Eulogy given by Daniel

In the last few days of his life, my father was lying there silently and I felt sure he needed something. “Do you want a spoonful of the dessert, Dad?”. Silence. “What about the light, shall I turn it on?” Nothing. “Do you need the nurse?” No reply. “Look, honestly, Dad. Anything you want, I will do for you. You know that.”

Finally, he spoke. “I am wondering,” he said “whether the German concept of Wissenschaft is the same as the English concept of science.”

I said that if that is what he needed, then perhaps I had better get my brother.

It isn’t really necessary to say this in front of all of you, the friends he loved and respected, the people who lit up his life, but you will forgive me stating the obvious, I know. My father was a remarkable man.

He was a remarkable scientist, a remarkable scholar, a remarkable Jewish historian, a remarkable linguist, a remarkable figure in the life of his university and the institutions he was involved with, and above all a simply extraordinary husband, father and grandfather.

Morally, intellectually, personally, he was a giant. And he accompanied this with a warmth, a gentle humour, and a respect for other people that meant that when you were in his company you felt it was you that was the special one. What are the qualities I associate with my father?

His erudition. His knowledge, its breadth and its depth, was astonishing. It is impossible to say of his library of thousands of books whether he owned them or they owned him.

He was almost entirely self-taught, and must therefore be counted a brilliant teacher. What made it easy for him is that he loved learning. For his birthday he would ask for encyclopedias on topics from mechanics to philosophy and read them from A to Z as if they were novels. He could, and did, do this in nine languages.

But he wore it all so lightly. He used to say that his hobbies were “conversation” and “not gardening”. And what made conversation with my Dad so agreeable was that he imparted learning while never giving the impression that he knew more than you. Even though he often did.

He didn’t so much become a leader of his field of measurement science as he did invent it. He became the leading authority on how to organise life in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, knowledge that came in handy in the kitchen in the aftermath of making his famous soda bread.

And then, in retirement, he turned to Jewish studies and became an authority on that as well. So much so, that there are prizes in my father’s name not only for scientists, but for Rabbinical students too.

With his erudition came a quality just as striking – a modesty and sense of proportion.

My father came to this country with nothing. He had been driven from his home, had his property confiscated, lost his country, seen his father imprisoned and his neighbours die of cold and hunger.

He rebuilt here, refusing to look over his shoulder and using his experiences to allow him to distinguish between those things that mattered and those that didn’t.

Earlier this year, I phoned my father for advice on which secondary school to choose for Sam. He gave me sage, sane counsel – gently and tactfully – which I took, as I invariably did. Then he added: “Daniel, I wouldn’t worry too much. My secondary schooling consisted of six weeks at the Trans-Siberian railway school.”

The fact that Dad was a stranger to pettiness made him an invaluable member of any organisation. And he added to that, another quality of great value to those bodies. Loyalty.

To the institutions he served – Leo Baeck College, the civil defence establishment, Hendon Reform, the Inst MC, Imeko, the scientific instrument makers and above all his beloved City University – he gave lifelong devotion. And received, in return, their affection and respect.

Underpinning all this were his values, his unerring moral compass.

For all his learning, one of his favourite forms of relaxation was to watch abysmally bad Westerns, and detective shows like Kojak and Quincy. He said he approved of stories in which good fought evil, and could be relied upon to win.

This ability to distinguish between right and wrong is the legacy I most hope he has passed on to his children and grand children.

One of my sons said they thought Papa was the definition of a wise man. And this was so obvious in his demeanour that an adult might know it but it could be intuited by a child.

I have left until last what meant most to me. That he was a wonderful father. Generous, kind, encouraging, respectful and never once, not once in the whole of my life, anything less than that. We basked in his love and we always will.

In my mother, a miraculous woman, he found a partner whose love sustained him and whose love now sustains us. He adored my mother, and admired her in equal measure. He understood what a very special person she is. Yet more proof of his good judgment.

What a marriage, what a life, what a man. All in all Dad, I’d say you did pretty well.

Daniel Finkelstein
September 2011