When our NJ shul’s former rabbi, Jonathan Porath, returned from his Jerusalem home for a visit, the first thing he did was ask if someone could drive him to visit Mark L. in the nursing home. I volunteered. I will never forget what I witnessed, and I am sure the same is true for Rabbi Porath.
Mark was a survivor. He had met Edith before the war when they both lived in Poland. They fell in love, married, and then their lives were torn asunder. She went through a series of camps, always assuming that Mark was dead. He too went through a series of camps, always assuming that Edith was dead. Finally, in a DP camp, at war’s end, they, remarkably, found each other and began their lives.
They had a child, a son, and moved to New Jersey to raise him, and escape Europe. They rose to the middle class by dint of hard work. Mark became a deliman. Edith assisted. They bought a nice suburban house and joined a nice suburban shul. Our shul. Rabbi Porath’s shul.
To say they were pillars of the shul would not nearly be enough. They were everywhere. Mark never missed morning minyan. They both attended services on Shabbat and chagim. They were always working in the kitchen. They made the seudah shlishit. They made the kiddush. Mark was the bagel man for the breakfast following morning minyan.
It was Edith who taught me how to unmold a kugel, a secret I share now. So simple. Turn it carefully upside down on a sufficiently large surface. Flip the pan. Voila. Cut into nice neat portions and then flip it back into the original pan.
If a job at shul had to be done, they would do it. And if, by chance, it was beyond their ken, certainly they knew who could do it, and that person would be appointed by Mark. The job would always be done!
Mark was a fundraiser extraordinaire. Sell raffles? Of course. Raise thousands for whatever emergency (like a perpetually leaking roof). Of course. No one could ever say no to Mark.
It was his quiet way. His simple smile. We trusted him.
Edith was always by his side. She was never one to ask for anything, but she was always ready to do more, way more, than her share.
As old age crept up on them, they never slowed down. The shul community counted on them. We honored them in whatever ways we could. Plaques. Awards. Recognition. They never asked for any kavod. We wanted to thank them, to acknowledge them, to love them.
So the day that Mark had a massive stroke was a tragedy for our entire shul community. We rallied around Edith, driving her to visits at the nursing home, helping her in whatever way we could, for months. Carpools were formed. Meals were delivered. It wasn’t payback time. It was you are esteemed and adored members of our community, of our family. We will do whatever we can, for as long as we can.
And then the terrible prognosis from Mark’s doctors. He was brain dead. He would not recover. He recognized no one. It was hopeless. And it was……..except for the day of Rabbi Porath’s visit. I was there. I saw it happen.
I knew that Rabbi Porath had unrealistic expectations. I had been to see Mark many times in the nursing home. He never acknowledged my presence. He didn’t show the slightest signs of recognition. He just wasn’t there. I prepared the rabbi for disappointment. Mark would not know him either.
We walked into the room. No response from Mark. Rabbi Porath sat at his bedside and reached for his hand. No response. Rabbi Porath spoke to Mark. No response. Rabbi Porath shed a tear, and then it happened. Until this day I don’t know how I should feel about it. Was it a miracle or a tragedy?
Rabbi Porath, still holding Mark’s hand, said, “Mark, remember how we used to sing together.” And the rabbi began to chant the Ashrei. Ashrei, ashrei ………Suddenly Mark began to cry, to sob at the top of his lungs. As Rabbi Porath continued the prayer, Mark’s sobbing continued. A nurse came running in. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she muttered, shocked herself. “You’re upsetting the patient.”
With heavy hearts we left. We knew the truth. Mark was not brain dead. He was, for the second time in his life, a prisoner. This time the only escape would be death, which followed soon thereafter.