Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bitter Heshvan

Thank God, Wednesday night begins the new month of Kislev. I can hardly wait until this current month of Heshvan is over. The Rabbis nick-named Heshvan Mar-Heshvan, bitter Heshvan, because it has no holidays in it.  Tishre, the month before is chocked full of holidays including Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah.  We celebrate Hanukkah at the end of Kilsev, the new month. Only Heshvan has no holidays to celebrate in it.

Usually I enjoy the calm of Heshvan without the crush of holiday preparations.  Normal life resumes and that is a mechaya!  This Heshvan; however, has turned out to be truly bitter because I officiated at 3 members’ funerals and another friend originally from Springfield passed away this month.  Many of us joke about the dysfunctional Jewish family, but we forget about all the wonderful mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and siblings who live their lives as role models for the rest of us.  Each in his or her own way makes his/her little corner of the world a little bit better, brighter, and cleaner.  Let me share from my eulogies to explain why those people’s deaths made Heshvan all the more bitter.

Milton Rothman of blessed memory had a large heart.  Helping others gave him pleasure.  He was a wonderful father testified his sons.  He would go out of his way to get what they needed or what just interested them. More likely than not he would just surprise them with what ever they had mentioned. What ever he did, Milt did in a big way like bringing a trunk load of NY bagels or deli to his children so they could have the New York style food they had grown up with but now unavailable now in Maryland. But he would share the food with people along the way as he drove down for his visit.  His son told me a story how a car got limped off the Grand Central Parkway and died right in front of his house.  These strangers were distraught because they were on their way to their mother’s house to celebrate Mother’s Day and now they wouldn’t make it.  Milton gave them the keys to his car and let perfect strangers drive off to their mother’s house with only a promise to return at the end of the day.  These grateful strangers returned the car and couldn’t thank him enough.  This is not the typical New Yorker I heard about growing up in Cleveland.

Irving Kleinman of blessed memory was the gentlest person you would ever want to meet. Irving had a Hebrew name that was unforgettable. cegh ic ejmh ovrct.  As you can hear, it included all of our 3 Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  According to the Kabbalah, the unknowable God sent forth 10 sefirot or emanations which symbolical represent 10 different aspects of God’s personality. The kabbalists insist that these figures of speech shouldn’t be taken literally.  They are intended to convey something of the beyond.

The sefirot are known by many names and I find it compelling to note that 3 are known as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Irving combined the attributes of Abraham/hesed or love and compassion, Isaac/din or restraint, with Jacob/teferret or beauty to be a shaina mench.  Everybody loved him.  He would give the shirt of his back to anybody for he could never say no.  Few people knew the extent of his volunteer work in so many different organizations.  His daughter told me that he had three loves, his family, his department store, and the Knights of Pythias. Irv was such an optimistic person.  He always saw the bright side of things for there wasn’t one negative bone in his body.

Sylvia Shapiro of blessed memory reminded me of Miriam Mendilow. For a couple of summers I had the privilege of introducing Jewish teenagers to the tzedakah work of Miriam Mendilow.  Israel awarded her the Israel prize for creating Yad Lakashish, an institution which restores dignity to the elderly.  Although short of stature she truly was one of the giants of Jerusalem.  She appreciated when I taught those USYers that she wasn’t short but concentrated.

Sylvia was like that too.  At 4’ 11” she was comfortable in her own skin.  She was a powerhouse, a dynamo. She was proud of who she was.  When I was speaking to the family, somebody described her saying that good things come in small packages.  I immediate thought to myself that she was just like Miriam Mendilow.  She wasn’t short; she was concentrated. 

I love the story her husband shared with me.  They weren’t only the perfect dance couple they were the perfect husband and wife for 61 years of happily married life.  They never raised their voices; they never argued.  This perplexed their neighbors because the walls of the Deepdale apartments are paper thin.  Somebody actually asked them “Where do you go to fight?”  She was also a dedicated and hard working member of her local Hadassah chapter whose name appears on one of the walls of Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

To tell you the truth, I had really lost touch with Ellen and her husband Jeffrey.  I moved on from Springfield, MA to Framingham, MA, and ultimately landed here in Douglaston, NY and they moved to Florida.  We reacquainted ourselves when she came up to the City for her fight against her cancer.  Both Judy and I went to visit her and at the end to comfort Jeffery as she was dying after the doctors couldn’t help her any longer during her last trip up north.  I was moved by Jeff’s absolute love, devotion, and care of his wife.

Heshvan is almost a homonym in Hebrew for the phrase Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of one’s life.  Now that I have reached my seventh decade by celebrating my 60th birthday this past June, I know that I have fewer days ahead of me than behind me.  Talking with the survivors made me think about how I shall be remembered once I hit the 120th year mark of my life.  Will I be remembered as being as helpful as Milton was?  Will I be remembered as being as compassionate as Irving was?  Will I be remembered as loving as Sylvia and Jeffery were?  How will my family, friends, and all those congregants I served think of me when I am gone?

Rabbi Abraham Twerski taught me the true meaning of humility.  Being humble doesn’t mean saying “I am nothing, I am nothing” when that is obviously not true.  That’s plain old lying.  Being humble means saying, “I have yet to reach my full potential.”  That certainly applies to me.  I haven’t yet reached my full potential as a husband, father, and rabbi.  I am glad I am leaving the month of Heshvan behind me and looking for a new start in the month of Kislev.  What a wonderful time to try to be the person I can be now because my family is anticipating our first grandchild any day now.  Having Milton, Irving, Sylvia, Ellen and all of my other friends, lehebadil bechayim, as my role models, I hope and pray that I live up to all those positive examples and strive to reach my full mench potential. My future grandchild and the rest of my family and community deserve nothing but the best from me.

I think that would be my best Hanukkah present ever!