June 17, 2018
Editor’s Note: Paulist Fr. James Lloyd, age 97, is the eldest Paulist Father. This year, he is celebrating the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood (a first for our missionary society). On Mother’s Day 2017, we featured an essay by Fr. Lloyd about his mother. In this essay for Father’s Day 2018, he remembers his father.
One of my earliest memories of my Russian-Jewish father was praying that, when I grew up, I would be as good looking as he was. He was handsome, elegant, an impeccable and classy dresser, and had a beautiful head of thick hair.
Unfortunately for me, no one who knew us both would agree that God answered my prayer! I have always been a high-couture rustic with shoes that need shining. Further, I have long been “follicly challenged” (meaning very bald).
My father was born Morris Rosenbloom to Schmule and Hannah from Bialystok (which was in Russia or Poland depending on the shifting border). He became an actor. His skills included vaudeville, slapstick, Shakespeare, straight man to Fred Allen or Gracie Allen (before George), creative and funny burlesque (before the Sally Rand era and Billy Minsky), Sid Caesar-esque language skills, Borscht belt, “the whole shtick.”
He did it all and with gusto!
Most of all, however, he was a dancer. How he could wow the audience! Especially with his energetic rendition of the “buck ‘n wing,” a difficult and eye pleasing dance. Even as a kid of six, I knew when the applause would come streaming towards him from the audience flooding him with admiration and approval. It was as predictable as a hyperbolic curve. In all three or four daily vaudeville shows, the reaction was the same: thunderous applause coming from that great faceless, darkness “out there” (which every stage performer knows and desperately needs).
Even at the age of 75, when I had him on my television show on WNBC, he danced with minstrel show music as if he were 40! Lolling around doing nothing was offensive to him so, as an oldster, he created a clown act stemming from his work on “The Howdy Doody Show” where he had played Clarabelle the Clown. Doing kid shows at bank openings and filling station gigs, he packed on heavy clown makeup to mask his age and pranced around as a funny man not only to make a few shekels but also to give joy to others and to keep his own “joy of life” very much alive.
He taught me how to box with huge 16-ounce gloves. He played catch with me on West 61st Street off San Juan Hill. He gave me a dime to catch the local movie before one o’clock! He taught me to how enjoy the moment and to spend what little we had for our fun and to take “tomorrow” when it comes. I remember him, clearly, with gratitude and affection.
But there was something very sad about him. He was usually quiet and reserved, coming ALIVE practically only on the stage. Only retrospectively could I even begin to grasp his inner turmoil. He had often spoken how “some people” (meaning himself) keep their feelings deep inside and do not easily speak them out. He had married a personable, outgoing, sensitive and quick tempered Irish girl, an actress and singer, whom he called ‘Mick.” Perhaps, the deep plan of “nature for complementarity” had its own inevitable drive to bring them together!
Perhaps his inner melancholy was partially temperamental and constitutional, but more obviously was triggered by circumstances. In 1916, Jewish-Catholic marriages were rare and trying. The Abie’s Irish Rose syndrome might work in the theatre where values are more fluid than in the general population or in some rarified “liberated” society. But, in Manhattan, in those days, such a union was generally viewed with suspicion and skepticism.
To pretend that anti-Semitism did not exist except in very unusual groups, or that the WASP influence was not ubiquitous, would be to admit either an ignorance of local history or a psychological, fuzzy wuzzy need to deny the obvious.
As a little kid, I was terrified lest the other kids knew that I was Jewish. Fearing that harassment and insults would come pouring into my life from the rough wise guy street kids I ran with, I repressed the truth of my own background and pretended (even to myself) that I was all Irish!
With the agreement of all his siblings, Morris Rosenbloom changed his name to Lloyd. Until my sister was four and I was two, our surname was Rosenbloom. Why was it changed?
Ask Jack Benny and Jessel and Berle and George Burns and Alan King and Dangerfield and a host of other Jewish performers of that era. They hoped that the burden of a Jewish name could be masked and that one could proceed with his or her career without fear of prejudice. In Russia and Central Europe, Jews, for centuries, had been harassed and even persecuted just for being Jews!
Even though the core of my Catholic Faith taught me that such discrimination was evil and cried to Heaven for vengeance, a clear articulation of that sin was lacking. Only with the onset of Vatican Council II was it shouted loud and clear that anti-Semitism is wrong as is any kind of Inhuman and inhumane prejudice. Anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic stances are all of the same revolting cloth. (In later years, it was gratifying to see Cardinal John O’Connor preach unequivocally and regularly from his cathedral in New York that Catholics cannot practice anti-semitism with impunity. The same for when Pope John Paul II entered a Jewish synagogue to pray.)
The suspicion was from “the other side” also. In the vaudeville custom of the times, my parents left their two children (my sister and me) with my Irish Catholic grandmother when they went “on the road” to perform in different cities. In that milieu, we were taught the Christian way and lived accordingly.
It was a great and open family conspiracy that my Jewish grandparents never should know that their favorite and oldest son had married a goy! So the elaborate subterfuge was created. Supposedly then, Morris really lived in the Lambs Club or the Friars Club or some “club” where showpeople lived for business purposes, close to the theatre district. He would come “home” each Sunday afternoon for dinner where his mother would lovingly slip an orange into his pocket as he would leave to go back to the “club.” He was always her favorite child. It doesn’t take my professional backround in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to understand that there were some serious intra-familial dynamics operating which have subsequently seeped into my own life. The dynamics are obvious and all concerned have lost something valuable by the collusion.
Apparently, it would have been the worst of calamities should my paternal grandparents know of the marriage, or of my sister and I (who were both Christians). Hence, we never saw or met them. This has been a regret and resentment all my life. Who is to blame? My father? My Mother? My Jewish aunts and uncles? Society? Perhaps all of the above but, in the spirit of the French proverb, “to know all is to forgive all.” One must try to learn and understand the facts. What WAS going on?
