By Chana Shaffer Minkowitz
This week marked the 10th yartzeit of my father, R’ Gedaliah Shaffer of Crown Heights. In his honor, my husband, Dr. Shloime Minkowitz, organized a special session of the medical ethics society he created in honor of my father, The Gedaliah Society. Among the speakers were Rabbi Michoel Seligson, Rabbi Berel Levin and Mrs. Baila Olidort.
The following are remarks I prepared to say and that I would like to share with my community:
When I would wake up in the morning, super early, before the dawn, and tread quickly up the dark stairs and through the quiet hallways in my house, he would be sitting there at the dining room table, on the chair on the side of the table, with his back to me, his fingers in their “ILU” shape scrolling down the page of gemara. It was so comforting to sit down on the worn carpet near his chair and rest my head in his lap and lay there while he stroked my hair with his long fingers. The world was a safe and stable and secure place, where I could reach and imagine and be me in this bubble of normal and happy. Ten years ago my father was suddenly and violently wrenched away from me, somewhere far away, and my bubble burst forever.
I tasted the deepest of pain and the very guts of sadness. Ten years later I still carry the grief and the pain and the sadness with me. But my father isn’t my grief and he isn’t my pain – he is my father, he held together my bubble, and he was an extraordinary person who people would stumble upon like a gem in a minefield, going about his day-to-day business in his unassuming way, with all his extraordinary gifts.
I have a very hard time talking about my father. Not only because the missing is so strong but because how can I possibly tell you about this whole person with his whole life, who made me into the person I am, in just a few anecdotes and stories. But I want people to know. The greatest comfort to me is knowing that the people who knew my father haven’t forgotten him, and that the people who never had that privilege will feel that they wish they had, and know that the world loses out every day that he isn’t here.
We always had so many guests – from Machon Chana girls and Hadar HaTorah bochurim, to young singles, professionals, to my not-yet-husband! My father was a brilliant man – he had an incredible ability to comprehend and analyze material, and astounding retention of the things that he read. He also had an insatiable intellectual curiosity that crossed all disciplines. Although he was a science and math man by degree, and a computer science man by profession, the number of books on history, art, music, geography, philosophy, literature, theology … filled the walls of our living room at home, only to be outnumbered by the thousands of seforim lining the walls of our dining room, and creeping their way into the china closet, and across the kitchen, through the hallways at the back of the house. No matter who sat at our Shabbos table, my father found a way to connect with them. If they were a professional he would engage them in their field, asking insightful questions and taking avid interest in their responses, listening with so much respect and patience, although I doubt that the information was always new to him. Or he would find out where they were from and ask them about their home-town which he knew down to the last museum and statue – sometimes inadvertently overwhelming them with their own ignorance of the local sites and attractions in their cities. That’s the best word to describe the way he interacted with people – respect. No matter who, no matter their age, gender, nationality, religion, educational background or field, he looked at them as a person worthy of respect, with something to offer. I invited a friend for Shabbos once. He was not an intellectual (although very bright) and he was very intimidated to meet my father – the physicist, the Talmud chacham, this brilliant man. Within the first few minutes of their meeting, my father discovered his love for sports and began to talk to him about the ancient origins of baseball. Thus began a lively discussion, complete with books, about sports – and my friend was at ease.
Every Sunday, people would line up outside my house to collect money for themselves or for organizations they were representing. I say, lined up, because the line could reach down all the stairs from the flight inside of my house, across the porch, and down the flight outside to the sidewalk. My father – who treasured every minute of his time – would sit at the dining room table and invite each person in. he didn’t just write the check, but he would listen to their stories, offer advice when solicited, and he always had a cold bottle of seltzer on the table and cups for them to take a drink. He was tired, often weary, and sometimes perhaps aware of the dishonesty in some of his guests, but he treated them with respect, a basic – a beautiful – mentchlichkeit, humanity. And this kind of respect also informed our family discussions. We discussed concepts and things, never people. There was no lashon hara at our table, no salacious gossip, no local politics in my bubble.
Most of us kids developed a close relationship with my father mostly as we matured and were able to relate to him better. I was lucky to have several treasured years where I could discuss things with him and develop the close bond that so many of us had the privilege to have. I would like to say, as only one child of ten in my father’s family, that I am telling my own story here, but each one of my siblings had a different relationship with my father and their own story to tell. Some of my siblings had much more time with him than me- more of their adult lives to share with him, husbands to sit on the couch for long hours and chat with him, children for him to take pictures of, to go leaf peeping with him in the peak of fall foliage on the Palisades. And some of my siblings were gypped. Some of my siblings had much less time with him, and although they can cherish the affectionate nicknames and quality time they had, they have to compensate a lot with imagination.
