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Alexander Veytsman

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Alexander Veytsman

Last month the famous B'nei Israel Synagogue in Manhattan was shocked by news that was both incredible and gruesome. Moshe Zuckerman, one of the synagogue's most respected members, has been eaten alive by a lion in the South African safari. The details were sketchy, but what we knew for certain was that Zuckerman was on a visit to Cape Town, where he chaired the Jewish Purity Fund (JPF) conference. After he was done with official business and before flying back to New York, he decided to spend a couple of days in a safari. The rest is history. Some reports claim that the lion tore apart Moshe's hands and legs, before feasting on his head. Others note that the beast took a huge bite out of his chest, apparently going after Moshe's heart (Moshe had a big Jewish heart). Regardless, Moshe Zuckerman was dead. He was only fifty-six.

The news of Moshe's unexpected demise spread through the tight-knit B'nei Israel circles at an unfathomable speed. Cell phones, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter all of them immediately generated memorable tributes to the "beloved Moshe Zuckerman." At some point a YouTube video surfaced, showing how someone with a very strong resemblance to Moshe was being dismembered by a lion, but the video disappeared a few hours later.

It seemed that everyone knew Zuckerman. A week would not pass without his name mentioned by an article in The Jewish Week. He frequently dined with prominent Israeli leaders. He generously donated to every conceivable Jewish group in the country, in addition to fully funding the Jewish Purity Fund that he himself organized and nurtured. The JPF's mission was to disseminate the pride of the Jewish identity throughout the US and indeed the entire world. While Moshe was a household name to many, no one knew him as well as the JPF executive team.

How is it possible that what happened happened?

Is there even a future for us without him?

What was he doing in the safari?

I heard the lion was pretty traumatized, too.

And yes, it is not a hyperbole that the JPFers knew Moshe better than anyone. As tragic as it sounds, the man died a stranger to his long gone family.

For about nineteen years Moshe was married to Rivka, a gorgeous silver-eyed Brooklyn Rivka. It was a wonderful and caring relationship, one that was filled with love for one another, as well as with care for the community and the Jewish traditions. However, as soon as their twin girls entered college, Rivka abandoned her husband and ran away with an Israeli entrepreneur to live in Tel Aviv. Moshe woke up one morning without his wife and without nineteen years of memories. It was a strange feeling. On one hand he missed her; on another, he was proud and happy that his Rivka made aliyah, albeit under such adulterous circumstances.

The true shock came six years later, when, Naomi, one of the twin girls, told her father she planned to marry a non-Jew. Talk about a thunder in the middle of the night! Not only was this unexpected; it was abominable to everything that Zuckerman stood for. The man was sleepless for the next two months. And once those two months passed Rachel came to him with the same breaking news. Moshe pleaded, begged, he even threatened suicide, but all in vain. His twin girls married Gentiles. Moshe skipped the weddings, of course. Having given the girls a grace period, in case at least one, perhaps Rachel, would come to her senses, he eventually threw their names out of the will and cut off all personal ties to their new households.

The $80-90 million fortune became up for grabs. Zuckerman's vast philanthropic empire was now lacking an heir! As if sensing that Moshe would soon be eaten by the lion (some Jewish people have this amazing intuition), the B'nei Israel community besieged him with requests and innuendos. Quite understandably, the Rabbi was among the first. Now that Zuckerman was no longer among the living, he recalled their conversation with love and nostalgia.

I came to his house, to visit this simple gentle man. I came with a simple mission: to thank him for helping us with the temple's reconstruction.

And what did he say to you?

He said: "I am always happy to give, Jacob" (he and I were on a first name basis). "That's what I am all about: giving to others in need." And then he added: "In what other ways can I be helpful to the community?"

He said that?

These were exactly his words. And I said to him: "Thank you, Moshe. Now that you are asking, I think you could help us by sponsoring new Sukkot-bonding programs and Hanukkah sing-along groups."

And what did he do?

He smiled, he put a caring hand on my shoulder, and then he went upstairs to get his checkbook.

Just like that?

Just like that.

What a mench!

One should not think that Moshe displayed his mench-like qualities solely toward men of prominence. He cared plenty for the simple people. There were those he helped not to fall short on rent. There were others he assisted with a job search. Zuckerman kept a meticulous list of folks who reached out to him, and every year the list was becoming longer and longer. Around Thanksgiving time, he liked to invite his beneficiaries to a big gala event at Waldorf Astoria, during which all of them, needless to say, had plenty to be thankful for. One by one, each would come up to Moshe and express gratitude for his generosity, not forgetting to send a "thank you" card after the event.

Moshe was splendidly unassuming during such encounters. Others showered him with words of kindness, but he responded with a mere humble gaze and occasionally uttered a phrase or two in response. As numerous beneficiaries now learned of his death, some suddenly realized that those phrases were all they had left from their fragmented moments with this great man. Alas, such is the plight of men who are not so great: they depend on fragments, while the whole itself is unavailable. Those bits and pieces carry them a long way in life, though the pathway itself is usually not as glorious.

He said to me: "Do good things in life and do them for the Jewish people."

He recounted a story of when he was twenty and penniless, and another Jewish family gave him a chance.

He was serious about doing mitzvah to his fellow folk.

That is not to say that Moshe did not help out non-Jews. On the contrary, over a third of employees at his Jewish Purity Fund, an organization that employed nearly two hundred people and had four offices worldwide, were Gentiles of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. They held all kinds of jobs at JPF: janitorial, kitchen, mail room, tech support, you name it.

