This Memorial Day weekend, my family marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Julius Bertram Spiro, who passed away at the age of 90 in 2002. He was the proverbial nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, who somehow figured out a way to be prideful without ever being egotistical. Julius stood for many values – devoting one’s career to public service, supporting economic equity, avoiding hypocrisy and dishonesty, loving learning for its own sake, treating others with warmth and informality, never trying to call attention to oneself, and recognizing that the smallest among us are the ones who think of themselves as the greatest.
Julius was an economist by trade who as far as I can tell never worked a day in the private sector. Sadly, he spent much of his adult life regretting that he never went into physics. But when I told him I was going to law school, he lamented that I should have picked a career in economics instead, because there was more room for intellectual creativity in his field than in the law. Perhaps, though, he was subconsciously revealing his opinion of lawyers, and the egos they tend to bring to the table. Similarly, he referred to doctors as “glorified auto mechanics” and looked at the famous right-wing televangelists like Billy Graham with scorn. He preferred cantors to rabbis – perhaps because he had plenty of tolerance for praying and little tolerance for bullshit. While it is true that he kept kosher in order to honor his own father and enjoyed spending time in synagogue, he never wore his religion on his sleeve. In fact, he spoke little to me about religion, other than to point out how hypocritical religious leaders can be.
Julius loved animals and children more than anything else. He was a big wig in the Washington, D.C. area Cub Scouts, and tutored students in the University of Maryland well into his 80s. As an octogenarian, the last group of folks he wanted to spend time with was old people. When they got together to speak about such topics as investments and illnesses, they just depressed him.
Julius enjoyed watching sports, especially baseball and boxing. Basketball bored him to tears. He felt it was repetitious.
Julius visited something like 60 countries. India was his favorite, even though he almost died there due to some form of microbe.
Julius had a particular fascination with astronomy and at one point even built his own telescope. He clearly saw this planet and its inhabitants as tiny in relation to the universe. Yet he was in many respects a humanist, who had absolutely no stomach for injustice. He made sure that as a little child, I went to civil rights marches. I’ll never forget going with him to Resurrection City when I was seven.
Every year at this time, I try to remember Julius for the way he lived and not for the way he died – with a feeding tube that was installed just the night before. The family put him on that tube because his brain was still functioning decently, and it had always been Julius’ desire to live as long as his brain lasted – because he wanted to learn for as long as possible about what was going on in the world. Nevertheless, it broke my heart when during the day or so before he died, he occasionally spoke to me by referring to himself as my “son.”
I found out about his death at 5:00 a.m., and learned the meaning of the word “keening” shortly thereafter. That evening, I attended a meeting of the Washington Spinoza Society. I figured he would have wanted me to do something mind expanding with my time that evening.
One of the things I enjoy most about going to synagogue is when I stop praying to God and start speaking to Julius. I scrupulously avoid going to any place of worship in which I don’t speak to him. My monologue is not a symptom of ancestor worship. It’s just recognition that I wouldn’t know how to behave as a civilized human being without having been steeped at any early age in the philosophy of Julius Bertram Spiro. Even though he never spoke well of the discipline of philosophy – even though he always had more respect for facts than for speculation – it is precisely his philosophy that made the greatest impression on me, other than his heart. I’ve never known a man to have a bigger one. It is ironic that it was his heart that ultimately gave out in October of 2002.
But this isn’t October. This is no Yartzheit. This is Memorial Day weekend – the anniversary of Julius’ birth. And so, this weekend, my family marks the birth and the life of a wonderful father, a doting father-in-law, the best husband I’ve ever witnessed, and a loving grandfather. We keep him alive by pointing out his legacy. And in his name, we ask that each of you search your souls to remember your own loved ones on this day whether they were veterans, Presidents, billionaires, or, in the case of my dad, just a regular guy.