Coming Full Circle
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
When I arrived at the Palo Alto home of Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman the Thursday night before Chanukah, Rebbetzin Feldman told me excitedly that she had just heard from her children on the East Coast that the Mishpacha article on Rabbi Feldman and his Palo Alto community, Emek Beracha, was finally on the newsstands. She added that my photo and that of Rabbi Feldman were above one another on the Mishpacha website.
Mishpacha's Barbara Bensoussan had interviewed the Feldmans and other members of the Palo Alto community for the article more than half a year ago, and members of the community had begun to wonder whether it would ever appear. But the irony here was not just that the article was finally published just as another Mishpacha writer arrived at the Feldman home.
As was discussed in the article, my wife and I played a role in Rabbi Feldman's religious journey. Moreover, our recent Shabbos at the Feldmans' was the culmination of a week in which our relationship with Rabbi Feldman came full circle.
He first came to our home, then opposite Ohr Somayach, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 36 years ago, wearing one of the cardboard kippot handed out at the Kosel. We have remained close ever since. I was then in my first zeman learning by Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky, after my own introduction to Torah learning at Ohr Somayach, and must have seemed like a knowledgeable Jew in his eyes. Today, Rabbi Feldman has served as rav of a kehillah for over two decades, while I am in no danger of being inundated with halachic queries. And certainly not the kinds of halachic questions that my wife was posing to Rabbi Feldman during the harrowing week that ended in Palo Alto.
My wife had spent the better part of two days by the hospital bed of her father, Mr. Robert Block, prior to his passing in a Sacramento hospital. During that time, and while making the arrangements for the levayah, she had deluged Rabbi Feldman with ten or more sh'eilos a day about the medical treatment her father was receiving and subsequently about arrangements for the funeral.
Just a few months earlier, Rabbi Feldman's own father was buried in the same Jewish cemetery in Sacramento where my wife's father would be buried. So he was also able to provide all the necessary information about the chevra kaddisha and the local mortuary, and to remove much of the burden of the arrangements from my wife. Thus, nearly four decades after first turning up at our home, Rabbi Feldman became our rav at a crucial juncture.
THE DELAY OF A DAY in the levayah (not at our bidding) allowed me time to return from Kiev, where I was with a tour group, and to fly that same night to San Francisco and from there drive to Sacramento. I arrived in time to officiate at my father-in-law's levayah, in what I assume will be my first and last time fulfilling that function. I too relied heavily on Reb Yitzchok's directions.
My father-in-law had no Jewish education. He did not know his Hebrew name or how to read Hebrew. His own father was the son of an Orthodox rav in Philadelphia, who apparently rebelled against his religious upbringing and left it behind when he moved to Chicago. And although he returned to the religious observance of his youth in his last years, by then it was too late for his children.
My wife's mother was from a much more traditional family, and my father-in-law always went along with the more religious upbringing she gave her two daughters. More surprising, in the nearly 40 years since our wedding, he never expressed to us or our children the slightest criticism of the life we chose. He visited us in Israel almost every year, until he was 93 — the last trip involved two stops and took almost a full 24 hours each way — and sometimes twice a year when there was a family simchah.
He put on a yarmulke as soon as he arrived in Israel — that black yarmulke was found in his effects — and wore it as long as he was here. In our house, he washed for bread and would recite transliterated brachos.
His visits were greatly anticipated by our children. As one son wrote after his passing, "He always asked us what presents we wanted. And he did not just hand out the presents, but sat down with each of us in turn to show us how it worked and to play with us. It was a lesson in how to give." Another son remembered how he always thanked him on each subsequent visit for having taken him to the Terem emergency medical clinic after a fall.
Though we were unable to even gather a minyan, the levayah was a true tribute to a long life filled with much good and blessing. My youngest son, Elimelech, who accompanied my wife to Sacramento, read out memories of Grandpa from all his siblings. Those memories were remarkably congruent with one another.
He always tried to do the right thing. One son remembered once asking Grandpa why he refrained from doing something that no one would ever know about. He answered simply, "I would know."
Perhaps the most important message was one mentioned by several of my children and another grandson. He confided in them that he had struggled with certain character defects as a young man, but at some point decided to change. And he did. Neither I nor any of his grandchildren ever saw a trace of those negative middos. And that was the most important lesson of all: A person can change if he or she wants too.
I'm proud of my children that they never looked down on their grandfather for what he lacked in Jewish learning. And I'm grateful to him that he provided a model of character to emulate.
One Small Turnaround
The more one learns about the conduct of the German SS troops during the Holocaust, the more one wonders how a nation could have produced so many sadists. They derived enjoyment from their cruelty: bayonetting babies for sport in front of their helpless parents; stripping prisoners and spraying them with cold war in subzero temperatures and then watching them freeze to death; finding every way possible to dehumanize their victims.
One of the first resolutions I made after visiting the death camps and ghettos in Poland was to strive to counteract the cruelty of the Nazis, yemach shemam, with some little kindness in every interaction with others, whether it be nothing more than a smile or an encouraging word.
I'm often struck by how little it takes to leave others feeling good for hours. On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I was in the car with a friend while he was looking for a parking space near the early afternoon minyan. He spied a spot across the street, and embarked on a three-point turn to reach it. But as he was turning around, another driver coming from the other direction zipped into the space and exited his car.
As he did so, he noticed us in the midst of turning around, and signaled to ask whether we had already set our eyes on the space he had just taken. We indicated that we had, and he got right back into his car and drove away with a smile.
That small gesture already left me feeling good about the world. And that feeling only intensified when we reached the minyan and the driver of the other car went up to the amud to daven. Despite the fact that he had been under time pressure due to his chiyuv and had done nothing wrong in parking where he had, he had not hesitated to vacate the space and look for another.
After davening, I went up to him and told him that I was blown away by his alacrity and pleasantness in giving up his space, especially in light of his circumstances. Though we do not know one another personally, he responded by thanking me for my columns.
"You just became one," I said, seeking to pay back the favor in some small way.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Personalities
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