Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: Recollections of My Father – A Survivor and His Moments of Joy

By Noma Faingold

My father, Leon, lived with chronic depression. It wasn’t called depression back then. What did his daily life look like? He was a workaholic, getting up early, as the rest of the family slept. He had plenty of rituals. They seemed necessary. He squeezed himself fresh juice from two oranges and toasted a bagel, generously spreading butter on each side. He was adamantly against margarine. It wasn’t even in the house.

He ate his breakfast quickly while reading The Chronicle – the front page, followed by what used to be called, “The Sporting Green.” He always put on his shoes last. Maybe he was being considerate by not making noise walking on the hardwood floors. 

He left the house before dawn, carrying the brown-bag lunch my mother made for him the night before. When I was little, I sometimes slipped a silly note or drawing in the bag, or I would cut up his sandwich in tiny pieces and wrap each morsel in foil. He complained that it took him his whole lunch break to unwrap. But I know it made him laugh.

This is an old photo I found of my father, Leon Faingold, me at three years old and my brother, David, 5, on the front porch of our Inner Sunset home.

In the evening, when he returned home, he poured himself a shot of straight Scotch whiskey in a rounded old-fashioned glass. He usually chose the moderately priced blended brands, like J&B or Cutty Sark. He rarely treated himself to single malt. He never took a second drink and I never saw him drunk, not even at someone’s wedding. He never went to bars, either. 

Sometimes my mother would join him to catch up on the day with a Dubonnet on the rocks. They didn’t have a cutesy relationship. It was built on mutual respect and like-minded values. She also propped him up socially because she was free spirited and gregarious. She pushed her introverted husband out of his comfort zone in little ways, like hosting numerous dinner parties, which were always lively and full of intellectual discourse. She also influenced him around big decisions, like having children. Once I was an adult, she told me he had been afraid of that life step. 

Let me explain.

Most evenings, he would settle into his black Eames lounge chair in the living room, sometimes dozing off before dinner. I asked my mother once why my dad slept so much. She was not one to soft pedal a response, even when my brother, David, and I were young. She said, “He’s carrying a lot. Sometimes he needs to rest.”

Yes, we were painfully aware that he was a Holocaust survivor. Only he and one sister survived in his family of seven. He was liberated by the Americans from Auschwitz while he was still a teenager and his sister, Franka, managed to obtain false papers early in World War II, to pass as a non-Jew.

There were moments of joy in my father’s life. What comes to mind was watching a Marx Brothers film with him or, ironically, the Nazi-themed satire, “The Producers,” written and directed by Mel Brooks. His laughter was so unbridled, I couldn’t hold back my laughter, either. 

He loved his children, even though he showed little affection and was stingy with praise. He made sure we were safe and nurtured by providing a comfortable home, along with teaching us to be curious, alert and resolute in facing a world that he didn’t fully trust.

I got him into baseball. He became a devoted Giants fan because of me. We listened to dozens of games on the radio each season and he took my brother and me to games at Candlestick, even when the team was dreadful. One year, during a 13-game winning streak, he let me cut school so we could go to an afternoon game. He had no problem with me wearing a “F__k the Dodgers” T-shirt, which I painstakingly embroidered. He did not try to dissuade me from showing it off behind the Dodgers’ dugout in an effort to get then-manager Tommy Lasorda’s attention. 

He was rapturous about the opera. My parents had a subscription to the San Francisco Opera for many years. His standards were high. When a production was exceptional, he enthusiastically gave the performers a standing ovation. If he thought it was sub-par, he wouldn’t even applaud at the final curtain. Of course, he refused to attend any operas by German composer Richard Wagner.


He also never bought a German car. Only American. We had a Dodge Dart for years, followed by a Plymouth Fury station wagon, then a Plymouth Volaré.

I used to joke that he wouldn’t even eat German chocolate cake. 

Leon might have been hard to please, but he made a point of teaching my brother and me that standing up for ourselves and for others, who are being disenfranchised, was required. In kindergarten, that wasn’t easy, such as the day I asked my teacher why the class only sang Christmas carols and no Hanukkah songs. My parents didn’t put me up to it. They just encouraged me to not be afraid to say something. I do recall a weird feeling when my peers stared at me for questioning the norm. However, I did get a charge out of putting my teacher on the spot. 

When, in junior high, during the Watergate scandal (after President Richard Nixon got re-elected), I told my mother I no longer wanted to say the Pledge of Allegiance in homeroom. I was disappointed in our leadership. I had been to peace marches with my parents when I was a kid, but this was the first time I decided to protest in my own way. 

I sat silently in my seat that morning while the other students stood, with their hand over their hearts, reciting the Pledge. I quickly learned that my homeroom teacher did not tolerate dissent of any kind. When he heard my explanation, “I am not proud of our government right now,” he immediately banished me to the principal’s office. 

I refrained from adding that, as an atheist, I wasn’t crazy about the “under God” part of the Pledge, either. 

I actually wasn’t worried about being in trouble because, at the time, my mother, Esther, was the executive director of the San Francisco Chapter of the ACLU. The principal threatened that my act of resistance would go on my “permanent record,” whatever that meant. My mother called his bluff and came with receipts, stating what my rights were. 

After a brief negotiation, upon my return to homeroom, I was allowed to just quietly sit in my seat while the class recited the Pledge. The teacher gave me dirty looks each morning for the rest of the school year. I felt victorious when three of my classmates also remained silently seated in solidarity. 

Vacations didn’t have the typical Americana feel in our family. My parents treated us to an enlightening, eight-week European trip one summer. I was only 12, but I remember everything vividly, from buying a suede patchwork miniskirt at an open market in Rome, to lingering in Paris cafes, which carried the aroma of decadent pastries and dense espresso, to the most somber of destinations in Poland: Auschwitz, where my father nearly gave up on life, and Treblinka, where most of his family was exterminated. 

My dad was our tour guide. He didn’t seem to mind answering all my probing questions, yet there was an uncharacteristic rage just under the surface, while in the country where he was born. He refused to speak Polish, even when he was issued a speeding ticket in Warsaw. In fact, he tore it up in the officer’s face. That aggression was not in father’s nature. Most of his friends saw him as an opinionated, yet gentle person. I asked my mother why he wanted to go back to Poland. She said, “He needed to close a chapter.”

Several summers, my brother and I went to sleep-away camp near Yosemite. It’s where our emotional growth accelerated. That’s what happens when you get your first kiss, sing protest songs around a campfire and bond with your bunkmates by sharing secrets. 

As a family, we never went camping – not in an RV, cabin, tent or under the stars. My parents did not appreciate “roughing it.” Hotels, resorts and well-appointed vacation rentals were preferred. Most of my peers went camping. Was I missing out? I asked my mom, “Why don’t we go camping?”

She obviously thought I was mature enough to handle a caustic response when she said, “Your father has had enough camping.”

Noma Faingold is a writer and photographer who lives in Noe Valley. The native San Franciscan, who grew up in the Sunset District, is a frequent contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers, among others. She is obsessed with pop culture and the arts, especially film, theater and fashion.

2 replies »

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful memory of your father. What a strong person he must have been and such a role model for his children. Kudos to you too for standing up to the corruption of the Nixon administration in your middle school.


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