhak and Yahezkel Taub, my grandfather, arrived in the Land of Israel, as illegal immigrants. They were arrested by the British. My grandfather joined the British army, and my father was put in the care of a foster family, then in boarding school. He later joined the Palmach. He lost four fingers in one of the first battles of the War of Independence, on January 17, 1948.

He then completed his matriculation exams, and enrolled to study law and economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I now teach. He eventually became a high ranking civil servant – the Secretary General of the Bank of Israel, then the head of Israel’s Securities and Exchange Commission. Being a Labor man, when Likud came to power he was replaced and henceforth barred from such high offices. He could have turned to the private sector, he got many tempting offers, but he flatly refused. He came here, he said, to build state and society, and he wanted to serve the public, in more modest ways, if need be. This wasn’t a hard choice for him. It was born of passion, not just a sense of duty. And when passion and duty converge, it isn’t hard to make up your mind. This is how, aside from his work in journalism, he became the CEO of Mosad Bialik, a public publishing company, entrusted with preserving and cultivating high culture. He retired from that job five years ago, at the age of 82.

It would hardly be a surprise that we – his friends, his children, his wife – cannot really grasp the fact that he is gone. The death of a father is not one discreet, circumscribed fact. It is a myriad of interconnected facts, because a father is woven into your fabric in countless ways, countless pictures, countless experiences, and many shades of emotions. To try and understand his absence is to try to imagine that fabric if all these were suddenly torn away. And you cannot do that. Not just because the one fact, his death, is difficult to grasp, but because tearing all these out of yourself means, in truth, that you would not be able to recognize your own self.

My father told me, after his bypass surgery, a few years back, that one intern came to him as he was recovering and said, “Mr. Taub, I held your heart in the palms of my hands.” He was very moved to hear this. I was moved to hear about it too. My father’s heart. I have never held it in my hands. But I will take it with me wherever I go. Because this heart, not the physical one, but the metaphorical one which was the inner life, the character, the wisdom and the emotions of this man, is woven into me – into us, his wife, his children, his friends – in numerous ways. This is why the fact of death, final though it may be, cannot tear him out of us. He is part of the materials from which we are made. And that part is important, central, if we are to navigate through life in his way, without malice and without self-righteousness.

My father lived the way he wanted to live, and he died more or less the way he wanted to die. Without becoming a burden to anyone, with no pointless suffering, surrounded by love. There are complicated and bitter good-byes. This one is not complicated. It is certainly not bitter. It’s only sad. My father knew how much we loved him, and he knew too that we know how much he loved us.

Regrettably, I don’t believe he’ll be watching us from above. But I can still wish ourselves that we would know in the future, that if he did, he would not feel we let him down.

May he rest in peace.

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