Food Friday - filled with emotions edition
A dear friend is going through a hard time. Her mother is going through the same series of strokes and declines that my mother did.We totally get the stress she is going through. To make it worse a beloved relative of hers had died, far too young and the Shiva ended yesterday We had invited her to join us for dinner tonight.
Yesterday we all found out that a dear friend to her family and mine had died. Morty Leifman was one of the first people who befriended my father when he first came to JTS.
Morty was an intensely sweet man and just a fabulous story teller. His stories were epic. They often spanned two or three generations of people. A story never proceeded in a straight line. A story might have a digression ( that was essential to the point of the central story) that could stand alone as a perfectly marvelous story. The story would wend it's way around the world, around the Jewish world and unfold like an exotic bloom. The astonishing thing was that his stories were all true.
About three months before my father died his doctor told him to get his life in order, that he was dying. I bought a bus ticket to Boston. Before I left my apartment, I asked my husband to call Morty and tell him that my father was dying.
By the time I got to my father's bedside he had already had a long long talk with Morty. That talk helped my father think about his life and frame his life in a satisfying way.
Morty continued to call once or twice a week until my father died. That would have been enough. But Morty also made sure to call my father's rabbinical school classmates and be sure that they too called my father. My father graduated rabbinical school in 1953. In those pre-internet, pre Facebook years it was hard to stay in touch with classmates. Long distance calls were expensive. My father and his classmates used to re-connect at annual conventions but they were used to sparse contact despite deep feelings of closeness. So those calls meant so much to my father. They really helped him die at peace.
So today as I made my first after Passover challah, I thought about Morty and some of his stories.
Soon after the riots of 1967/68 Morty was invited by a colleague to be the Friday night speaker at a synagogue in New Jersey that had been hit particularly hard by the riots. The rabbi lived quite a distance from the synagogue which was in the older poorer part of town that had just a few weeks before been the site of riots.
It wasn't all that safe to be two middle aged white guys walking home after a late Friday night service and lecture. The synagogue custodian offered to drive his car behind Morty and his friend to be sure they got home safely. So the two began their walk with their friend the custodian trailing behind them in his car.
When they are about half way home they noticed that there was a large man of color who seemed to be following them. They weren't sure. It was Shabbat, they had no money. Maybe he was just a guy walking, or maybe not. Soon they noticed that the man was getting closer and closer to them.
Eventually the man overtook them and tapped one of the rabbis on the shoulder" Excuse me, I have been following you because I noticed that there has been a car following you. I just wanted to be sure that you were safe."
Like many Morty stories it included the essential element that the person who you thought might be your enemy was in fact your protector. There was so often the essential element of the world being in fact a good place filled with good people.
Morty's face often looked like it was made out of rubber. When he would tell a story parts of his face would stretch all over the place just like a cartoon. His face was never as malleable as when he recited the El maleh rachamim at a funeral. His face and body went in all directions. His voice wound up and down. He did a great maleh.
When my father died we of course asked him to do the maleh. He agreed to make the trip to Boston with our friend Judy. His trip turned into a Morty story. Judy and my sister became friends in fourth grade. because this is a Morty story I will also tell you that Judy's mother was my 6th grade teacher and she was distantly related to some of my parent's dear friends in Quincy and the source of the Passover chocolate cake that I bake.
By the time the train got to Westchester county their trip became a Morty story. The train broke down. There was a long delay. there was a question about aborting the trip. There was atl east one new engine attached to the train, there may have been two broken engines. In the hours before the funeral we were all kept posted about the all too slow progress of Judy and Morty.
Just as the funeral had begun the train pulled into the AMTRAK station in Canton. By the time Judy and Morty had gotten off the train there were no taxis at the station. This was in the days before Uber.
Judy looked around the parking lot and saw the last car pulling away. She flagged the car down and offered the driver $50 to drive them to Quincy. The driver agreed and Judy and Morty arrived just in time for Morty to do the maleh. It was magnificent.
Sunday we bury Morty. I don't know who will be reciting the maleh.
I do know that we need a comforting meal to eat tonight.
A cauliflower puree that tastes as comforting as a flannel blanket. We are eating chicken soup and beef that I had frozen during my Passover cooking.
I made a simple comforting lemon cake.
Morty was a great story teller, but he loved when other people made him laugh. My daughter was a fat baby. The back of her neck and shoulders were a dead ringer for my father in his fat years. One Shabbat I ran into Morty in the elevator of my synagogue. I picked up my daughter turned her around so her back faced Morty and pulled down the neck of her t-shirt to expose her fat creased neck and shoulders and asked him " Quick! who does this remind you of?" Morty took one look and guffawed.
I will miss Morty and an grateful to have heard some of his stories and to have basked in the sunshine that spread out around him. I will miss running into him and hearing 45 minutes worth of outrageous complicated deeply sweet stories.