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A Sketch of Greatness - In Tribute

Monday, 7 May, 2012 - 3:50 pm

And Live By Them

A Son-in-law's Blog, In Loving Tribute to Rabbi Moshe Nemanow

 By Rabbi Zalman A. Kantor

Email Newsletter of  Friday, Iyar 12-May 4, Erev Shabbat Acharei-Kedoshim, 5772.

 If you dont have the time to read the entire blog, please scroll down to the bottom. Thank you.

 Dear Friends,

 The outpouring of love, concern and comfort has been very dear. Rochel conveys her deepest thanks and appreciation for your notes and wishes that have flooded her email. May we have happy occasions to share.

 I am fatigued. The loaded code-words my ears refused to accept, “Hatzolah (EMS) is coming now,” left little time for contemplation this Monday night. More than a few small Divine miracles and human angels conspired to get me on the latest red-eye to NY, in the nick of time, to join my wife and her mother, siblings, and family at the funeral of my dear Shver (father-in-law), Reb Moshe Nemanov.

I am pained. Not as deeply as a child but pained nonetheless. I thank G-d for the merit of having known—or at least having been drawn close—to the Shver, and regret the irretrievable opportunities, moments to have been better valued and cherished.


Words, writings, reveal some. Yet, by their very nature, they conceal even more. I will write about the Shver and his unusual passing, for otherwise the inspiration and lessons might never be learnt, but recognizing the limitations of inadequate time, tools, and talent, please see it as a taste, a glimpse of a larger picture. It might be a little long but it is worth reading to the end.


 The Torah portion for the day the Shver passed away reads: “And you shall guard all my statues and laws, which Man shall do and live by them, I am the L-rd.”


This exemplified my father-in-law’s life. Not just that “he lived by”—as in kept and observed—the laws, G-d’s Torah and mitzvot. And not just that through his commitment “he gained life”—as in the blissful life of the world to come, as Rashi comments. But quite literally he lived by them. The Torah and mitzvot, daily prayer and study, G-d and his relationship with Him, are what gave him life, what sustained him. These, alongside his palpable love for his family, were his joy, his passion, his drive, and the beneficiaries of his stubborn willpower. As his younger brother R’ Itche, the dean of the renowned, prestigious (if somewhat austere) Yeshiva and Rabbinical School of Brunoy, France observed: My brother didn’t need much of Olam hazeh, this material world. Only that which was necessary to use for practical observance. He lived on a different plane.


 In the last two years this became abundantly clear, as he battled the dastardly disease that eventually prevailed. Less than an hour after the initial operation to remove the malignant growths, he was missing from the recovery bed. Horrified, then awed, hospital staff found him standing and praying Mincha, the afternoon service. A day or two after getting chemotherapy, which is known to be physically draining, he could be found walking determinedly up the hilly street to the other end of town, to pray in his daily synagogue of choice, 770 – the central Chabad synagogue. Sometimes he would come home from a full day of treatment and then that same evening drag himself to evening services. When he had fever one Friday afternoon, he sat reading the Torah portion and ignored all protestations that he needed to go to the hospital to check it out—and maybe have to desecrate the Shabbat in coming back (which was totally sanctioned in his case). Fearful but powerless, the family anxiously waited to see what the next morning would bring. Miraculously, the fever had disappeared. (Don’t try this yourself at home!)


 My father-in-law did not consider himself to be special. He detested attention and fuss and was as humble, modest and unobtrusive as they come. For much of his life he worked as a typesetter, typing Hebrew letters into the linotype keyboard at his father-in-law’s Jewish publishing house, known as Dfus Balshan. People who interacted with him in those days discovered his phenomenal knowledge in both the revealed and esoteric areas of Torah. Authors would choose to print their Talmudic theses with Balshan, because they knew that “the typesetter” would correct their mistaken references and touch up any logical inconsistencies. He was responsible for the printing—and later on editing—of precious, holy manuscripts of chasidic thought, many hundreds of years old, and it was suggested that he was familiar with them all.


 Yet he never sought recognition or showed off his scholarship and, as a nephew put it, he “slipped up” only on rare occasion. Had he been able to live completely attention-free he might have. But his manuscript expertise was valuable and spiritual searchers eventually discovered his quiet corner in the synagogue, where he would stand and pray every Shabbos, for hours on end, ensconced in his well-worn Talis, saying the words slowly with devotion and heart, in a soft lilt and with warm affinity, like chasidim of old. The seekers would come and observe him, and listen from a distance, but in his little world apart he would be aware of none. He was the epitome of an oved elokim, one who worships and toils in the service of G-d. A "worshiper"—because G-dliness was clearly his life, and a "toiler"—because hard was never an excuse, and physical desire or beckoning pleasure was not a feeling to be pampered.


