On Fathers and Fatherhood 2014

My father, Louis Feinstein, 1946
My father, Louis Feinstein, 1946

This was one of the first photographs I ever took. I was 15 and still living at home in Brooklyn, though I would shortly move out on my own. I was the youngest of five, born when my mother was 43. My eldest sibling was 20 and the one just above me was already 11.  So, while I had a bunch of doting older siblings, in many ways I relate to being an only child.

My father was a meat wholesaler and when I started taking pictures he used to say,  “Harold,  you can’t eat a photograph!”  My parents thought photography was about weddings and bar mitzvahs and the concept of being an artist wasn’t at that time in their vision of my life. To his credit, my father did buy me my first camera, an Argus C3, and learned to slowly respect my chosen path.

Like all families, relationships are more complex than simple. My Russian born father was a passionate man with a gusto for life that I inherited and also a generosity that I also hope I’ve been able to emulate. He was also an alcoholic who inspired a great deal of fear in me. My older siblings were really the ones who suffered from his alcoholic rages, and it was their stories that cast a shadow of fear over my childhood, though I did on occasion feel the brunt of his anger myself and will never forget it. When I became a father myself, I brought the residue of my father’s life with me. While I struggled myself with alcohol, I feel grateful that my inherent peaceableness never allowed me to venture down the path of anger and violence that I so feared from  my own father.

My daughter Robin who died in 2001.
My daughter Robin who died in 2001.

I have been blessed in my life with two extraordinary children. My eldest, Robin, died of breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 44. I call her “God’s gift to dogs” since she was a brilliant dog trainer and activist in New York City. Not only did she help establish many of the dog runs in the city, but she introduced the health care system to “dog therapy”, which enables patients and the elderly to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of contact with dogs. When she died, St. Vincent’s hospital in New York open their chapel for her memorial service and people came from all over the city — with their dogs — to pay tribute to my beautiful and caring daughter. I miss her. Several years ago I wrote this blog about her.

Gjon and Harold, 2008
Gjon and Harold, 2008

My son Gjon is a USCF National chess champion who also teaches privately and through the school system in Santa Cruz, California. I wish I could say that he inherited the “smarts” from me, but it’s more likely that his love of teaching might have been passed on. Both he and Robin were blessed with incredibly patient and kind dispositions making them nurturers of people and animals. I have been blessed with their love in my life.

Over the years I’ve written quite a bit — poetry and essays about life, creativity and photography. My children have inspired a few poems that I wanted to share two of them here.

Robin and Harold Feinstein, circa 1980
Robin and Harold Feinstein, circa 1980

Thinking of you, Robin
July 10, 2008

If the words of God
were made manifest in a jewel
as beauteous as
the words themselves,
Where simply to behold
this treasure
would transform the viewer,
Where would this jewel lie
to be viewed by humanity?
Would it come down
projected from the sky?
No, it would have to be held
as an infant in one’s arms.

 

Gjon Feinstein, 1966
Gjon Feinstein, 1966

Before the sweetness
For my son, Gjon, January 5, 1965

When I stand before my son
with a smile,
or frown,
a caress,
or my hand raised to strike,

I see my father,
a bigman,
As he stood before me
when I was the small one
Swaying to the force
of his smile
or frown,
Laughing,
or cringing
to his caress,
or hand raised to strike.

So I caress my son
and sweep him into my arms
Overwhelmed with humility
by that swift shot of sperm
whose accident gave me
the posture of God
Before the sweetness
of that young god before me.

On this Father’s Day I contemplate this poem I wrote to my son and reflect on the influence our fathers (or mothers) have on us. Over the years I have loved photographing fathers with their children. I hope they portray the tenderness and kindness all children deserve from their fathers. I humbly hope I have been such a father and as I have aged, I have come to appreciate the kinder, gentler side of my own father. With a retrospective show coming up in Russia in September, I imagine his happiness that my photographs will be on view in his homeland.

Here is a small gallery dedicated to fathers:

Haitian father and daughter at Coney Island,  1949
Haitian father and daughter at Coney Island, 1949
Father and son by waters edge, Coney Island, 1948
Father and son by waters edge, Coney Island, 1948
Father and son at boardwalk rail, Coney Island 1948
Father and son at boardwalk rail, Coney Island 1948

Baby in father's arms, 1988
Baby in father’s arms, 1988
L-015 Child on Father's Shoulders
Boy on father’s shoulders, 1988

4 comments

  1. James DAmbrosio

    How wonderful your telling!

    Indeed, fatherhood is a poem of a very particular kind.

    Its love lyrics embrace the whole journey, from dark moments to light-filled thankfulness, where judgment gives way to a greater power, the truth that we only have one father, the one who stepped forward and declared himself ours.

    How lovingly you’ve shared the delicateness, the shape and form of fatherhood, in tender words, in photos that melt away the cares of life, leaving only the dance between father and child, like two warm and glowing puzzle pieces who found each other, made for each other, fitting together like no other.

  2. Musawwir Spiegel

    Harold – your father was my grandfather. Although he died when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I have very vivid memories of him and loved him very much. Although my mother, Belle, was not the object of his physical abuse she told me that when they were children her mother, Sophie, would report to Louis what misbehavior had been committed by Murray, Ethel, or Alvin, and he would beat them. My experience of him was very different. He was very loving toward his grandchildren. He would hold us on his lap and kiss our cheeks with wet lips. We used to joke about Grandpa’s wet kisses. His cousin, Hyman Fanchel would visit and the two of them would listen to 78 rpm records of Jewish cantors and kvell. I remember him listening to the news on the radio and yelling back at the radio as it reported how the British were blocking Jews from immigrating to Palestine. He had a list of politicians whose death he hoped for, including the British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, and James Forestall, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, whom he deemed most culpable for this. (Forestall subsequently committed suicide by jumping out a window at Walter Reed Hospital where he was being treated for clinical depression.) As I grew up I followed Grandpa’s path by yelling at the radio during broadcasts by Fulton Lewis Jr., a right wing Republican who broadcast every night on WOR and whom my father liked to listen to. For years after Grandpa’s death I thought about him and when I saw a heavy set bald old man at a distance on the street, I would imagine that it might be Grandpa and wished it could be. I also remember bumping into your daughter Robin in front of what was then the Shambhala Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, one day in December 1973, in an amazingly auspicious coincidence in the development of my spiritual path which almost thirty years later led to my becoming a member of Shambhala, my Tibetan Buddhist sangha.

  3. Musawwir Spiegel

    Something I left out of my message – the photo of Louis reading the Jewish Forward (Forvetz) is one I saw in a book of your photos I bought in connection of the Kickstarter project. I was moved to tears when I saw that picture because it was very much as I remembered him. I also remember very well the apartment in Bensonhurst that your family lived in when I was a kid. When you entered the apartment, the first door on the left was your room, and the next room was, I believe, the bathroom, and then the kitchen. After that came the dining room which opened on to the living room and your parents’ bedroom. I remember a lot of the furniture and the potted rubber plant. This was all seventy years ago when I was five years old.

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Musawwir: Thank you for your long reflection. You lit up memories that i have of that apartment where I lived with my parents. You’re father, Sid, was my favorite brother-in-law. He was very generous when he took me to Coney Island. I liked him. He liked reading comic books for which members of my family laughed at him. Two words describe him for me: unpretentious and generous. And, I know he was deeply in love with Belle and I believe it was mutual. Thanks also for sharing your coincidental meeting with dear Robin so long ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. Hope you’re well and thriving on all levels! Harold

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