It’s been a few months since you passed to the higher world on February 8, 2017.
To the world, you were Schwartzie. To me, you were just father.
With a few days to go before the High Holidays, I am preparing notes and stories to inspire 2000 of our Jews, your Jews, who will attend your services at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, Jews who are not affiliated with any other temple or Jewish denomination.
I watched you on stage since I was a child conducting services with the cantor and the “Schwartz Tabernacle Choir.” I watched you entertain and dazzle the crowd. I remember comics from the Laugh Factory come to you after services and say, “Schwartzie, how do you have enough script to hold the crowd for eight hours? I can barely do eight minutes at the club!”
I remember your High Holidays services in 1989, where you coined the term “Don’t Pay to Pray.” People didn’t believe such a service was possible. We didn’t have a minyan that morning. You asked me to fetch a tenth person so we could start services. I was cute and young with curly hair. Who can say no to a 13-year-old child? How far you’ve come. You’ve filled the Bonaventure Hotel, the Pantages Theater, and now the theater at the Writers Guild of America. You’ve done well, father.
I remember you sitting in your wheelchair on stage last Yom Kippur reciting the Shehecheyanu, thanking G-d that he granted you life till that point. I remember leading the service last year as you sat in your white Kittel fasting, not taking your meds against all your doctors’ orders. I was happy you were there, coaching me, motioning to me, prodding me, telling me to insert another joke.
I will miss you this year on stage, father. I will miss not feeling your hands on my head before Yom Kippur as you blessed me the first forty years of my life.
Your son, Mendel
* * *
The Shiva has passed. And the 30-day shloshim has passed. Now is the time to be happy and stand upright. Now is the time for you to perform and conduct yourself on YK like the rabbi that I taught you to be for 40 years. I am up here with a fabulous crowd of people, and we’re all looking down at you. I am here with the Baal Shem Tov and the Lubavitcher Rebbe who gave me my first and only job, and who taught us not to be afraid and to love every single Jew regardless of observance or affiliation. We are all excited to watch you on stage. We know you’ll be inspiring, and we hope to hear some new jokes. But go ahead and use some of my old material.
Remember the story of the Klausenberger Rebbe, Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, who was born in 1905 and passed away in 1994? His wife and 11 children were killed during the Holocaust. He was as strong as a lion, even though all his loved ones passed. Even General Dwight Eisenhower came to meet him in 1945 in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany, to witness this great rabbi. He was so strong, he later remarried and had an additional seven children.
In 1946, before Yom Kippur, a nine-year-old orphan came to his tent in the DP camp and asked the Rebbe to bless him since he had no father. The Rebbe graciously agreed. Word got out that the Rebbe blessed this orphan, and within a few minutes all the orphans started to line up and receive a blessing from the Rebbe. One by one the Rebbe blessed 90 kids. Only once the last child was blessed did the Rebbe begin the Kol Nidrei.
Before the Rebbe passed in 1994, his students asked, who will be our Rebbe after your passing? And the Rebbe answered, all the Jews who light the Shabbat candles before sunset, and all the Jews who put on tefillin, they will be your Rebbe. They will be your guide and inspiration.
So my son Mendel, I am wearing my tie-dyed T-shirts, and I am next to the Klausenberger Rebbe, who is wearing his white button-down shirt and black fur hat. And we both agree that this year, although I am not with you physically to bless you before Yom Kippur, you should look at the crowd sitting in the Writers Guild theater. Look at the thousand Jews who chose not to watch a Netflix show, but chose to attend services. They chose to listen to you as their new rabbi. They chose to listen as you will rattle off my ten suggestions to keep the Jewish people stronger. They are your new Rebbe. They are the new FOUNDING FATHERS AND MOTHERS of the Jewish people.
Am Yisroel Chai and Shanah Tovah,