Jews are obligated to pray three times a day, but my father never forced me to sit next to him in shul and pray. He let me be a child and run around like a mini-hurricane (I still have a scar on my right arm from when I punched out the upstairs window) or hoot wildly as I played freeze-tag with the younger kids.

He’d often pray alone, huddled by a corner window, shuckling (swaying) back and forth as he davened (prayed) on Shabbat morning in the Berkeley Chabad House. Usually, services had long concluded and the other worshippers had already emptied out to the veranda for the communal kiddush luncheon.

But children are always watching. And I watched my father, encloaked not in a red cape but in a weathered, white tallit (prayer shawl), a siddur (prayer book) on his lap and a joyful Chassidic melody on his lips. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidic Jewry, taught that scripted prayer must be infused with unscripted meditation and joy. I saw this love in my father’s prayer, through the emotional crackle in his voice and the way he waved his right arm as he sang the melodies.

Once, I asked my father what he was davening for. He smiled and said, “Davening is not a time to ask for what you need, but to discover what you’re needed for.” Not to ask for what you need, although my differently-abled father had much he needed. But to discover what you’re needed for, no matter - or perhaps because of - the impediments placed upon him by a society of mere mortals.

Benzion Welton holding a Torah. Image: David Spieler
Benzion Welton holding a Torah. Image: David Spieler

As a teenager, my father was afflicted with a rare neuromuscular dystonia that twisted his leg, stole the fine motor movement of his hands, and burdened him with a lisp that made the simple act of speech an effort-filled task. The doctors, struggling to cure him, cut into his brain twice and failed. Later in life, he developed debilitating seizures as a result of those botched procedures.

He had started high school “normal” like the rest of the kids, able to run and talk and play. But he finished high school feeling trapped by his own body, unconsciously excommunicated and consciously stereotyped as the “disabled boy,” plagued with the taste of what an undisabled life might have been like still fresh in his young mind. This was compounded by the normal I’m-not-normal existential angst through which every teenager must pass on the road to adulthood.

But that didn’t stop him from standing tall. He refused to use a cane or the blue placard on his car (“Someone else needs it more than me,” he would say). He spent his college and post-college years leading protests, marches, and sit-ins against disability discrimination. He volunteered as a court advocate, fighting on behalf of people from the disabled community who were impoverished by a lack of employment, and eventually became the director of the Center for Independent Living in New York City, empowering people like him to live independent and free. For these accomplishments alone, he is, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe told a group of wounded veterans from Israel’s Defense Forces in 1976, “... not disabled but exceptional.”

Then his dear yeshivah friend, Rabbi Yosef Langer, asked him to move from Brooklyn to Berkeley to help manage a new Chabad team at U.C. Berkeley. After discussing it with my mother and receiving a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, my father transported his fledgling family (I was three and my sister 18 months) across the country. He spent a few years as the administrator of the Chabad house, then pivoted to run a Jewish book store in San Francisco, ultimately launching his own non-profit organization which provides kosher food inspection for factories and farms. His career costumes may have changed but he never used his disability as an excuse not to fly.

“Being grateful creates greatness,” he taught me. Like Superman, he keeps flying forward no matter what proverbial speeding bullets life throws his way. He shows me how to defy mortal limitations and declare, “Up, up and away.” In ways that go beyond an article, he is my superhero, the man I want to be. Since the days I’ve come to know him (and every year that passes I come to know him more), he remains positive, upbeat, with a penchant for enjoying corny knock-knock jokes and sappy endings of child movies in which he cries and chuckles when the good guy wins. The only time I saw fear in his eyes was not when he was battling cancer or bankruptcy, but when he recounted his first date with my mother. “I davened that she would see me and not look at…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. But I knew.

Indeed, it doesn’t take much for people to be blind to the super within their neighbor. Just slap on a proverbial pair of “glasses,” or any societal stereotype, and exceptional people are suddenly hiding in plain sight. As a disabled Chassidic Jew, people used his disability as an excuse to mock him, try to take advantage of him, and target him for their cowardly anti-Semitic insults hurled from cars quickly passing by. I hated those people. They made me feel violently angry.

But my father held his head high. He never let them take away his bechirah chafshit (free choice) to continue believing in people and treating even those who would do him harm with empathy. “The empty space we create for the other is the most fulfilling endeavor,” he says. From the day his disability attacked him until this very moment, he walks with abilities far less than other mortal men. But it’s what on the inside that makes my father, or anyone, a Superman.

As a child, he filled my mind with fanciful tales about the 36 hidden tzadikim, legendary heroes who perform miraculous deeds in secret and shadow. Sometimes Elijah the Prophet himself would come down from Heaven, disguised as a pauper or vagabond, to aid someone in distress. Throughout the chapters of my youth, I silently absorbed these stories about the tzadik in disguise.

But as I matured, I began to ask “why” and question the veracity of these tales my father so loved. Maybe those stories were a crutch for weak-minded mortals desperately trying to make sense of a senseless world? Maybe they were all made up to keep the faithful masses in line?

Or maybe I was all wrong. Maybe my father loved them because he knew what it felt like to be misjudged and discounted like a worthless pauper by the Darwinian fittest in society? Maybe these stories spoke to him more than they could ever speak to me? And maybe, just maybe, it didn’t matter if all those miraculous stories happened or not.

Whereas other folktales and nursery rhymes brainwash children with mindless and insipid tales about chopping up blind mice and such things, my father's stories brainwashed me to believe that the smelly, poor, homeless man who everyone else overlooks might really be a hidden tzaddik, with the potential to become one of the greatest humans on the planet. Can there be any greater purpose for a story than that?

Throughout my life, I’ve stood in my father’s shadow and watched how he spends time with those who feel depressed and defeated by their so-called “disability.” Sometimes, these people are homeless with pungent body odors assaulting the very notion of smell itself. Other times, they’re people who own homes but whose spiritual homelessness assaults them with a depressing pugnacity from within. Either way, I witness how he treats each of them as if they are Elijah the Prophet.

They say it takes a hero to gaze unflinchingly past their childhood indoctrinations. But my father’s indoctrination is pure goodness. “Everyone is brainwashed,” my father says. “It just depends on what you wash your brain with.” He brainwashed me to want to be like him, a hero.

Nowadays, I don’t care as much about the “why” as about the “what” which defines him. When you scratch away all of Superman’s powers, you’re left with someone like my father who just wants to see the good guys win and refuses to give up hope that there is goodness in others.

Like a superhero, my father shows me that what the world might view as ordinary and mild-mannered can be truly extraordinary. As Major General Louis H. Wilson once said, “True genius lies not in doing the extraordinary things, but in doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.” And, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, “It takes a genius to be truly simple.”

This is why I don’t pray that I grow up to be like Superman. I pray that I grow up to be like my Tatty. Compared to him, Superman has a lot to live up to. For my father shows me that even greater than being a Superman, is being a mensch