Surrogate Fatherhood


In the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestles with an angel one night and comes to a standstill. The angel leaves a mark on Jacob’s thigh to commemorate his struggle. Forever after Jacob walks with a limp. I, too, have a mark on my thigh…

From Bruce Feiler’s Cancer Diary, July 13, 2009

Bruce Feiler’s artistic muses are a pair of birds.

Residents of his imagination, each one sits on one of his shoulders. When the best-selling author proposes a topic for his next book, the birds tender their advice. “This is really good,” says one. “This is going to move a lot of people.”

“This is really awful,” says the other. “Nobody’s going to care. Go to law school.”

Recently, while about to embark on his next writing project, he was diagnosed with bone cancer, he got well and he decided to write about one part of that experience.

This time, both birds were in his corner; the “no” bird was silent.

His latest book, “The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me” (William Morrow), focuses on his innovative way to make a half-dozen male friends a “presence” in his twin daughters’ lives in case their father were not around. Fearing he might not survive a battle with cancer, he recruited six close friends, who represented a range of his values and personality — the travel-loving dad, the take-a-chance-in-life dad, go-for-your-dream dad, etc. — to play an increased part in his young children’s lives.

“These are the men who know me the best,” he wrote of each of his Council choices after his diagnosis. “The men who helped shape and guide me. Men who know my voice.

“I believe my daughters will have plenty of resources in their lives” — absent their father, Feiler wrote. “They’ll have loving families. They’ll have each other. But they may not have me. They may not have their dad.

“Will you be their dad? Will you listen in on them? Will you answer their questions? Will you take them out to lunch every now and then? Will you go to a soccer game if you’re in town? Will you watch their ballet moves for the umpteenth time? Will you be my voice?” Will you, in other words, be a surrogate father if their real father is not around?

Each said yes. Each would help Feiler’s daughters grow up. Each would grow old with them.

Feiler tells his story and theirs in “The Council of Dads.” It’s the ninth book by the Brooklyn Heights resident and New York Times “Family Matters” columnist who established his fame with “Walking the Bible,” a 2001 chronicle, made into a PBS series, of his trek through the lands of the Five Books of Moses.

“Walking” became Feiler’s literary signature.

Today, he walks with a slight limp, the result of surgery a year ago to remove bone cancer from his left leg. That limb, now home to a titanium prosthetic replacement bone, is three-eighths of an inch shorter than his right leg.

“I’m cancer free,” he says one recent morning, speaking without any notable accent from his native Savannah. The chemo-induced nausea is gone. His hair has grown back. He goes for checkups every few months to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.

And, symbolically, he’s still juggling, a skill he learned in summer camp at 13. At 45, it’s his metaphor for taking chances, for literally dropping the ball and starting over again. He juggled in his hospital bed to amuse his daughters when they came for visits.

Feiler started juggling, under a camp counselor’s tutelage, with oranges, on the side of a hill. A missed orange meant a lost orange.

Today, he says, he juggles on level ground.

He walked on crutches for 15 months after his surgery, on a cane for another eight. “Now,” with regular physical therapy, “I’m on neither.”

About to decide on his next writing project, he’s doing speeches and media interviews — as an authority on faith, family, and now, femurs — to promote “The Council of Dads.”

Part of his message: start your own Council. offers advice.

It’s by far his most personal book. In “Learning to Bow,” about a year he spent in Japan teaching English and learning about Japanese culture, and in “Looking for Class,” about his year as a graduate student at Oxford and Cambridge, he writes first-person accounts of other people’s cultures. “Walking the Bible,” while mirroring his spiritual growth, was heavy on history and geography.

He wrote each as an outsider turned insider. “The Council of Dads” is all insider. It’s intensely personal. It’s one man’s story.

Or maybe it’s not, Feiler says. “I’m not sure the book is about me,” he says. “It’s about community. It’s about hope. It’s about being a man today.”

With the bulk of e-mail letters he sent friends during his “war,” his illness and convalescence, to keep everyone updated, Feiler describes how people rallied around him, how he and his wife and daughters coped with cancer’s physical and emotional demands, and how he, inspired by a dream one dawn, asked six far-flung friends to help guide Tybee and Eden if, God forbid, that should be necessary.

“A team of godparents updated for a modern age,” who could keep in touch with the kids by e-mail and Facebook, he says.

Each member of his Council would reflect part of Feiler’s personality. Each old friend has stayed a part of his, and his daughters’ lives. “They’re not just Daddy’s friends. They’re their friends, too.”

What did Feiler learn from forming the Council?

“You can’t have too many adults who love your children,” he says. “I can’t believe I lived without it for three years as a parent.”

By I, he means both himself and his wife Linda Rottenberg, active members in the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, where the twins attended pre-school. Rottenberg is a world-traveling graduate of Harvard and Yale who is co-founder of Endeavor, a nonprofit group that identifies and supports “high-impact” entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

The girls, now 5, “loved the ‘Council of Dads’ and asked Linda to start a Council of Moms, too,” Feiler says.

What does his father, who still lives in Savannah, think about “The Council of Dads?”

“I never asked him that directly,” he says. “He liked it — I know that.”

Feiler grows silent when answering a question, staring ahead until the words form in his mind.

Was it harder writing a book about himself than those about other people?

No. “It literally fell off my fingers.”

Each book is, in some way, “about being Jewish in the South,” Feiler says. “I grew up in the South. I loved the stickiness, I loved the familyness, I loved the storytelling,” he says.

“I also grew up Jewish,” part of an identified, synagogue-going family in a mostly Christian culture.

He was insider and outsider at the same time.

He brought to the book of his own life, he says, his tools as a journalistic observer. “Most people who go through this [cancer experience] … it’s a blur,” Dr. John Healey, his surgeon, told Feiler.

“He was astounded by how much I noticed about the experience – both physically and emotionally.”

Feiler refers to his cancer year as his “lost year.” He was too tired to be creative. His also calls it his “jubilee year,” from the biblical concept of letting fields lie fallow every 50 years.

“I was forced to lay fallow,” he wrote in his online Cancer Diary. “I took off the trappings of contemporary life — vanity, ambition, pretense — and entered into a sort of parallel time where I was compelled to do things the Bible envisions. Be needy. Be a stranger. Be uplifted by those around me. Be reunited with the ones I love.

“Lying fallow,” Feiler says, “planted seeds for a healthier future.”

He was about to choose the subject of his next book when cancer put his career on hold. He was thinking of a walking-across-America book, or one about the future of religion.

He’s ready to choose one of those subjects soon.

What do the birds on his shoulders say? Feiler chokes up at the question.

The birds offer the same advice, he says: “Get a project you’re passionate about.”

Cancer, I have found, is a passport to intimacy. It’s an invitation — maybe even a mandate — to enter the most vital, frightening, and sensitive human arenas. It’s a responsibility to address those issues we rarely want to discuss, but we feel enriched when we do.

From Bruce Feiler’s Cancer Diary, Aug. 15, 2008