We are gathered today to commit to the ground the mortal remains of my father Isaak Zelyony. There will be no religious ceremony. Three years ago, my father and I attended nearby the funeral of his elder brother Joseph. The rabbi officiating at that event offered thanks to God for a swift and easy death. My uncle’s death was anything but easy. He lingered at the hospital for eighteen months suffering from a panoply of grave ailments, delirious and inane, fed through a breach in his stomach. My father and I agreed then that no clergyman would officiate at our funerals. As born and bred Soviets, we have no religion. My father did not believe in God. I am unsure of my own beliefs, but such God as I believe in surely is no one that owns a character of any kind, in particular not of the kind that wills for any outcome or cares about his creatures, let alone heeds their prayers. My God is akin to the indifferent jailor of a GULAG prison camp, and as his inmates we are well advised to abide by the traditional admonishment of Soviet prisoners: Wait for nothing. Be afraid of nothing. Ask for nothing.
Since we have no religion, we must have philosophy, because philosophy is that, which remains once religion has been taken away. Some of my friends present herein will have to bear with what they might otherwise have deemed my philosophical dithering. I ask everyone else to forgive my staying in character by being long-winded and pompous, for if there ever are occasions for speaking at length and loftily, this one must belong among them.
Socrates announced to his Athenian students that “all who actually engage in philosophy aright are practising nothing other than dying and being dead.” Benedict Spinoza sounded a Jewish note in his dissent: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.” Since human freedom depends on the guidance of reason, it is incompatible with the guidance of fear. Nevertheless, in this matter, Athens has not a little to do with Jerusalem. If Socrates’ tale of the soul’s happy fate after death is to be believed, no man needs fear the practice of dying and being dead. And the superior man, the man that transcends the plebeian herd of his kind, brutes whom Spinoza following the schoolmen calls homines carnales — sensuous creatures blindly impelled by passions, troubled by external causes, bereft of knowledge, adrift in the world, ungrounded in themselves, and deficient in action — this man refuses to regard death as the absolute evil. This wise man, homo sapiens, “in so far as he is considered as such, is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind.” In living the right life free of deceptive affect and controlled by intellect, the wise man causes the main part of his spirit to become eternal. Thus Homo Sapiens is able to overcome death.
Today, faced with my father’s disfigured corpse, the lucky survivors can take for granted with a more moderate spirit, that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily. To the scant extent that we civilized men allow ourselves to think about such things, we accept death that comes quickly and painlessly as the best kind possible. And yet it is written that in the remote Malay archipelago there exist societies less enlightened than ours, which steadfastly refuse to see any human death as instantaneous. All their deceased are expected to traverse an intermediary period between life and death. During this period the corpse is “formless and repulsive... the soul of the dead person is homeless and the object of dread. Unable to enter the society of the dead, it must lead a pitiable existence on the fringes of known habitation... The ‘great feast’ terminates this miserable period by honoring the now dry bones of the deceased, confirming the soul’s arrival in the land of the ancestors.”
This anthropological mumbo-jumbo of my college studies, the studies that I owed to the generosity of my father Isaak, haunted me bitterly as I stood watch by his death-bed. Confronted with the slow loss of his few remaining tokens of human faculties, I could scarcely celebrate the 18 days of Isaak’s measured transition to the land of our ancestors, so fortunately numbered according to our Jewish tradition, as a propitious rite of passage. Towards the end of his tortuous journey, I was desperately grasping at the meremost sign of vitality, as a drowning man embraces a deflating life preserver. My father’s toe twitching in my hand ten days ago was the best birthday present I could ever receive. That was the last time I witnessed him move of his own will.
My father Isaak first moved in Odessa, of the late U.S.S.R. He was born on March 26 of 1923 to Moses Zelyony and Eva Kotlyar. My grandfather was a lapsed Bolshevik. Having joined the party after the Revolution of 1905, endured 12 years of Siberian exile, operated a clandestine print shop in the Odessa catacombs, and cut a swath through the cavalry skirmishes of the Civil War, he parted ways with his more compliant comrades over their abandonment of revolutionary principles. Moses was fortunate to have died a natural death in 1934, before his apostasy condemned him and his family to deadly persecution. Isaak was less fortunate to have lost his father long before reaching his teens. Nevertheless, thenceforth he tirelessly served as the principal supporter of his entire family.
