Today is my father’s – Julius Groner – yahrtzeit (the day marking his death) six years ago. I want to share a few of his precious qualities.
One friend called my mother a day after his passing and said, “Your husband was the most genuine person I ever knew.” That pretty much sums my father up. His genuineness was the central axis around which all of his other qualities turned.
His love was genuine. One person said, “He could talk to anyone. He was gentle, down-to-earth, totally accepting and understanding of people, and at the same time a true scholar.” Another person commented, “Every time I met him he was always in good spirits. He was curious about a lot of things, a good natured person, never got angry, took things as they came. He had very strong feelings for others.” Or another: “He always had a smile every time I saw him, very gentle and sweet.” And another: “He was “soft spoken, intelligent, one of the very few people about whom I say, ‘I just love that man.’ Your Dad was a wonderful person.” People found him fascinating to talk to because he was so enthusiastic about life.
His caring was genuine. His reaction of “Oh my…” when hearing of a tragedy was so heartfelt and so real that it cut straight through my own heart. His “Wonderful” when hearing good news put me on top of the world with joy. If you needed him to do something you just had to say the word and it was done…yesterday!
His combination of being so gentle and so very logical at the same time helped many people. One great story from his army days – When he was in the U.S. army many years ago, his company was supposed to go overseas. The officer asked him if he could type, and if so, he could type in some names and let some of the soldiers go on furlough to be with their families for a week or two. He said yes, he could type. Little did they know just how fast my father could type. He went into the office with the cards. From early in the morning, he sat and typed in the names of everyone in the unit at 100 words a minute, one by one, until he’d typed up the whole company. That night they all showed their passes and went home. The next morning, the officer and my father were the only ones left standing at roll call. The army was furious, but there was nothing they could do.
Another army story – Because of being called up to the army he had almost but not quite finished his tests for rabbinic ordination and therefore they sent him a certificate anyway. So he got this certificate in the mail, and he looked at it and said, “I don’t deserve this,” and he tore it up. Had he taken it, he would have been the chaplain. He did not know at the time that the unit he would have been in was sent overseas and they were all killed.
My father didn’t like arguments, and he always wanted to keep the peace, because of the value of it. He never seemed to need anything for himself, and he could easily forgo things, and say, that’s okay, let someone else have it. He felt nothing is that important that it’s worth getting into arguments.
But when it came to helping someone he knew how to argue on their behalf. He was a lawyer for small businesses and one of his associates told me about how my father did his last work for him selling the orange juice plant. “The last work Julius did was central for selling the plant. He drew up a contract of 1 ½ pages and they came back with twenty pages from their lawyer. He went through the whole thing and wrote over and over ‘non-applicable.’ He said, ‘These are the terms of the contract, and if you don’t want to accept it, the deal is off.’ He put a contract in very few precise words. They knew they couldn’t get around it. He had such a great command of the legal language.”
Another one of my father’s habitual expressions was “that’s the right way” or “that’s the way it should be done,” “that’s the sensible thing.” In this sense my father was remarkable. There are people who are outer directed, and adapt themselves to what the other person wants. And there are those who are inner directed, which has the advantage of being driven by values, but brings with it a certain rigidity sometimes. My father acted on his values, yet you didn’t feel rigidity around him. His surety was for himself. He had no hesitation, no trouble making up his mind, but that didn’t get in the way of his being understanding of others.
He once pulled strings to enable a man from Korea to immigrate and join his family living in America. The American immigration office in Korea wouldn’t let him in to the U.S. My father spoke to them day after day early in the morning – calmly, patiently, until eventually when he saw one person start to bend a little, he wrote something nice about him to his superior. Then another worker asked if he would write something nice about him, too. Eventually, he got them to agree to let the man immigrate. He didn’t get discouraged. These are the kinds of things that anyone else would have given up on long ago. But he never gave up and he never lost his cool. And he achieved the impossible. The man was able to join his family.
Besides wanting to help people, he also didn’t want to bother anyone, didn’t want to cause any pain or difficulty for anyone in any way. He never worried about himself, just everyone else. He would talk to me on the phone when he was so very sick, and he would just start asking about us. Then he told us about his condition and what procedures are being done, so we’d know things are being taken care of, so we wouldn’t worry.
He really enjoyed life, embraced life, especially the simple pleasure of family. He would come to visit us and sit with a grandchild on his lap and he was content. He didn’t need anything else.