The tension within my father’s heart between two “goods” which he loved explains some of his melancholy, which he would often mask by his theatrical skills. But the sadness remained. How can he give up his family of origin? How can he give up his own little family, which he loves but has caused him self depreciation when he allowed his children to be baptized and reared in the religion which symbolizes so much historical repression and injustice? How could he survive this balancing act? This series of contradictions and antitheses? How could he live peacefully with this deception, which he loathed since he was an honest and sincere man?
Being unaware of this painful interiority of Morris Rosenbloom (Lloyd), my sister and I went about naturally and merrily practicing our Catholicism with our Signs of the Cross and holy water and holy pictures and statues of the saints all over the house, fingering rosaries and reciting our Catholic prayers. And since there were seven Catholics and one Jew jammed into a railroad flat on New York’s West side, Morris, the Jew, had very little chance to influence his kids the way he wanted. More pain. More frustration. More withdrawal.
Once, when I was in the 6th grade, I wrote on the front page of my copybook FATHER James Lloyd, my father went into a near frenzy, furiously erasing the Father from my book and my (and his) name! This would be the ultimate blow! That his son would become a PRIEST! Indeed, when, at 21, I told him that I was entering the Paulist seminary to “try it out,” he shouted, “You are no longer my son.”
I had utterly no idea what might be the reason for such an extreme reaction. I had seen my father “deck” an offensive punk. I had seen him repulse hustlers on the streets. But I had NEVER seen him so angry as with me. I never heard him use foul language or insult anyone or be unfair. So, It has taken me years to finally grasp where this furious shout was coming from! It came from genes and history and culture and insults and discrimination of centuries. It was Tevyev in “Fiddler on the Roof” shunning his own daughter for marrying a Christian “out of the faith.” To be a Christian was bad enough but to be one of their PRIESTS! This was clearly beyond endurance.
It finally dawned on me that the new name “Lloyd” would die with me since by a curious twist of unforeseen things, I was the only one who could pass on this name through my progeny! That I would be excluded from marriage was itself a tragedy to him. That I would never experience the joys of sexual love with a woman seemed utterly sinful to him, a viewpoint thoroughly in tune with the ancient Jewish way of life. That because of what appeared to him my selfishness or brainwashing or both, I would never enjoy my own children and I would deprive him of a kind of immortality he could understand through the continuation of his name. The Catholic Church was to blame! This confused, hurt and even angered me. It was a very dark time in my life.
Although he refused to come to my ordination, he did come to see me off when I sailed to Africa on a freighter for what would be seven exciting and difficult years. When I finally returned, as a weather beaten, toughened missionary, he had softened. Things were VERY different. He carried my picture in his wallet to show off his son, the priest! We would go for walks together for a late night ice cream when I had finished my work at the Paulist Information Center. When I was threatened by three rabbis for baptizing one of their young adult women, my father stood guard outside the conference room as I debated the three of them by myself!
What an irony! My Jewish father joined with me, his priest son, in an alliance against what he would have seen as his own tradition!
Our rift was finally healed when I joined him in a kind of “show business.”
I had been hosting a television interview show on WNBC for some years and somehow wrangled the big brass to allow me to do an annual Christmas show in which I starred my mother, “The Strawberry Blonde,” from Broadway’s Metropole and her handsome husband, Morris, the novelty dancer. We threw in a couple of ringers each year, like Florence Henderson, to please the “upstairs” guys but basically I was bringing back the old vaudeville team of Lloyd and Ardell (mom and pop). My father, with his inevitable cigar stuck in his mouth, would brag to the gang outside the Palace theatre about Father Jim (that’s me). He even joined us in the finale as we sang the Christmas hymns “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”
Twice, without any pressure or invitation, he came up to me when I was saying Mass and received Holy Communion from me!
Hey, where was all that anger and fury and isolation?
What happened? Apart from the powerful grace of a loving God and the profound love of a natural father for his only son, I don’t know. There is something, however, which I do know and which I learned from the scholarly (if controversial) Pope Pius XII:
1. Never keep your mouth shut in the face of evil. Silence in the face of oppression helps only the oppressor. (Elie Weisel)
2. Any good person who follows his own conscience as God gives him the light to see, belongs (even should he not know it) to what we call the Mystical Body of Christ. His eternal life and salvation are preserved and assured by Jesus Himself. This consolation was taught by Pius XII in his famous encylical “Mystici Corporis” as authentic Catholic doctrine. Morris Rosenbloom followed what he thought was right. And he paid the price for integrity in this life but he has received the welcome reserved for the righteous.
As my father lay dying in Roosevelt hospital, he advised me: “Stay where you are” (understood as priesthood) as so many confused, immature and angry priests were deserting the Bark of Peter for the grass on the other side of the fence. Some regretted their impetuous move. While some former priests made the right move in jumping ship, many, many more moved into sadness and oblivion. Pop, in the end, wanted me to be a priest! So, we whispered into Pop’s ear: “God loves you, Morris, God loves you.” And he died. We gave him what some called “The State Funeral” with scores of priests and brothers and nuns in attendance, as we prayed for his entrance before the Christ he served without even knowing it.
Isn’t life filled with ironies and mystery? The Jewish tap dancer dies in God’s love very far removed from the rebellious young acculturated finger snapper who made fun of religion and piety. It looks pretty obvious that Christ died also for Morris Rosenbloom and Schmule and Hannah and for all as well as for Flanagan and Tucci and Lopez.
In my own old age, as I face crossing the great dark river myself, I, Jim Rosenbloom, priest and psychologist, want the world to know that MORRIS ROSENBLOOM WAS MY POP!