Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Excerpts from a Letter...

I wrote a letter on Sunday to my first cousin (who flew in and delivered the first hesped at my dad's funeral service), his wife and children, and to his mother -- who, thankfully, survived the war with my father.

...We have now lost someone very precious to us – a father, husband, grandfather, brother, uncle: Yaakov Arieh ha-Levi.

You well know what my father was about: what human and Torah values he upheld, what respect he commanded from others when he did not seek it, what nurturing he and my mother provided, what goodness sustained him, what survivor personality helped him endure.

So many times he was hospitalized; so many times did he return home….a little worse for wear, but with all his fine attributes intact. These attributes shone through to his last days.

Yes, it was a difficult week for us, as I’m sure it was for you. But it was a much-needed week, and on my father’s behalf, a much deserved week. I’ve always felt sorry for people who haven’t had the opportunity to sit shiva for more than an hour because of a Yom Tov. As others have said, it truly is helpful.

It isn’t that I heard lots of nostalgic stories throughout the week, but it’s the people who came to pay a shiva call or those who called us from all points in the world. It was overwhelming and heartwarming to see people from all walks, from all stripes – from our various schools and universities, from our shuls, from our social circles, etc. They came out of the woodwork to honour our father’s memory…and our family.

For that reason, I wasn’t so sad; I remained composed throughout the week of his last illness, and through my father’s petirah [burial] and shiva. More than anything I’m grateful – because we had my father for so many years, and because of the solid foundation he and my mother provided for us; I’m proud of my father’s strong belief in Hashem and his always keeping his siddur or Tehillim close at hand – and making constant use of them. My father was always the “ehrliche Yid.” I am also thankful that my father is no longer in pain and that his neshama is reunited with those whom he loved dearly and missed terribly for all those years.

It is these emotions that supercede any sadness and true grief. I know that I will have many moments when I am sad because of my loss, and perhaps people cannot understand that I haven’t been crying all this time, but my father was all goodness, and that knowledge sustains me...

Hesped (Eulogy) for My Father

For several years, I used to think how I would honor my father in a hesped...what stories I would tell, what descriptions I would use.

But when it came time, the morning of March 8th, to write the words, I decided that less is more. Sure I could tell anecdotes galore -- who can't!? -- but my father was a simple and quiet man and I knew that my choice of words would hold much strength.

My two brothers spoke, and my first cousin who flew in from NY also spoke. In essence, we each said the same things, without having consulted one another. That is a true indicator that we spoke the truth, and those things we chose to say, reflect the beautiful legacy that my father left us with.

Here is the hesped I said:

Eesh Taam v’yashar. A man who lived his life straight and with great morals and integrity.

He valued and lived by common decency, strong Jewish traditions and a deep Kavanah/
faith in Hashem, hard work and a rich family life. My father was a firm believer in hachnasat orchim – the welcoming of guests – and he and my mother were open-armed to everyone.

Generous with all he had, always giving – rarely, if ever, receiving. Always trying to better life for his wife, for his children, while at the same time content with his lot. He chose to never move to a bigger house or buy big-ticket items and it was rare for him to reward himself in any way.

He raised us on shmirat ha-lashon – staying clear of slander or gossip. A few years ago, the wife of one of my father’s best friends told me, “I never heard your dad say a bad word about anyone.” To me, that was the greatest compliment because I knew it was true.

Loved by children, friends, family, and customers, my father was a charming, decent and kind man whose reputation preceded him in every way.

Although he was hospitalized several times over the years, for serious and lengthy stays, he managed to endure, my mother closely at his side. When asked “How do you feel?” he responded with “Not too bad, thank you.” His attitude and survivor mentality always came with the tag line “Let’s hope for the best.” And together, we always did!

Michael’s friend, Salem Alaton, left a beautiful note in the online memorial book. It describes my father very well. I quote: “Jacob endured so much in his life with great strength and fortitude, creating a richly fulfilling environment for his young family after the horrors of Europe. A life lived as a tremendous act of defiance in the wake of the senseless hatreds that took away so much from him.”

To extend on that, I want to read a poem I wrote and published a few years ago. It gave me great pleasure to have my father hear me read the poem at a public reading because this poem represents his life.


Young boy – a son and brother –
You are a mentor and protector
to so many. Uprooted at an early age –
father deceased, mother struggling to raise
a young family.

The streets of your village
are awash with scholars
who study with the great rebbe –
Talmud, Mishnah, Chumash, Halacha.
You peer through the dusty cheder windows,
longing to join them.
You are too young yet.
And yet, you are too old…
The branch that your mother
and siblings cling to for support.
You must bear fruit for the others,
and labor to do so.

Nature can be merciless at times,
giving and then taking away,
wiping out traces of life and beauty.
In time, a dreadful storm comes,
wiping out that cheder, that village…
your dear ones.

But you, thank God,
have been able to root temporarily
in other places.
And slowly, slowly, you awaken
after that harsh, stormy winter.
Weakened, you are warmed by the sun;
your fragility begins to heal.
And you are replanted yet again.

A husband. A father.
A mentor and protector once more.
You move silently into your verdant garden and kneel,
shovel and soil beside you.
You recall Leviticus 19:23.
“And when you arrive in the land, plant all manner of fruit trees…”

You are giving back to the earth,
Enriching it with new life. A plum tree.
Roots clinging to the cool earth, the tree grows,
flourishes…its branches strong.
Over time it bears fruit, and more fruit.
You harvest from its sweet gifts –
again and again,
repeating the cycle each year.

And you remember your roots…

“And he shall be like a tree planted by
the rivers of water,
that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
his leaf also shall not wither;
and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”

Psalms 1:3

[and then I ad-libbed and said something like:]

Since I was a little girl, my father and I had a sign-off, “Me-la-la,” which means “I love you.”

[I looked at the coffin at this point]

“Me-la-la, Dad. May you rest in peace.”