 The Shver was the sweetest of people. He was a man of few and chosen words—community politics, gossip, social chit-chat were neither his area of expertise nor his weak spot—but he was easy with people, no matter their age. His smile was quick and youthful and warm. A father of five daughters, he was soft, approachable, attentive and caring. He loved his family and they loved him back. Much as his own needs were minimal, he understood and was pleased to provide and indulge their necessities. When his daughters were young he spent many evenings studying with his daughters and helping them prepare for tests and school reports, and later this attention turned to his grandchildren.


Time was obviously precious to him. You could often find him late at night, asleep in his dining room chair and slumped over a Talmudic tome, and be awoken the next morning before dawn by the dulcet, soothing tones of his Tehilim/Psalms recital, emanating from behind the closed front room door. The nurse of his kind and capable Sloan physician, Dr Saltz, came this week, on her off day, to comfort the family. She observed him and knew he was different, unique, and felt she had brushed with sanctity and had to come. Even during the long hours of waiting in the hospital she saw how he always kept himself occupied intellectually, spiritually. As a perk, our brother-in-law Rabbi Vaisfiche had introduced him to the modern wonder of the iPod, where he could watch and listen to thousands of hours of the Rebbe’s scholarly talks and inspirational gatherings. Yet time-conscious as he was, one never felt the intensity, impatience, coldness or even tyranny that ensnares some of such character. He seemed to have all the time in the world for you, if needed.


 The Shver was a loving, supportive and dedicated husband (to the Shvigger, in case you were wondering about the term) and had no qualms about helping with the housework. I often saw him washing the dishes, and it was a common—though slightly comical—sight to see him, white beard and all, scurrying around with a broom and mop just before Shabbos, making sure the kitchen floor was clean, all the food was set, and that my mother-in-law was free to light the Shabbat candles and bring in the Shabbat groomed, attired, and tranquil.


 He rarely complained, even when in acute pain, and had very few if any demands. He hated to impose upon others, and this included not imposing his own sometimes higher religious standard upon the family. He went to the extreme to avoid bothering or inconveniencing anyone. This made his illness all the more difficult for him, because it inherently required dependency on people’s favors and assistance. But he had a good home team. It was led by the very devoted local son-in-law Rabbi Yossi and daughter Sara Paltiel, who deserve tremendous credit and to whom we are all immensely grateful for carrying the main burden of the medical and practical care of our parents/in-laws, and honorably assisted by local son-in-law Rabbi Avraham and daughter Sheiny Vaisfiche, also deserving of great thanks and credit, along with the many relatives and friends who lent a hand over the past two years. May Hashem reciprocate and bless them many times over—although, I know, and they even better, the merit of having been able to participate in his care.


 My father-in-law, R’ Moshe, in his simplicity and lack of airs, did not come across as a holy man. Just an ordinary Jew, doing his job, with a cute sense of humor and good sense of priorities. Yet anyone with a little depth, who observed or interacted with him over time, realized that he was one of a kind, almost an anachronism, a member of a past generation of purity and authenticity and spiritual caliber. And if their attention wasn’t drawn during his lifetime, his passing should certainly arrest it.


 “And Moshe the servant of G-d died there.” Moses from the Torah reached his final day complete with his senses and strength, and then, with the kiss of G-d, was plucked from his body like one would pluck a hair floating in a cup of milk. I am neither prophet nor connoisseur to compare, but I venture that the Shver’s passing came pretty close.


 For two years he fought the disease valiantly—for himself or his family—undergoing various treatments with varying degrees of success. That he lasted so long is in itself a tremendous gift and blessing, and a testament to his doctors, his will, and the many prayers on his behalf. But in recent months it became clear that all natural means had been exhausted. By Passover his skin had turned yellow, indicating the extent of the cancer's spread to his liver. Foreign matter had attacked and taken up residence in the kidneys too, and all over his body. But his conduct didn’t change and his pace barely slowed. While the medical reports declared that his body was fast weakening and his conscious mind on the verge of collapse, a congregant in Chicago--where the Shver had gone to celebrate Passover--watched in awe as the Shver prayed in Shul with the vigor and passion of a teenage Yeshiva student.


 Back home, he continued to to relate to his family and to go to Shul to pray and study as if drawing his life from another source. This past Shabbos, as the disease ravaged his body, the family made a minyan in his home. Asked how he felt he said, in characteristic understatement, “A bissele shvach (a little weak).” But he stood and read the entire Haftorah, in honor of his upcoming father’s Yahrzeit (anniversary of passing).

 On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Isseroff came to administer blood tests and gauge his progress. He was shocked to hear what the Shver had been doing, because medically, it seemed highly unlikely. He already had liver and kidney failure. Most in his state would already have been so severely weakened as to be confined to a bed for some weeks, and their state of consciousness or mental ability so greatly hampered as to be with extremely limited cognition. But the Shver, although not scampering about at that point, was quite aware of his surroundings, sitting at his table, talking, even studying and had ventured out on his own just a few days prior.


