Jewish World Review / July 14 1998 / 19 Tamuz, 5758

Fish story

By Marc Kornblatt

JONAH BEHELD G-D in the belly of a great fish. I saw the light in a seven-pound King Mackeral. Let me explain.

It happened on a deep-sea fishing trip off the coast of West Palm Beach. That morning my father and I were the first people to arrive at the dock, which is Dad's way. A dedicated angler, he wanted to make sure we got on board with time to spare. I had wanted my son Jacob to join us for a special father-son-grandson outing -- we were in Florida for winter vacation -- but Jacob declined. He wasn't sure he would like mackeral fishing.

"If he doesn't want to come, that's his loss," said Dad, which is also his way.

My son, age 9, and my father, age 74, are opposites. Hesitant and picky, Jacob is the kind of person who holds back from new experiences, while Dad is a man of great appetite, a doer with a fanatic's tendencies. He sincerely wanted me to join him on the charter boat, but if I didn't go, he would have sailed off happily with a bunch of strangers and still enjoyed himself.

I would have been sorry, not because I'm such a fishing fan, but because I only get to see my father a few times a year, if that, and I didn't want to miss an opportunity for us to be together.

Growing up, I remember Dad mostly as someone who worked hard and played hard. He came from the old school of paternal detachment, and puttering around with his children did not rank high on his hobby list.

A modern father, I go out of my way to spend time with my son, and was sorry Jacob wasn't there with us. As we boarded the large party boat, Dad and I were a study in contrasts. Ambivalent as I felt about going without my boy, his mind was set on one thing only: enjoying the trip.

Our contrasting attitudes was a reflection of how different he and I are not only as parents, but as people. Religiously speaking, we're worlds apart. I attend synagogue regularly and teach Hebrew school. Dad appears in shul only when absolutely necessary and is less than intimate with the Alef-Beis. Needless to say, my Sabbath observance looms as a source of tension whenever I visit home. Food, too, is a sticking point between us. Dad loves wild game, even cooks his own gourmet venison stew. A kosher vegetarian, I wouldn't eat his stew even if he had his deer ritually slaughtered.

But that morning out on the Atlantic, with my son back at the condo and the Sabbath still days away, Dad and I were on safe common ground. The moment we stepped on board, he secured two choice spots near the stern of the boat and immediately started kibbitzing with the strangers beside him. When one of the mates came by to ask if we wanted to invest five dollars each in the pool, the owner of the biggest fish of the day takes all, Dad was quick to shell out a ten-spot.

"My treat," he said, in his usual way, as our boat pulled away from shore.

King Mackeral are deep-swimming fish that demand a patient hand even when they are running. That morning they were barely walking -- a nibble here, a nosh there. My eyelids were getting heavy, my head was starting to nod, when I felt a tug on my line. Jerking my rod quickly, I managed to hook a fish.

"Woa!" said Dad. "Looks like you've got a nice one."

"You think so?" I asked, surprised at my luck.

"Yep. Just take it easy, real easy."

With his coaching, I managed to land the fish, a mackeral nearly as long and heavy as my arm. I was pleased, of course, but Dad was absolutely elated.

"That's not just a fish," he crowed. "That's a competitor."

Dad didn't catch a thing all morning, but he didn't care. He was happy talking about my catch and checking out the competition around the boat. It wasn't until we returned to shore for the official weigh-in that we learned my fish had won the pool.

My winnings came to sixty dollars, which I offered to split fifty-fifty with my sponsor, but Dad wouldn't hear of it.

"The best part is seeing you win it," he said, sounding more like my mom.

Then he scurried around the dock until he found a woman with a camera who agreed to take our picture. Like my son, I was reluctant at first, not wanting to pose for a complete stranger.

But Dad was so insistent I couldn't refuse. Looking back, I'm glad he pushed.

The photo is pasted to the side of my computer screen where I can see it every day. Of course, I'm sorry Jacob wasn't around to pose with us -- it's a darn good picture -- but that's his loss. There we are, Dad and me, standing side by side in front of our boat, the "B-Love." I'm holding the pool-winner by the tail, and, believe it or not, that leviathan is so huge Dad is completely engulfed in its shadow. You have to look close to see it, but the old man, his hand at rest on my back, is beaming, and so am I.

Thank G-d, mackeral are parve (can be eaten by vegetarians).

New JWR contributor Marc Kornblatt is a writer, storyteller and Hebrew school teacher.


© 1998, Marc Kornblatt