The other day I was reading a quirky grammar book with a chapter headed “Adopt a Favorite Letter.” (Yes, I sometimes read grammar books and dictionaries to relax). I was intrigued by the author’s notion that he detects a secret meaning in each letter of the alphabet. Yes, I thought, someone understands how I feel about the letter K.
K is for Kenneth. That’s my husband’s name and it was also my father’s first name. But Dad was never a Ken or a Kenny. He went by his middle name Harold. Kenneth was his phantom name. Unlike its phonetic counterpart C, K is unambiguously hard, ramrod straight on one side, making it the perfect letter to lean on. A letter from which to fly the flag that Dad revered, the Stars and Stripes he flew from his bedroom window on every national holiday. The flag that draped his coffin.
The K in my father’s name stood alone. My father’s luggage, chunky signet ring, and a check register as big as a ledger were all monogrammed with an indelible K. The signature that followed was a comet tail of script meant to read as Harold Bolton. I grew up in the shadow of Dad’s K—a patch of dusk in which good posture, impeccable manners, and fair outcomes were cultivated.
When I eulogized my father ten years ago, I talked about my father’s inimitable K and my brother said at that moment he knew that his son’s name—born two months to the day after Dad’s death—would lead off with the stalwart K. The family K now anchors my young nephew’s name. The K of my nephew’s name is not associated with a particular name. It is a stand-alone initial that perpetuates my father’s solid K-like presence in our lives.
I particularly love the Hebrew alphabet for its array of meaningful letters. I also like that the Aleph Bet occasionally doubles as numbers, forming a quirky numerology or gematria that engages the compulsive in me. A well-known word-number correlation is the Hebrew word for life—chai. The two Hebrew letters that make up the word correspond to the numbers eight and ten. In the realms of Jewish luck and superstition, eighteen is a powerful number and one that I am forever trying to extract by adding up street addresses and birth dates.
But my favorite Hebrew letter is ayin. Ayin is for Akiva—my father’s Hebrew name. Akiva is also Adam’s Hebrew name. My Dad was alive when Adam was born and I latched on to the Sephardic tradition of naming after the living. I’m all for dynamic continuity. Ayin is for Akiva and this time the hard K sound of the Hebrew letter kaph that follows the ayin is subordinate to it. Large, resonant kaph must make room for the almost inaudible “a” sound that ayin carries. But kaph is also for Kalman—my husband Ken’s Hebrew name. The sturdy chiseled sound of the kaph suits him. The shape of the letter kaph also reminds me of a shepherd’s staff, like the one I imagined Moses carried.
As for me, I can’t resist telling you about the tiny letter yud that leads off my Hebrew name Yehudit. Yud, is a smudge of a letter slipped into words to space out consonants or give vowels a new sound. Unobtrusive yet effective. I aim to be that kind of parent, do you?
Jewish mystics tapped into the otherworldly qualities they intuited from the Hebrew alphabet. Ayin is for Akiva and in the dreamy, swirling, opaque world of the Kabbalah, the letter ayin is associated with the unique uncomprehending nothingness before the creation of the world, the windswept darkness of creation, the airy nothingness of God’s incorporeal existence.
A great Hasidic master once said that “nothing can change from one thing to another without first losing its own identity. Before an egg can grow into a chicken, it must completely cease to be an egg. Each thing must lose its original identity before it can become something else. Before a thing is transformed, it must come to the level of ayin.”
My son loses his little boy identity by shooting up 11 inches in two years. I listen to his deepening voice. I watch him fix my computer. I read his essays full of insights wholly his own. When he puts his hand on my shoulder he’s returning the reassurance and the protection that I hope his father and I have given him.
I think Jewish tradition has made Father’s Day, and for that matter Mother’s Day, a recurrent event. In Hebrew the names by which we are called to the Torah are as long and magical as the trailing comet of my father’s signature. We never forget that we are a son or a daughter. Or, for those of us so blessed, a parent.