Two Stories of My Dad

Michael Burns
MDI Contributor

Two of my dad’s stories really stick out as truly affecting my life. One is the foundation of my identity; the other is what is behind my passion for organizing and uniting circles of men.


My dad Hank was born and grew up in the lower east side of Manhattan in an orthodox Jewish family that came over from Lithuania. When Hank was 12 his dad died, leaving it up to his wife and Hank to run the butcher shop.

To properly mourn the death of his father, the religion requires that Hank would do that in a synagogue in the presence of a minion, 10 men. Dad remembered needing to pay winos on the streets to come in so that there would be the minion to witness the prayers of mourning.

Figuratively this blew the little boy out of the water, and literally it blew him out of Judaism. Hank was a practical-minded kid so the religious traditions, holidays, rituals didn’t mean much to him. Now the purpose, value, and reason for a religion also didn’t make sense to him. What did make sense to him was having the identity of Henry Charles Bernstein be established by who he was and how he showed up, not by a label of his ancestors’ choosing.

After college, the end of my first marriage, and seeing the TV series “Roots,” I spent a year and a half in Israel to see if my identity had something to do with my Jewish ancestry, because at that point in my life I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t even articulate an answer to the question “Who am I?”

I did explore and experience Jewish life, both observant Judaism and secular Zionism. I resonated with, and wanted to embrace, neither. I agreed with and accepted my dad’s philosophy that identity is formed by thoughts, values, words and actions.


Hank put himself through Cornell, and on campus, he saw a number of fraternities, clubs, groups and organizations that were based upon various religions. He attempted to get these clubs to communicate, cooperate, and interact with one another. His vision was for there to be a greater understanding and awareness of what the groups had in common, and to honor the differences.

I drove this concept and vision with the various circles of men in the greater San Francisco bay area for a number of years. Out of this drive came eight years running of The Circles of Men (COM) weekends in the Santa Cruz mountains. A Leaders Council was created that had a representative from the circles meet in order to further the communication and cooperation of men with such similar purposes and missions. The men’s circles represented were: MDI, East Bay Nation of Men, South Bay Nation of Men, Circle of Men, Tribe, Mankind Project, Mobius, and Tribe of Men.

Like father like son; I see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Baruch ha abba sheli – blessed is my father.

4 thoughts on “Two Stories of My Dad”

  1. Edward Lohmann

    Mike, words of fraternity, and a beautiful photograph of you and your Dad. I remember him, We would go to a Raiders game at the Oakland Coliseum, and would park at his business, such a short distance away.

  2. Better late than never‼️.
    Although I saw this message many weeks ago,, i knew i was too embroiled with family “ doings “ to focus on what you might have written.
    Finally, I read your two stories this a m and want to share how much i appreciated both! Although the stories of dad are familiar, reading your well articulated, life long connection and impact on you is gift.
    You always were an excellent writer!

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