When my father Isaak was 18 years old, he volunteered to fight the Nazis. Since his elder brother Joseph had been drafted, he might have enjoyed his exemption from military service as his mother’s sole supporter — but it was not in his nature to do so. Instead, Isaak became an artillery officer and fought in some of the bitterest battles of World War II, from Rostov to Stalingrad.
When my father Isaak was 27 years old, in the course of three summer weeks he became certified as a physician, married my mother Maria, and was arrested and summarily condemned to 15 years of hard labor for what the KGB deemed “Zionist propaganda”, which in reality amounted to politically incorrect humor. My father might have avoided this fate by agreeing to inform on his friends — but it was not in his nature to do so. Instead, he stood alongside millions of his enslaved compatriots in the greatest feats of involuntary civil service since the Egyptian pyramids.
When my father Isaak was 33 years old, his conviction was reversed and he was released from the Kolyma labor camps thanks to Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalinism. Isaak completed his postgraduate medical studies in Moscow with great distinction. He was all set for a fast track as a research physician, when his brother Joseph entreated him to return to their hometown to help take care of their mother. My father might have favored his career interests over his family ties — but it was not in his nature to do so. Over the following three decades he went on to achieve the highest distinction available to a provincial doctor, dedicating his career to unstinting care for his patients, becoming the chief haematologist for the Odessa region, and earning lifelong respect from his colleagues and lifelong devotion of hundreds of survivors of grave blood disorders.
By the time my father Isaak was 53 years old, his only son demonstrated familial traits that guaranteeed forced confinement in a prison or psychiatric institution in a society deprived of constitutional rights. My father might have refused to gamble away an established position on a scant chance in the New World — but it was not in his nature to do so. And so, over the following quarter century he painstakingly reestablished his professional credentials from scratch to resume his medical career as a disability evaluation analyst for the State of California and a physician in private practice.
When my father Isaak was 73 years old, his only son asked him to stake his life savings on a technology startup that he was running with his ex-girlfriend, Erin Zhu. Isaak might have balked at investing in a business operated by a couple of unemployable geeks, notwithstanding his blood ties to one of them. He might have pointed out that his son misplaced his trust in a partner whose most salient moral qualification was surviving her victimization by childhood rape. He might have vetoed their venturing with his hard-earned money into a joint project with the corporation founded and operated by the damaged woman’s father. Finally, he might have ceased his paternal support when his son’s life was repeatedly and convincingly threatened in connection with his attempts to enforce his contracts with WebEx Communications, Inc., the publicly traded company run by the degenerate child rapist, Min Zhu. But it was not in Isaak’s nature to do so. Instead, he joined me in lawsuits seeking to realize our rights.
And so, on February 11 of 2004, my father Isaak Zelyony sustained fatal burn injuries and smoke inhalation in a fire that started in his apartment for no clear reason; a fire that spread with astounding alacrity; a fire that moved around his furniture; a fire that failed to trigger smoke detectors.
I have spoken to you of the death and of the life of my father Isaak. And even as I now stand before you, his loving and devoted relatives, friends, patients, colleagues, and students, I am at last coming to terms with the lessons I learned from him.
My father lived a responsible life. I mean this in the most fundamental way. Isaak ably responded to every call of duty that bound him as a citizen, as a physician, as a son, a husband, and a father. If his sense of responsibility could be faulted, it would be only for the lack of measure in attending to others whilst neglecting his own needs. And as I grasped the reasons that might have interfered with Isaak’s fleeing the flames that scorched his lungs and consumed nearly half of his skin to consign him to a slow agony, I understood the lifelong sense of responsibility that compelled him to face mortal danger for the last time. “But”, as we know from Benedict Spinoza, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” And so it is only with great pain, by drawing upon the excellence of my father’s spirit, that I can let go of the rage at the fatal destiny that ensued from his uncompromising character, the noble character that we, the provisional survivors, are privileged to honor and celebrate today, as we commit his mortal remains to the ground.
I leave the last word to the poet Charles Bukowski: “For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
— read by Michael Zeleny at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California, at 3:35 p.m on March 1, 2004