Not so many years ago I befriended an elderly widower who was to become, in short order, a friend. Frank lived in America and was already in his early 90s when we crossed paths in Jerusalem. In no time were sharing cups of coffee, swapping political and religious newspaper articles, and sparring over exactly what went wrong with this generation. Extremely wealthy from a life of hard work and clever investing, he was generous with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and regularly treated those he loved to airline tickets so they could visit him often, especially when travel became too difficult for him.
When I met Frank, he was supervising a wood-working shop at a non-profit organization that provides meaningful, dignified employment to retired men and women. He had established this particular shop and named the project after his late wife. Each summer for many years, he wore shorts and suspenders and rolled up his sleeves to teach Russian, Yemenite, Ethiopian and native-born Israeli men to operate saws, lathes and sanding machines for the purpose of creating art. The wood shop was poorly ventilated and poorly lit. A man with Frank’s money could have sat in a hotel lobby sipping a glass of iced tea and reading the stock reports. Instead, he chose to bare his knobby knees and knobbier elbows by helping to make life more meaningful for men who might have withered from the despair of aging.
Time stops for no one, and eventually Frank was forced to give up his beloved summers in Jerusalem. Although his body began to slow down, he remained sharp and involved with the world. He regularly received my articles, and I could always count on a caustic comment or three. Any note he wrote to me included the point, “I’m still alive. Gave up driving but hanging in there.” Another time he wrote, “I’m still alive. Can you come to America to visit me? I’m in a geezer residence now, but I have a small kitchen and can still whip up a mean batch of meatballs.” The last note I received in February stated, “I’m still alive. Just turned 96. I don’t do a damn thing all day and evening, still live alone and do my own cooking.”
I hadn’t heard from Frank in a while, and I was a little concerned when he didn’t congratulate me on my recent marriage or send a typically snide (veiled with love) remark! With trepidation, I cyber-searched just enough to learn that he died in March.
Thinking about Frank and the “walk on” role he played in the production of my own life has made me more than a little reflective about the part I might be playing in someone else’s docudrama. The larger casts of characters that fill my grander stage include a mother and siblings in America, a loving husband and life-affirming children in Israel and South Africa, my grandchildren, a best, best buddy and other dear friends, teachers, rabbis, shopkeepers, neighbors, doctors and shuk vendors, all of whom fill my plate and still leave room for those I work with in the day-to-day effort to earn a living and give additional meaning to my life.
It behooves one to ask whether or not there are “auditions” for these parts. Do we weave in and out of one-another’s lives haphazardly or is there some grander “design” at play? Is there a Heavenly “Craps Table,” or is something more cosmic and spiritual happening that we, in our limited abilities, should be analyzing? It continually fascinates me that God regularly changes my script without consulting me or the rest of my cast and, yet, still has complete faith in my ability to ad lib my way though an unexpectedly altered libretto!
I had very mixed feelings about the “tent-cities” that peppered Israel’s landscape this summer and oftentimes felt angry with protestors who appeared to be more “spoiled” than “put out” by social injustice. But regardless of my personal feelings about the supposed justness of their cause, I could not help but admire the fact that they “did something.” There are many causes that I do not espouse, but I’d much rather live next door to someone who is a participant in this journey called Life than someone who believes that making it to a Finish Line called Death without having stepped out of line is a worthy goal. If given my druthers, I’d always elect to live alongside a supporting cast of well-intended folk who – at one time or another – loved too hard and lost along the way, spent foolishly and overate far too often, misspoke and misjudged, apologized frequently and dreamed big, smiled when they didn’t have to, cried for the pain of a stranger and stood up for values even at the expense of being singled out.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are here again, and the requisite reflection that is part and parcel of the High Holy Days also elicits “projection” upon those things that could/should occur should our prayers be answered favorably. Once again we are being offered an unprecedented business deal that merely requires some sincere, breast beating and honest soul searching in return for a year of incalculable blessing. How often are we given such odds?
I will miss Frank, but I won’t cry. I will remember him with gratitude and be very happy for the family he left behind who will, undoubtedly, continue his legacy of righteous benevolence. In reflecting both upon those who have been born and those who have left this world in this past year, I will make a concerted effort to give a little more tzedakah while, at the same time, thanking God for the gift of casting my movie with talented actors who have played their parts with grace, humor and abundant stores of love.