My father passed away on the 29th of Sivan, June 18, 2004. “How did he die?” many visitors asked during the week of shiva. I answered, “I’ll tell you how my father died. But first, I’ll tell you how he lived.”
When I think back to the Friday afternoons of my childhood, many of my senses magically return to our home in Queens. I can smell the intoxicating aroma of my Imma’s legendary chicken soup. I can taste the scrumptious potato kugel that inevitably – and surreptitiously – would be nearly devoured by us kids before Shabbos even began. I can see the gleaming candlesticks on the credenza.
But most of all, I can hear my father’s voice booming on those not-so-rare occasions when his four children dawdled instead of showering, putting away their books and toys, tidying their room, or changing into their festive attire. Abba’s words rang through the house with an intensity belied by the simultaneous twinkle in his gray-blue eyes. And the words were always the same: “Shabbos waits for no one!”
“Shabbos waits for no one.” My Abba treated Shabbos with the reverence one would accord royalty. For him, the Sabbath Queen was not a poetic or midrashic abstraction; it was reality. And the reality is that you don’t keep a queen waiting.
Abba made sure that his children heeded his cry. But his actions spoke louder than his words. A man of uncommon modesty, he never told us about his numerous acts of devotion on behalf of Jews and Judaism, many of which we learned about during the shiva week, but one story he did tell us every now and then, not to honor himself, but to honor Shabbos. It was the story of the blizzard of 1947.
The NYC Office of Emergency Management’s website puts it this way (at least until it is updated, thanks to the blizzard of 2006): “Dropping 26.4 inches of snow in Central Park, the blizzard of 1947 still holds rank as the biggest snowstorm in New York City history. As moisture in the Gulf Stream fed the storm’s energy, the City was paralyzed when the blizzard barreled its way through, stranding cars and buses in the streets, halting subway service, and claiming 77 lives.”
What the NYC Office of Emergency Management neglects to report is that the blizzard of 1947 struck on December 26, what should have been an uneventful… Friday.
Around midday, Abba must have peered out of his midtown Manhattan office window to observe the havoc unfolding outside. Without delay, he headed for Penn Station and the Long Island Railroad. His destination was Arverne, near Far Rockaway, where he lived at the time with my mother and my older brother, then an infant.
As the train inched its way toward Long Island, it suddenly came to a stop. A tense hour passed, and the train did not move. When Abba’s watch told him that it was 4 p.m., he approached the conductor and said, “I have to get off this train.” The conductor replied, “Mister, that’s out of the question. We are in between stations. No one is allowed to get off the train.” Firmly but politely, Abba replied, “I’m sorry, but I’m getting off the train.”
I’m not sure how he did it, but Abba got off the train and found himself in the middle of nowhere. He walked amid the whirlwind of snow until he came to a pharmacy. He went inside, found the pharmacist and said, “Here’s my wallet, here’s my watch, here’s my handkerchief. I’ll be back in 25 hours.” I imagine that the pharmacist stared at my father as if he were crazy, but he took my father’s possessions — and when my father returned as promised, all his belongings were intact.
After handing over everything in his pockets, Abba did an about-face, headed into the eye of the storm and soon spotted one pedestrian. Who else would be out on a day like that except a man making his way to shul? The man took Abba under his wing for the entire Shabbos, spent in Forest Hills, then a fledgling Jewish community. I am sure that Abba never forgot that man’s kindness. And I am sure that that man never forgot Jerry Willig and his devotion to Shabbos.
If there was one thing that matched Abba’s devotion to Shabbos, it was his devotion to family. Because the phrase we traditionally use when speaking of one’s father is “Avi-Mori,” “my father, my teacher,” permit me to share with you both aspects of my father’s relationship with his children.
First, a few examples of Abba as our ever-present teacher:
My father taught us that all knowledge was worthwhile. The recipient of Yeshiva University’s Class of ’38 mathematics award, he kept his kids busy with math that matched their developmental level. “How much is one plus one?” was soon replaced by “If one apple costs five cents, how much do two apples cost?” Before we knew it, we were begging for problems like “If five apples cost two dollars, how much does one apple cost?” And just to prove that Torah and secular knowledge could coexist, he would ask us, “Which parashah (Torah portion) has the lowest gematria (numeric value)?” [My kid brother Dovid got the answer instantly — Bo — not to mention the answer to the flipside question (the parashah with the highest gematria is Bereishis).]
Abba loved the Hebrew language and taught us to love it too. He didn’t merely teach us individual words in Hebrew and Aramaic. He taught us complete sentences from the Torah and the Talmud. I remember him admonishing us, particularly if we were eating too many potato chips, “Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta!” “If you have grabbed too much, you end up holding on to nothing at all.” And many a stomach ache later, we knew exactly what he meant. When his grandson, Avraham, was in nursery school, a classmate was hoarding all the building blocks. Avraham ran over to the culprit and chided him, “Joey, tafasta meruba, lo tafasta!” His teacher nearly fainted.
But Abba, our teacher, made an even greater impact by the example he set, learning Torah himself at every opportunity. He rose each morning at or near the crack of dawn to attend a 6:00 a.m. Talmud class. And every night he came home after a long day at the office and studied more Torah.
As much as my father loved teaching us, most of all he loved loving us. I was a primary beneficiary of that love, a love of which legends are made. Who could forget his miracle of February 1968 when he arranged, in one day, for me to leave the hospital where I had been confined for six months, to travel in a stretcher by ambulance to Carnegie Hall, where I attended the concert of my dreams? There’s nothing Abba wouldn’t have done for his children.
If there was one thing that matched Abba’s devotion to his family, it was his devotion to his fellow Jews. Institutions or individuals, it made no difference to Abba; if they were in need, he helped without hesitation. A few years ago at a friend’s wedding, a distinguished gentleman approached me. “Hello, my name is Rabbi Moshe Zwick. I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you that your father saved my life.” This, of course, was news to me. Rabbi Zwick explained that when he was a baby, he required an emergency blood transfusion. Then in his twenties, my father learned that he had the necessary blood type and immediately volunteered to donate all the blood required for the procedure. When I spoke to Rabbi Zwick during my week of shiva, he said, “I feel as if a part of me has died.”
Shabbos. Torah. Family. The Jewish People. These were the loves of his life.
Now that I’ve told you how my father lived, I’ll tell you how he died. In a nutshell, he died exactly as he lived: quietly, unassumingly and with the utmost respect for his beloved Shabbos. On Friday, the 29th of Sivan, June 18, 2004, one half-hour before Shabbos began, his heart simply stopped. A gentle kiss took him away. The emergency medical technicians and ER doctors tried valiantly to revive him, but gave up precisely as Shabbos started. It was as if Abba’s soul had said, “I have an important journey to make, and I mustn’t delay, for Shabbos waits for no one.”
May it be God’s will that as we wait for the ultimate Shabbos in whose light my father now basks, we strive to emulate — in ways big and small — the qualities of this extraordinary man.
Chava Willig Levy is a writer, editor and lecturer from Woodmere. Her web site (http://www.chavawilliglevy.com) showcases her lectures, articles and editorial services; her blog, accessed via her web site’s “Talking to Myself” link, chronicles her latest adventures. Chava can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 Chava Willig Levy. All rights reserved.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.