He was an avid reader. He liked to relax reading detective stories and he went through the whole set of Wodehouse. When he was growing up, he would walk a mile to the public library and take several books out, and go the next week again. They couldn’t afford toys, so he read. When he was in law school he would carry a baby on one shoulder and a book on the other. I remember well my father’s enthusiasm about the book he wrote for his PhD in history from Loyola University. It took him about ten years, and he was 78 when he finished it, but that didn’t bother him. He put his mind to doing it, and he did it. He didn’t care how long it would take, or the fact that he did it while he was busy with a full day’s law work and teaching and other obligations.
He had perfect bitachon (trust in G-d). He truly believed that he needed to act as if it was entirely up to him, while at the same time know fully that it is entirely up to Hashem. He said that we just have to trust in Hashem – the eibishter he would sometimes say. This total trust made him do everything he could do for a person with infinite patience and perseverance. Nothing threw him. Nothing mattered but doing what he had to do. If he could do it, he did it, and if he couldn’t do it, then it wasn’t in his control and there was nothing to worry about. He had the humility of knowing that he was really only a tool in Hashem’s hands, and if it didn’t work this way, so he would try doing it that way. He had time. He wasn’t pressured. He wasn’t worried at all about how things would turn out in the end. That was up to God. He just did what he had to do.
The last four days were a kind of prism reflecting the meaning of his whole life. He asked to be buried next to his in-laws and not his parents, because they provided residence for my parents when my father came out of the army and couldn’t afford a place of their own. I imagine he also wanted to defer to my mother being buried both next to him and to her parents.
Monday, the first day after coming in to Chicago from Israel I came in the room, and it was clear to me that this was the end. I reached over and gave him a hug and kiss. He was so happy to see me. I was happy too, even though it was very hard to see him like in the condition that he was in, but there was something very special in our meeting, that cut through to the soul level. He sat up a little on the bed, and he wanted to know what all of my kids were doing, and what I was doing. I told him Nechama is playing the recorder. He said, “Get a better instrument.” This was one of his lifelong teachings. Go for the best, reach for the stars; develop yourself to your utmost potential. Don’t compromise and settle for less. He was filled with pride hearing about how Avi, the Bar Mitzvah boy, learned a difficult Tractate. “He’s smart, eh?” I told him all about Avi’s Bar Mitzvah. I went through each of the kids, one by one and talked about what they’re doing. He was so proud of all of them. “Tell the kids I love them,” he said. Then he said, “And what are you doing?”
Tuesday, I overheard him talking to my aunt on the phone: “I’m in the final stage now. It’s all up to Hashem.” – Who talks like that when they’re about to die?!
The medical staff were asking if we wanted to do dialysis. They said it would be painful and they were trying to dissuade him since there wasn’t much point. Still, he said “That’s okay, I’ve suffered so much already from the treatments what does it matter if it will be painful? And he added, “It won’t help, but they should do it.” This was my father’s classic “It’s the right thing to do” attitude. His values were clear and his values guided him until the end. (They didn’t do it by the way. He passed away four days later, early Friday morning.)
He also complained on that day that he didn’t want to hear “foolish conversation.” Life is too precious to waste worrying about how you might have done things differently (which is what people were talking about).
With extreme difficulty, he got up from the bed and sat down, because he wanted to eat sitting up. He said that he hates it when people feed him. I carefully put the spoon into his hand so that he could use it to eat by himself, to grant him this last bit of autonomy. I think that was the last time he ate. At one point we were all standing around the bed. He said, “What are you all doing here?” We mumbled something about how we want to be with him and we love him. It seemed that he understood this moment was a kind of last gathering, and we were denying it.
Wednesday – Rabbi Ehrman helped him say vidui (last confessions Jews say before they die). I heard him repeat the words after him, as best he could. He said the Shema – Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One – as he had said every day of his life. From Monday onward he had been constantly, incessantly insisting the rabbi come.
A bit later, we were there together with friends of my parents. We saw that my father was trying to say something, but it was already too much of an effort for him to speak. He made a motion indicating that he wanted a pen and paper. Since he wasn’t able to manage this either, his friend wrote as my father dictated: A-S-C-E-P. I looked at the little pad of paper, and a chill came over me as I realized that my father was trying to pronounce the word ACCEPT.
This one word impacted on me very strongly. This wasn’t just a last statement of acceptance, but his entire life’s message. How fitting, that this is the last word he said. This was the word that defined his entire life. Accept the other person. Accept what happens to you in life. Don’t fight it. This is the way it is. Be happy with what you have. Enthusiastically embrace life. Be honest. Be genuine. Be real. Be loving. Be a mensch. That’s who he was.