Monday, July 04, 2011

In Memory of My Father: Jerome "Jerry" Bernstein 1943-2011

How do we measure the greatness of a man? We measure it by the values, morals, and ethics he holds dear to him. We measure it by his successes, his failures, his kin. My father struggled his entire life chasing after his dreams. He taught me that you can do whatever you want in life just live it with family, dignity, honesty, and hard work. Family always came first for my dad. He believed that families should stick together through good times and bad.

He valued higher education, and set the bar really high for himself, almost tragically so. He wanted to be both a doctor and a lawyer. He studied medicine for five years in Belgium at the height of the Vietnam War. He was loyal to my mother in marriage. He enjoyed making super 8 home movies. He worked in jobs for years he didn’t like so he could support his family. He always stressed that you should be your own Boss. “Be your own Boss, and always call in sick!” He suffered from Diabetes and Clinical Depression and sometimes he had trouble controlling his anger, could turn on you during a bad mood swing, but he never forgot to apologize. I encouraged him to learn how to meditate to find inner peace. A few weeks ago, he cried to me and said, “ I want to see you get married and meet your future wife.” And I said, “I want to meet her also, but I thought you were crying because I don’t have a few million in my bank account yet.”

The poet John Donne said “Every death diminishes me.” My father was sensitive to other people’s misfortunate and would tear up while watching a sad news story on television, especially when children were involved.

His outlook on life was realistic, pessimistic, empathetic, joyful, hilarious, delusional, cynical, and brutally honest. He loved food. Chinese, Kosher, Zabars you name it. He loved Montreal, reading judaica books and comedy films. He would quote his favorite films constantly. He loved Mel Brooks films, especially Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He loved Home Alone, Midnight Run, and even though he had a low tolerance for stupidity with people, he loved the movie Dumb and Dumber. And although he never confirmed it to me, I think his favorite film was My Cousin Vinny. My dad also introduced me to obscure westerns like My Name is Nobody with Henry Fonda. He was an avid collector of LPs with western film soundtracks, Broadway musicals, and French artists in the mix.

My dad was a dedicated, conservative Jew and it was hard to argue with a guy that probably read the Codified Book of Jewish Law cover to cover. One time in high school, I smoked pot after synagogue on Rosh Hashanah with my girlfriend at the time and this overwhelming guilt washed over me. I asked him, “Is it a sin to smoke weed on Rosh Hashanah? And my dad looked down, sighed, and said “It is probably ranked high up on G-d’s list. “ And I said, “But it’s a HIGH Holiday, I thought that’s what you were supposed to do.” And he said, “Doesn’t matter. You started a fire. It’s a sin.”

He also had a childlike wonder and was intrigued by people. He would ask a lot of questions. He could also be very kind and generous and wasn’t a stranger to tzedakah (jewish charity). I remember one time after performing in a choral recital in grammer school, we stopped off to eat at the wonderful grease pit Dennys. There was a homeless man there. Dad paid for his meal and gave him ten dollars before he left.

He had eccentric business ideas, some of which were absurdly arbitrary. He asked me once to drive down with him to Arkansas to dig for gold. In 1999, when his pharmaceutical business Langer-Scott was up and running, I helped him find clientele and tried to sell Vitamin C to a Cranberry company in Wisconsin Rapids. Things didn’t go quite as planned and the sale never went through, but the experience became the inspiration for my first screenplay. He was a genius at creating character names and aliases and could have been the go-to-guy for any Hollywood screenwriter looking for a character name. Robert Manis, Jeffrey Bell, Ziffer Pike, Bill Searchman, and Sherman Birdsley were a few gems he created. My favorite, David Elgin Wesley, is my nom de plume, and I still use it today as a freelance writer.

He had a somewhat dark and quirky sense of humor. He once said, “people die at such inconvenient times.” He told me once, “If you ever get into trouble, check your self into a Holiday Inn.” I still don’t know what the hell that means, but it was funny and interesting the way he said it.

I’d like to thank all of the doctors and nurses at Mt. Sinai hospital that cared for him the last three months but since Dad was on every floor of the hospital with the exception of the maternity ward, I’d offer up some constructive criticism and say that communication skills between departments need improvement in regards to patient care. Dad must have said over 500 times that all he wanted to do was get the hell out of there and come home. I believe that if Moses were to chill out with some friends in New York City, have a few too many beers, and get sick, that he would not go to the top floor of Mt. Sinai hospital. He would hop in a cab and go to Lenox Hill.

I’m proud to have inherited my father’s relentless ambition. I had the chance to spend a lot of time with him this year, and we talked about family, careers, movies, politics. I expressed my political beliefs to him and he turned to my mother and said, “When did my son become such a commie liberal?” My dad and I shared a somewhat dangerous passion for gambling and we could talk for hours about gaming systems and the casino industry. He was also supportive of my artistic aspirations and I was happy he had the chance to see me up on stage performing a few folk songs I wrote.

It is widely known that the sins of the father pass onto the sons. Before he got really sick, he told me, he said “Son, your time is gonna come. You will fly by all of ‘em.” I’ll make you proud Dad by accomplishing my realistic dreams and as your great spirit traverses throughout the cosmos, no longer bound by time and space, I’d welcome you aboard the coming gravy train.

Memorial contributions can be made in Jerry’s memory to the American Diabetes Association ( or the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (


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