Hesped delivered at the funeral of Max Shaffer zal
London UK Iyar 11th 5774-May 11th 2014
By Rabbi Ian Shaffer
Dear family and friends,
Thank you all for coming to give the final honor to my father zal on this sad day. There was an obituary in the New York Times about 5-6 years ago about a man who had worked in a well known deli on the Upper West side of Manhattan (it happened to be the father of one of our neighbours in Fair Lawn). He had worked until he was 90, he was a man who had many clients who enjoyed talking to him as much as they enjoyed the lox he was cutting and he was known as the ‘deli guy’. When I read this I said to my wife that this could have been written about my father who was the ‘deli guy’ for so many people, having worked in the food trade for over 50 years.
My father was born in the East End of London in 1915 (lower east side equivalent) to
immigrant parents who were already married in Warsaw before they came to the UK. He was barmitzvah in the Christian Street Talmud Torah and spent his early years in the very Jewish neighbourhood of Whitechapel London. After I had seen the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ I told my father about the opening scene in Wembley Stadium and my father told me he remembered it well. I also asked him about the anti Fascist rally in 1936 in London and he told me he was there and how they had thrown ball bearings at the horses to stop the police charging at the Jewish demonstrators against Oswald Moseley. My father was literally ‘a living history book’ or as someone put it to me, he lived from the horse drawn carriage to the hybrid car(he actually bought one in his 90’s and gave me many palpitations when he drove me around in it in the local area). To quote the Peter Pan terminology, ‘he never lost his marbles’ and had his faculties’ right up to his last illness.
I have to mention how my brother and sister in law(Nigel and Dalia) looked out for him and especially my sister and brother in law(Melanie and Steven), with whom he lived for the last 14 years. Their example of Kibud Av was outstanding and I will always be grateful to them for the love and attention which they gave him and which he returned in kind to them. As Bialik said about the Shabbat, that as much as the Jews kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat kept the Jews, the same is true of my sister and brother in law in that as much as they cared for my father, he was there for them during the good and difficult times in the last few years.
I know that you sometimes see articles which discuss the secret of longevity (diet, no smoking, abstinence of some sort etc) and I asked myself if there was a more spiritual explanation for my father’s 98 years. I found the answer in this week’s Parsha (Bechukotai). At the end of the Tochacha(ch. 26) which describes the terrible churban (destruction) which can come about if the Jews do not keep the Mitzvot, especially in Israel, the Torah adds one more perek before ending the book of Vayikra. This is the chapter of Erchin, which deals with a law of valuations applying to some one who donates the value of a person to the Temple. Why did the Torah add this law specifically after the Tochacha? What is the message?
I heard many years ago an explanation which applies to my father zal in the greatest possible way. At a time of churban(destruction) human life can become worthless and of no value(‘life is cheap’). This is not a Jewish value at all and the Torah adds the laws of valuations to make the point that we must never forget how each person does have a value as we are all created in the image of God. This idea is truly applicable to my dad who treated everyone he met with dignity and respect. He was in the care facilty at the end of his life for only 6 weeks and he made such a connection with his non Jewish carers that one of them sent us a text when she heard the news of his death:’my heart is broken’. This is how he lived his life with whoever he met and this was a constant act of Kiddush Hashem , making people respect his values and the intrinsic Jewishness which his life embodied. Although he was not fully observant he came back to many Mitzvot at the end of his life and my abiding memory of his last days was when the Chabad rabbi came to put Tefillin on him, and he had already finished the paragraph of Shema before the Rabbi managed to get the tefillin out of the bag.
I was privileged to study in Israel with Nechama Liebowitz zal, one of the foremost Bible teachers of our generation. When I went to her kever (grave)in Jerusalem, I saw that apart from her name and date of death, she asked that only one word to be put on the stone-Morah-Teacher, which summed up her essence and gave a great Mussar/moral lesson to all of us. No extra accolades were needed. I feel that my father should have 2 words on his stone.
1) Gentleman 2) Mensch. He embodied both of these qualities and I hope that all of the future generations of our family will be inspired to follow the example of this wonderful man.
May he now be a melitz yosher(good spokesman) for his family and for all of the nation of Israel and may his merit tip the balance for all of us to experience the final joy of the Mashiach times which we anxiously await .
May his memory be for a blessing. Tehe Zichro Baruch
Rabbi Ian Shaffer London UK