The following is a true story. I wish it weren’t so.
My wife and I moved into our newly purchased home in Cincinnati,Ohio and began to notice a man who would regularly walk up and down the sidewalk across the street from our home. He always wore a yellow polo shirt, blue pants, and a baseball cap. We did not think much of it. He was simply an elderly gentleman who liked to walk.
One afternoon, as I was returning to the Cincinnati Community Kollel where we combined Torah study with community education, I saw this fellow walking towards me. My father had taught me to greet every person with a cheerful “hello” so, as I passed him, I did just that. After I said, “Good afternoon, how are you?” the man stopped in his tracks and responded, “Where in the Torah does it say that you have to be wearing that black hat and jacket?”
I could not believe my ears. First of all, I had no idea that he was Jewish. Secondly, even if he were Jewish there was no indication that he knew anything about Torah. Thirdly, I was stunned to hear those as the first words that this person ever addressed to me. Since I was involved in Jewish education and it was instinctive for me to provide answers and a sense of understanding to complex Jewish ideas, I proceeded to stand there for two and a half hours answering his questions and talking to him. I learned that his name was Julian, that his grandfather had been one of the most prestigious members of the Cincinnati Orthodox community, and that he, Julian, had many questions about God.
Julian began meeting me at the same time almost every day and he became my regular escort to the Kollel building as I made my way to the afternoon study session. But, time and again, he refused my invitations to enter the building and study. This continued for months. Our relationship became stronger and I was saddened, but understood, his refusal to join us for any Shabbat or holiday meals.
One day, Julian looked sad and when I pressed him for an explanation he said, “Today is my 70th birthday.” I wished him happy birthday and told him that he should be happy. After all, he was 70 and in such good shape and health. He responded, “Seventy makes me feel old and it feels like I am going to die.” I was shocked by his next comment. He asked me to be the one to recite Kaddish for him after he passed on, since he had no children of his own. I asked him why he wanted someone to recite Kaddish if he did not believe in God or the afterlife? He replied that he wanted to “cover all his bases.” I promised him that Kaddish would be recited for him.
A few months passed and I was offered a teaching position at my alma mater in my hometown of Silver Spring, MD, a job I could not pass up. Julian showed up at my door on the morning of our moving day and sat in my living room for hours telling me more details about his life story including his experience fighting in the Korean War and details about the woman he loved but never married. The movers packed up our home and it was time for me and my wife to get into the car with our one year old son and begin the drive to Maryland. I hugged a very sad looking Julian as he asked me to reconfirm that I would take care of saying Kaddish for him. I reassured him that it would be taken care and not to worry since he is so healthy and has many more years ahead of him. I promised to be in touch, and we left.
Two days later we were unpacking our new home when the phone rang. A good friend from our old block in Cincinnati called. We had a fantastic conversation during which I told him about the trip, our new home, and how wonderful it was to be back in my hometown and living close to family. My friend then delivered the sad news. “Dov, I am sorry to tell you that Julian passed away.” I was in shock. Just two days earlier he had been the model of perfect health as he spent the day with us in our home. How could this be? Then my friend on the phone added, “Dov, it is actually much worse. Julian killed himself.” I collapsed to the floor in grief.
I am very aware of the fact that to get to the point of committing suicide, Julian had clearly suffered from deep psychological and emotional struggles for years. However, I can say with 100 percent clarity that as long as we were living across the street and Julian knew someone took an interest in his life and was available on a daily basis to walk and talk with him, there is no way he could have killed himself. Once we left town and that daily routine and attention were removed from his life, all of the past came crashing back. In his mind he had no reason to live, and thus he killed himself.
That relationship, a relationship which was literally fueling Julian’s life, began with a simple “Good afternoon, how are you?” I stood there and talked with Julian thinking that perhaps I could teach him about Judaism, completely unaware of the depth of what was developing beneath the surface. It was keeping another human being alive.
Such is the potential power of a “Good afternoon, how are you?” to a total stranger passing us on the street.
I mentioned my father’s influence on my natural instinct to greet Julian that very first time. As a child, I used to be embarrassed while walking to synagogue with him every Shabbat morning because he would greet total strangers with a friendly “Good morning.” When he saw people washing their car he would add, “You are doing such a great job.” When he saw someone mowing the lawn he would add, “Wow, doing some amazing work there.” When the person passing us was walking a dog he would pause and look at it and add, “You have a beautiful dog.” And each and every time I wanted to melt into the concrete and disappear.
But he sure had it right and certainly taught me what was right. My father passed away eight years ago on the fifth night of Hanukkah. When we were sitting shiva, the room was filled with people when the mailman walked through the door sobbing. Everyone parted ways for him and he walked right up to my mother, knelt down, and said, “Mrs. Lipman, I am so sorry for your loss.” I asked him why he was so devastated by my father’s passing. After all, he was not a member of our family or even a family friend. He simply delivered our mail. He explained that every morning when he began his route he hoped my father would be home because whenever he was home and heard the mail coming through the mail slot in our front door, my father would rush to the door and offer the mailman a cold drink on a hot day, a hot drink on a cold day, and talk some sports with him. My father was not home from work very often. But our mailman still began his day with the hope that he would be home because in his words, “Judge Lipman knew how to make my day.”
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakay greeted everyone with a “hello” as he walked through the marketplace – Jew and gentile alike. My grandmother relates that her father, a prestigious Hassidic rabbi in Hungary, did the same – tipping his cap as he passed all people – Jew, gentile, man, or woman.
Pause for a moment and think about how much better our world would be if everyone greeted friend and stranger alike with a warm “Hello, how are you?” In Julian’s case, this actually gave him life. In the mailman’s case along with all the others whom my father touched with these simple words, it brought them happiness and “made their day.”
My father’s passing left a void of this most basic friendliness and decency in the world. I ask all of you to take these stories to heart and not only recognize the power of a simple “hello” but also begin to actually do it yourself.
May a new wave of people accepting upon themselves to greet everyone they meet and pass with a friendly “hello” or “shalom” be a merit for my father’s soul and usher in the beginning of a new era of friendliness and kindness throughout the State of Israel and the world.