by Daniel A. Kaufman
It is a strange thing to stare down at a box in a hole in the ground and think that your father is inside it, but that’s exactly what I did last Monday, when we buried my dad, Alexander Kaufman, who would have been 94 years old this June.
I called him “Aba,” which is “father” in Hebrew, and funnily enough, when I was in graduate school, my friends called him that too when speaking of and about him. My daughter called him “Pop Pop.” To everyone else, he was “Alex.”
Aba was an enthusiastic and expert photographer who took pictures of everything and saved every picture he acquired. When I was younger, I found this annoying, and I recall my mother disliking it as well. Thinking about it today, though, he clearly was right. To have such a substantial, high-quality photographic record not just of our lives – my father’s, mother’s and my own, that is – but of the lives of our extended family, going back as far as the 19th century, is a remarkable and rare thing. And in light of these last few years, where what I saw of my father just seemed to get worse every time, these photos offer a strong, persistent reminder that he lived a long, accomplished, and satisfying life; that his time here was good.
And what a life it was! Aba and his family were driven out of Nazi Germany when he was a young child. He grew up in Mandatory Palestine where, as a young adolescent, he joined the Haganah and later fought in the 1948 Independence War that created the State of Israel. (At one point, he even found himself charged with delivering the entirety of the fledgling nation’s currency to a bank in Tel Aviv, which he recounts in a humorous story that appears in his book, Time Flies.) Palestine/Israel was also where he courted my mother, though they would be married in Switzerland, as Jews could only hold Orthodox weddings in Israel back then, and neither of my parents wanted that.
My father moved to New York just a few years after the war (my mother followed not long after), where he eventually founded and managed Displaycraft, a design company that would be the source of my family’s income over the course of my childhood and adolescence. Displaycraft produced displays and exhibits for the travel industry, museums, galleries, and even, strangely enough, prefabricated housing for the “insta-towns” needed by the oil industry, in places like Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran. Entrepreneurial down to his core, my father had figured out that the extrusion system he used to create displays and exhibits could also be used for housing that could be quickly and easily built and just as easily dismantled.
But his greatest achievement in this capacity was a permanent exhibition commissioned to open the then-new Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, in 1978. Originally called Beit Hatfutsot, it is now the Museum of the Jewish People, and for its opening, my father’s shop produced 21 scale models (interiors and exteriors) of historically significant synagogues from around the world that are meticulous in their detail, down to every chandelier, chalice, and chair. The research, which involved traveling the world, and photographing scores of synagogues, inside and out, took well over a year, and is chronicled in his book Trawling Twenty Centuries.
I was born in 1968, and my parents raised me in a lovely house in Roslyn, NY, a village on Long Island’s North Shore that predates the American Revolution. Ours was a traditional, upper middle-class American household of the early to mid-1970’s, with my father commuting daily to New York City to work, and my mother being a homemaker. This described the family situation of most of my friends as well, as the divorce and latchkey kid wave that was to come was a feature of late- rather than early-Gen X life.
Aside from family vacations, then, which were plentiful, I only saw my father on nights and weekends, and sometimes not even then if he had to work late or was travelling on business, as he often did. Nonetheless, I felt his love and presence strongly, in part because he transformed the entire basement of our house into a sophisticated playroom/art studio, where I spent a good portion of my childhood, and where I was reminded constantly of how much Aba cared about me. And as I got older and became involved in competitive baseball and tennis, my father was my biggest enthusiast and fan.
By the time I graduated high school and went to the University of Michigan in 1986, Aba had bought the building in which his business was located and sold Displaycraft and its related ventures. Increasingly hostile relations with the labor unions in New York City and the realization that he was making more money as a commercial landlord than as a designer and builder of displays and exhibits were what convinced him to get out. From the 1990’s on, his primary business endeavors would be in the areas of commercial real estate and finance and doing this allowed him to amass a considerable amount of wealth.
This also was the period when he embarked upon several independent creative endeavors. He began to write books, the most substantial and impressive of which is the massive Precipice Option, which tells the story of Rezső Kasztner and how he saved my mother and her family as well as thousands of Hungarian Jews, during the Holocaust. Aba also began a long running cartoon series, Sal and Al, though I always thought the art was better than the writing. Most significantly, he developed a novel system of painting, in which he would create an image or design in paint, scan it, and then reproduce it in strips and patches of colored vinyl that would be applied to canvas, producing a very modern, sleek, almost Pop-Art body of work. Aba made scores of these under the name “Xela.”
My father was not made for old age. Few people are, of course, but in his case, the fit between his personality and the physical debilitation that would define his last few years was about the worst one could imagine.
Aba’s upbringing and formative experiences had created a man who always was outwardly and materially directed and had little by way of what I might call an “inner life.” It wasn’t that he didn’t feel and experience things strongly – he most certainly did – but rather that he wasn’t contemplative or thoughtful when alone with himself. Even his creative energies required not just material realization but commercial application. I can derive great satisfaction from merely entertaining interesting ideas and projects or drafting sketches and outlines of things, or just reading and contemplating, without ever following up on any of it. My father, however, was a man of action. He was driven to create; to make; and to sell.
Moving out of his artistically creative business ventures into commercial real estate and finance was the worst move he could have made … for him, that is. Yes, it guaranteed financial security for our family, for which I will be eternally grateful, but the work was too easy for him and demanded little of his creative and energetic mind. The paintings and books were supposed to satisfy this part of him, but it was here that the entrepreneurial sensibility that so characterized Aba turned out to be a liability. To really make it either in commercial fine arts or book publishing, one has to work within institutional constraints and with handlers and minders. My father would accept no editors, however, and refused to play the socialite games required of aspirant professional artists. The result was that the books have an amateurish quality to them (with the exception of the last, Startups, which, due do to the advanced state of his illness, he allowed me to edit), and the paintings never really managed to penetrate the market, though he did have a few gallery exhibitions and some impressive individual sales. My father was doing these things in order to satisfy his creative and imaginative needs and to challenge himself, but the way he went about them guaranteed that they never would never achieve the commercial success he needed in order for an endeavor to be gratifying. The only thing that really gave him joy in the last few years was my daughter, Victoria.
His final years also helped me to understand the importance of a certain kind of formal education. Given the circumstances of his early life, my father dropped out of school very young, which meant that he had no real formal education in specific disciplines and subject areas. People today who are not scientists or in scientifically oriented professions like Engineering often think that they got nothing out of their science educations, but this is untrue in an important sense. The science education I received as an adolescent was sufficient to ensure that I understand basic things about illness, disease, and the human body that make navigating modern health care possible. It’s why I understand what my doctors tell me and why I am inclined to do what they say. My father lacked this education and understanding, and it very much showed in the disastrous way he handled the last stages of his illness. He refused to move into a managed environment and fought every effort I made to marshal more support in the house. Only after his fourth or fifth hospitalization in a span of three years – all of which almost led to death – did he finally accept home hospice, but by this point, it was too late for him to salvage any satisfying or rewarding moments from what little time remained. Certainly, some of this was due to an irascible personality, but in good part, it was a function of ignorance of the mechanics and imperatives of the human body and an overestimation of the efficacy of the will on that body.
Aba’s final months were bad, and there is no point in lying about or sugar-coating it. But they were a mere moment in a remarkable life that spanned almost the entire twentieth century and a quarter of the twenty first. My father was very much a man of that era and of a type that only really could exist and flourish in that era; a type that has largely disappeared and to our detriment.
He also was a wonderful father to me, and an even more wonderful grandfather to my daughter. And that is how I choose to remember him. I love you Aba.