My father, Bernard Dov Troy (once Troyansky), turns 91 this Shabbat – but I won’t be with him to celebrate and give him one of those awkward-Jewish-man-hugs. The last time I visited my dad was the day after my mother’s shiva in March, 2020. We left him in his assisted-living residence in Maryland, sitting across from my mother’s now-empty chair, without an in-person visit from any relative until July – although a team of devoted caretakers has been with him. And it was more than a year before he entered one of my brothers’ houses, despite living only twenty minutes away from each of them.
In this topsy-turvy year, seeming neglect was of course protective love. He remained Covid-free and is now doubly-vaccinated. During these months of isolation and anguish he has rarely complained. My father doesn’t present as a New York tough guy, but he’s always been strong and stoic.
He had to be. He grew up in the Lower East Side and other poor neighborhoods during the Great Depression. And, as a New York City high school teacher by day and Hebrew school educator at night, he held two Sisyphean jobs.
That’s what he did – but not what made him tick. Two institutions he joined more than six decades ago still define him today: the Betar Revisionist Zionist youth movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
My father joined Betar in 1943, when he was thirteen, shortly after Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s death – and before Israel’s birth. Those two events shaped his youth. Jabotinsky taught my father elegance, fortitude, resilience and Zionism. Born in Odessa in 1880, Jabotinsky was a rare intellectual-activist, writing poems, plays, novels and polemics – while living his ideas. This liberal democrat spoke in male, regal metaphors, reminding Europe’s broken Jews that their ancestors had been princes, when others were peasants. His political philosophy revolved around the idea of “every man a king.”
That slogan emphasized “universal equality… there cannot be anyone above you or me in dignity or status.” It also celebrated “individual liberty: a king is nobody’s subject.” Jabotinsky’s resurrection of Jewish dignity began with his call for Hadar, glory or splendor, meaning “outward beauty, respect, self-esteem, politeness, faithfulness” in “every step, gesture, word, action and thought.”
These words must have been magic to a kid who learned Zionism from his buddy Marvin Krakow while tutoring Marvin in math and whose immigrant father stumbled from job to job, making barrels, packing tomatoes, selling boxes, and working in a laundry, a candy store, a bakery, and the Navy shipyards. Indeed, my father is – and always has been – most dignified and deliberate, comporting himself in a way that always made you think he carried the glory of the Jewish people on his shoulders.
Betar became the vehicle in his teen years for building up himself — and his people. As Jews emerged dazed from the Holocaust in 1945 and clawed their way to statehood, my father and his comrades helped from afar. Most dramatically, they smuggled much-needed weapons from New York to Palestine, disassembled and hidden in big fruit cans or Matzah boxes.
Aryeh Halivni, whose remarkable “Toldot Yisrael” project has been interviewing veterans of the 1948 war and their Diaspora supporters, told me that my father’s 2019 interview solved a longstanding mystery. Many people recalled smuggling the weapons, but never knew where they came from.
My father did. Many Americans returned from World War II with “souvenirs”: their weapons or enemy weapons they “forgot” to turn in. When they heard about the Jewish need, these vets, both Jewish and non-Jewish, filled warehouses with the life-saving contraband. My father also explained that the overwhelmingly Irish New York Police Department usually ignored these illegal activities, supporting the Jews in Palestine who like the Irish, fought the British.
We grew up with these heroic stories and Jabotinskyite values. It made my brothers and me proud Jews, passionate Zionists, and committed individualists, resisting the socialist taint to much 1970s’ liberalism and the groupthink fueling cancel culture today.
In the early 1950s, my father studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the center of Conservative Judaism – to learn Hebrew. JTS instilled a rationalism, a sense of dignity, and a deep Jewish pride that spoke to my father’s Betari soul. But JTS also helped my father Americanize and professionalize this sensibility, channeling his passion for Israel and Judaism into Jewish education.
Still, like many Jewish professionals in the Diaspora, he often contemplated the road not taken – to Israel. When we first visited Israel, for my bar mitzvah, and we saw how delighted, how animated, my usually-staid father was, we got nervous that we wouldn’t return to New York. I asked him why he never made Aliyah. His uncharacteristically frank answer shocked me to my 13-year-core. He responded: “because I was stupid.”
His “stupidity” of course also expressed his loyalty to his and my mother’s New York-anchored family, to the American Jewish community, to the life his immigrant parents wanted him to lead in the Goldene Medina. And his “stupidity” spawned a 65-year-marriage, three sons, three daughters-in-law, eleven grandkids – all of whom live his values daily wherever we live — and thousands of students, many of whom often approach me at Jewish conferences with warm memories of Bernard Dov Troy, a master educator – and a darned good father and role model too.
Happy Birthday Sabba Dov – we all look forward to hugging you warmly (yet, alas, stiffly) very soon.
NOTE: All three photos are of Dov Troyansky as part of the Betar delegation on the Machon LeMadrechei Chutz La’aretz – the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad — in 1952-1953 – the one with him sitting down, in dark glasses on the right, is a visit to Machon Weizmann
all are Courtesy, Bernard Dov Troy
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.