 Dr Isseroff reported back to the Shver’s primary care physician, the deeply devoted, caring and capable Dr. Rosen, who deserves a paean of thanks in his own right for his care, attention, guidance. Upon reviewing the results Dr. Rosen gravely suggested that the immediate family be notified and gathered, and he gave some final instructions. Sara, Sheiny and Bassie were already there, as was the Shver's brother, R’ Itche, and by the next day Rochel and Chanie had arrived as well. But externally, all seemed at peace, the end non-impending.


 On Monday night, April 30, the ninth of Iyar, all the relatives gathered for the Yahrtzeit of the Shver’s father, the famed mashpia, spiritual guide, and powerhouse that was R’ Nissan Nemanov. At the minyan, my father-in-law wanted to stand for the Amida, and then again the Counting of the Omer, but he acquiesced to requests for him to stay seated. Rabbi Yossi helped him read, and at one point he thought he had lost him—until the Shver finally found and pointed at the tiny print words he was looking for, and enunciated, “Tiferes Shebenetzach” (the kabbalistic attribute corresponding to that day of the Omer, roughly translated as "Beauty in Victory," apt to the way he lived his life). He then recited the kaddish in a soft, hoarse, but audible voice.


 All sat around the table, the Shver at his usual spot at the head, to study the traditional Mishanyot. Yossi read, and he followed. This was followed by the singing of soul-stirring, introspective and holy melodies that R’ Nissan had favored. From California we saw a small video of the gathering, captured by someone’s smart-phone. All seemed normal, regular, but the look on R’ Itche’s face, serious and knowing, stirred the emotions and sent a stab to the heart. "Everything is not normal." Barring a massive miracle, it was just a matter of time.


 The assembled made a traditional L’chaim on spirits, the Shver on some soda water, taking care to make the prior blessing. The extended family soon left and only the immediate family remained around the table. The night lingered on, and the Shver seemed to start slipping. “Ta, maybe you will lie down?” “Soon.”


 Rabbi Yossi noticed his dropping temperature and asked again.


“Maybe you want to lie down?” Same response, “Soon.”


A third time and, again, the same response.


“Tatty everyone is here with you. Mommy is here, Chanie is here, Soraleh is here, Bassie is here, Rocheleh is here, Sheiny is here.”


They began to sing and chant Psalms. He continued to sit at the head of his table, surrounded by his beloved family, still dressed-up for prayer and formality, in his hat, suit-jacket and gartel (prayer belt), his siddur opened to the night Shema.


And there, in the home and seat where he had served G-d for most of his life, on the Yahrtzeit of his own saintly father, he slowly slipped away, and in purity, returned his soul to Heaven.


 “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” Hear oh Israel, the L-rd is our G-d the L-rd is one!


May the soul R’ Moshe ben R’ Nissan be bound up in the bond of life. May he be a gutte better, a good intercessor on behalf of his wife, his children, his grand and great grandchildren and entire family among  all of us. May we merit to reunite very soon, with coming of Moshiach. Shver, we miss you dearly.


 I took the time to record this in the hopes that Vehachai Yiten El Libo - those that remain alive in this world, you and I, should take to heart. That we should learn from and seek to emulate his character. That we should realize that the world is not all it seems to be, there is a "parallel universe" operating, G-d and His purpose for our existence, and all we need is to want to access it, to decide that this will be our life, our passion, our goal. When we see people who lived their life on this higher plane it can and should encourage us. And we don't need to do it all at once. It is a direction, a recognition, that can express itself initially in a small step forward.


 The family will be immensely gratified to know that people are doing a mitzvah on my father-in-law's behalf, the soul of R' Moshe ben R' Nissan.


 Candle-lighting on time this week is just one immediately pertinent idea. Please click here for many other ideas.



On Tuesday morning some hours later, moments before hundreds gathered in front of the main synagogue to accompany the Shver on his final journey, the bris of a great, great nephew took place and the baby was named with him in mind. (The name Moshe could not be given* due to a living grandfather with that name, so instead Nissan, the name of the Shver's illustrious father, was given.) 


And on Monday morning a week later, before the family had even stood up from shiva-mourning, another bris took place in far-away France.  This time the baby was named Moshe directly for him. The baby's full name: Moshe Nemanov.


 May G-d continue to provide comfort and solace, and may we continue to value each precious moment on earth, bringing goodness and G-dliness into reality and until eternity.


Email here if you'd like to share feedback or a mitzvah that you have chosen to do in his honor.


*[I have since learned that regardless, one generally would not give the exact name before interment...





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