As young children, my mother instilled such a sense of admiration for my father and appreciation of his uniqueness, that we were able to have a relationship with him through that respect. He wasn’t like our friends’ fathers who rough-housed with them, or played board games with them. But he was special and we felt it and we were proud of him. My mother and father are two such very different people. I feel like I had the incredible gift of growing up in a family with two models of everything a human being should aspire to: from my father, the pursuit of knowledge, incredible self discipline and self motivation, commitment to doing the right thing whether it felt good or not, a sense of principle and integrity that could not be compromised; and from my mother, compassion, generosity, empathy and a gift of making things beautiful, a model of wholehearted living, a person of gentle faith and incredible insight and wisdom about life, relationships, and ultimate human success. My siblings and I suffer from complexes of not being able to live up to these models! They were very different people who each nurtured in us the potential to achieve the extraordinary. My father loved to travel and when the family was still “small” we would take family vacations to California, the Grand Canyon, Israel, England. But while my father’s idea of vacation was waking up at 5:00AM, visiting every museum, monument, scenic site and other must-see, using every hour of daylight for sightseeing and many of the night hours for traveling to the next destination, my mother enjoyed a slower pace. Eventually, instead of taking vacations all together, so my mother didn’t have to gulp her coffee down, and my father didn’t have to be slowed down, my father would go on his annual summer travels and take one of his children with him every year. What a special trip that was! We were just kids, so there was very little preparation on our parts, but my father would be reading guidebooks for months in advance, he would be learning about the geography, history and culture of the place he would be visiting, learning the language, reading a famous piece of literature from one of its native authors, be on the phone with travel agents finding the out-of-the-way things that no one else heard of (or bothered with) and discovering every tiny thing that could possibly be of interest – and all in the age before the internet! My father could find a museum in the jungle! Actually, when it was my turn and we went to Iceland together, my father found a “museum” that someone who lived on the beach far out in the glaciers of Iceland had collected herself from fossils she found near her house. When he would return from his travels we’d get to look at the 7,000 (!) pictures he took (on a slideshow before he went digital), and got to experience a little of his adventures from the incredible artifacts he would bring back- from dead sponges plucked from a coral reef to seal skins from Norway, to clunky wooden Dutch shoes. My trip was part of my coming-of-age and the only thing that can mar the great joy I have in the memories of it is the knowledge that the youngest of us didn’t get to have their trip.
Losing my father changed my life. It changed who I am. Without my father there is no bubble. There is fear and scarcity and doubt now – in the world, in my faith. I want to understand how my father reconciled his faith intellectually and emotionally to his life, and I want to see now with more mature eyes what kind of chossid he was – because that is the kind of Jew and chossid I want to be. I know that he would not miss a farbrengen, that he would walk miles on tahalucha even with his flat feet that brought him so much pain. I know that he wouldn’t let us go for dollars after sichos and for every kos shel bracha because he wouldn’t want to be the cause of the Rebbe having to stand even longer, so we went only on special occasions. I know that when the Rebbetzin passed away my father felt the Rebbe’s loss and his loneliness with an empathy which didn’t belittle the incredible humility and submission my father felt to him. Over the past years I have grappled a lot and I don’t know where I would be in my marriage, or vis-à-vis G-d without my mother. And at this time more than ever- living with the pieces of a shattered bubble all around me, I wish I could have my father here so I can ask him questions about why he chose to be frum, how he was able to maintain the absolute commitment he made to Judaism. I wish I had his keen common sense to guide me as our community struggles without the Rebbe.
I became a more compassionate person in losing him. Grief does not die, it travels with you through time and each time you pass one level of grief, you discover a new crevice where the pain is fresh and raw and you cry and feel the deep loss over and over again. I am very lucky to have my husband here for support. I am very grateful that he created the Gedaliah Society – a most fitting tribute and legacy for my father, and something that gives me and my mother tremendous comfort and nachas. I am so grateful to all of my brothers in law and my sister in law who help support my siblings as life goes on – without him. I miss my bubble. I was so angry to have it taken away from me. But a wise friend reminded me the other day that I am very lucky that I ever had a bubble. I am very lucky that I had a relationship with a person like my father. I am very lucky…that this enormous hole in my heart means that I had something enormous to lose.