Of course, there were those among us (they will, no doubt, be embarrassed to show their faces in public after Moshe's death) who had the temerity to criticize JPF and Moshe Zuckerman himself. For instance, they launched editorial attacks of the Fund's famous five-year project to compile a comprehensive encyclopedia ("Jewclopedia") of great Jewish individuals. As if there was something inherently wrong with being proud of accomplishments that the Jewish people have had over the decades! As if those who levied those accusations of alleged "racism" were not Jewish themselves.

The accusers clearly missed the point. At the time when the Jews are increasingly divided as a group, failing to attend synagogue and showing ignorance toward the state of Israel, JPF projects found creative ways to return many back to their roots. At the time when "seventy percent of Jewish Americans marry outside of their faith" (Source: Jewish Purity Fund 2008 study), the need for awareness became more acute than ever.

Those who attempted to malign Moshe Zuckerman's good name were thankfully but a handful of disgruntled liberal fanatics (of the like that marched to Auschwitz gas chambers and pitied the Germans in the process). Moshe's supporters vastly outnumbered them. A testament to that were the two-minute standing ovations our late hero received every time he delivered a speech at some Jewish event. Never a boring speaker, Moshe had over twenty orations in his public repertoire, always keen on delivering fresh and relevant material to his audience. Among Zuckerman's most popular speeches were "The Importance of Being Jewish" and "Jews and Peace." As for the "Gone with the Jews" lecture (my personal favorite), there was a time when it filled an auditorium of nearly two thousand people.

Both Princeton and Stanford, the two schools that Zuckerman attended in his lifetime, approached him at some point with one-year Visiting Professorship contracts. Moshe being the generous Moshe he was, gladly agreed, even volunteering to forego or donate the lucrative salary. However, when he learned that every lecture from his prospective syllabus would be matched by a rebuttal from a Palestinian Professor, he violently stormed out of the contracts. Some of you might remember the eight-page "Anti-Semitism at the Ivy League" op-ed that he authored shortly thereafter.

Moshe's photograph from that op-ed graced the entrance to the B'nei Israel Synagogue, where fellow members gathered for a memorial service three days after his death. A beautifully elongated eagle-like nose denoted infinite wisdom on the photograph, one that goes beyond the commonplace smarts, while a solemn lack of a gregarious smile signaled steadfast readiness to confront anti-Semites wherever possible. It was the "say your prayers" kind of a photo. One wants to think that Moshe Zuckerman exhibited the same solemnity when he came face to face with the South African lion.

With the casket draped in stars and stripes, and prominently displayed in front of the congregants, there was an unprecedented outpouring of grief inside the temple's walls. Women wept. Men sobbed. Even toddlers cried, sensing that something unusual was unfolding before their eyes. There was a shared feeling that a family member had just passed away, one so close that commonplace expressions of condolences would hardly be appropriate. Could a few simple words do justice to the greatness of this man?

No, they couldn't. Our Rabbi clearly struggled, having gone sleepless the previous night, continuously crafting and revising his tribute to Moshe. As he now faced the entire B'nei Israel community, he was completely deprived of sleep and felt aches in the lower part of his body. He would never admit this to a soul, but in such a state he felt little compassion for the deceased Zuckerman, in some ways even envying him, for the latter got off easily by simply reposing in the coffin.

Truth be known, there was not much of Moshe Zuckerman inside the coffin. In fact, there was nothing at all. When the South African authorities found what was left of his body, they decided to cremate the remnants for sanitary reasons. Feeling guilty afterwards and fearing the wrath of prominent New Yorkers, they hastily commissioned a full-sized wax figure of Moshe, akin to the ones found in Madame Tussaud's museums. The figure was black in color, but the JPF representatives, as luck would have it, chose not to open the casket when it arrived to the JFK airport. They wanted to remember their chief the way he was when he was alive.

The Rabbi made the same decision. Some things mattered and some things didn't. What mattered were the slow and lugubrious words that were coming out of his mouth, words that sought to define the legacy of Moshe Zuckerman:

As you rest comfortably on a warm pillow inside this cozy coffin, stay assured, dear friend: you may be dead, but the Jewish people will march on with your ideas. You clearly emboldened us with a sense of pride. You made us cognizant of who we are. Because of the things you championed, more Jews will now marry fellow Jews. Because of your generosity, hundreds of programs around the world will blossom to emphasize the Jewish identity. And here, at this very temple, thanks to your generous contribution, our Sukkot-bonding programs and Hanukkah sing-along groups are better than ever.

The Rabbi spoke, while the congregants listened. There was a feeling of unspoken spirituality between the two sides. Never before did the Rabbi's words mean so much to the B'nei Israel Synagogue, whose members are at times jaded and at times less Jewish in their traditions than desirable. It is as if Moshe Zuckerman had to die in order to strengthen the spirit of togetherness within the community. This must have been his final contribution to the world and to the Jewish people.

Towards the end of the eulogy, the synagogue's doors quietly opened in the back: three female figures let themselves in, made a few inaudible steps, and finally sat down inconspicuously on the last row. Virtually no one noticed their entrance, as no one took note that the synagogue's door was left slightly open. A ray of September sunshine rushed in as a result, playfully challenging the temple's dignified atmosphere. Perhaps this ray was the first sign of the world that would exist after Moshe Zuckerman. Perhaps, on the contrary, it signified brightness that Moshe would now take away with him to the grave. Or perhaps it was a simple piece of light without metaphors or even meaning, one that chooses to exist regardless of our interpretation.

September-October 2010

Copyright:  Alexander Veytsman
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