My father left us when I was seventeen years old. My brother had just turned sixteen and my parents had been married by then for almost twenty-three years. To say that my upbringing was tumultuous would be an understatement. We had moved about ten times by then, including, by the time I was seven, twice to Israel and to three different states. We had even been homeless for a period of time; taken in by good friends on two occasions. Needless to say, my father was the source of the tumult, often raging against us and his place in the world. He was not a good husband, and certainly not a good father. My brother and I were relieved to see him leave. But a father is still one’s father my friend said. So, about a year later, at the urging of that friend, I called him, when I visited her at Yale and he was living in New Haven. When he answered the phone, his last words to me were, or so I thought they were his last words to me, “Don’t ever call me again.” That was 1989.
My father was gone from my life for thirty-one years. He missed my high school graduation, my acceptance to college, my first wedding, the birth of my daughter, seventeen years of her life, and my marriage to my life-partner. He missed my college and law school graduations, my triumphs and my failures. He missed my trial work; including my most meaningful summation to a jury, in which I cited the Talmud he so loved. I gave that summation in a room packed with over a hundred New York City Police Department members, attorneys, as well as family and friends of the victim. It was my proudest moment as a prosecutor; one in which I obtained justice for a NYPD Sergeant the defendant had tried to kill. My father missed all of it. In essence, he missed out on my entire world; until this past April.
I was contacted by my mother, telling me that she had heard that he was gravely ill and that my brother, who had reconnected with him over the last few years, was unable to reach him. She wanted to know if I could find him for my brother. Well, I did, except I also found him for myself in the end; for my family, for my brother, my father’s sister, and an entire family in Israel who only knew of him as “Moshe the mystery.” He had disappeared from his parents’ lives and his sister’s for over forty years. He had disconnected from every flesh and blood member of his family. But why would he do that? These last few months I was able to finally piece together an answer.
I was actually able to find him, since the Jewish world is indeed very small. Turns out, my best friend’s brother studied with my father in New Haven and knew how to connect us. It took me a day to gather the courage to call him, as I thought about when we last spoke over the phone, so long ago. But this time when I called, he answered and on the other end was the voice of an old man that I did not recognize. This time he said, “Ah, Shlomit,” as if he was expecting my call. “Are you still in Queens?” “Yes,” I answered, “for the last twenty years.” He responded, “Wow that is a career!” Could that be pride in his voice? Had he kept tabs on me? I could not believe it. I then asked him how he was, if he wanted visitors, and told him that he had a granddaughter he had never met. He actually agreed. On April 4, 2019, my partner, my daughter and I drove to Connecticut and met him in his nursing home. It would be the start of a journey, five weeks long, that would change all of our lives forever. It would change the way I even viewed my father. Up until this April, I really could not remember any good things about him. But life turns on a dime, as they say, and it sure did for me.
HaRav Moshe Mordechai (nee Lichtman) Meiri ben Tzvi Hirsch Halevi, A”H, was dying. He did not have long to live. I could see that. But the five weeks we would have together became unbelievably special to me, to my extended family, and to his many friends that I met along the way. I reconnected him with my brother, his sister, and his brother-in-law. Modern technology has changed everything, and in this case, thanks to video-chat capability, for the better. But how he treated me and my family, and the stories I heard about him along the way, forever altered my perceptions of him. The first day we met, this lone kippah wearing rabbi in a non-kosher facility nervously welcomed us. We looked over a photo book I had made for him with pictures of the last nearly eighteen years of our lives – from the moment we brought our daughter home, to silly Purim costumes my partner and I had worn the month before. We told stories about each one and he stopped at the one of me and my partner at our civil marriage ceremony, asking where it was taken. Unsure how he would accept it, I tried to gloss over it, not sure how he would react, just saying “Judge’s chambers; we were just trying to protect our rights.” He stopped, turned to us, and exclaimed emphatically, “It is the moral and ethical obligation of society to protect those rights!” In one instant, my father had become a rabbi who had not failed me, a man who understood the needs of the observant LGBTQ Jew (Even when some rabbis fail, others rise above and there is hope for LGBT Jews – The Blogs: Times of Israel, July 13, 2016).
We spent some time going through the photos and when he saw one of my daughter, of her at Barnard’s summer writing program, that I too had attended over thirty years earlier, it brought back a memory for him of me getting into some trouble there (think teenagers left to their own devices with alcohol) and calling home. He remembered coming to pick me up back then. Now a parent, I was able to understand his sadness over that situation. He said, “Let’s not talk about that.” I responded, “I guess I was a problem child.” He answered, “Worse yet, I was a problem father.” Words, an admission, I never thought I would hear in my lifetime. I saw my daughter looking at me as he spoke those words – she too realized their magnitude. So, I took that moment to respond this way to my dying father, who had just, in his way, asked for forgiveness. “Let’s look forward, let’s not look backward.”
My father soon introduced me, my daughter, and my partner to the staff, who were surprised to see us; they thought that he had no family. He introduced my partner by name and as someone who, although was not his daughter, he would be proud to have as a daughter! Once again, in a few words, my observant father, a Rav who was a young Talmudic prodigy, from a rabbinic Satmar dynasty, who studied at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore and at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a man who championed civil rights in the 60’s, a man who marched with Dr. King, who protested Vietnam, and who smuggled medicine into Wounded Knee in 1973, recognized the importance of preserving the dignity of each human being, of kvod habriyot, of this LGBTQ Jew and her partner. In the end he and my partner would go on to form a special connection; they just seemed to really get each other.
We returned to visit him the following week, where he introduced us to another staff member as his children. The staff member then told him that he had such nice children and that he must have done something right. He responded, “Actually, I was never around and I was a lousy father.” Hearing his shame and sad regret, I again responded, “Let’s look forward, let’s not look backward.” We then proceeded to dig into some amazing kosher Indian food (his favorite and mine I discovered) we had brought for him, and began a conversation that would bring him back to New York, where he had been born. My partner spoke to him and asked him about getting out of the non-kosher facility, which was entirely bereft of frumkeit. She sensed he was drowning there and he told her that he was. We spoke to his friends, who had so lovingly cared for him, but who agreed that it was best that he move closer to us, because after all family is family, and he was desperate for a Jewish and kosher environment too. I learned from his dear friend that when he asked him if he wanted to come to New York, to a Jewish place and closer to us, my father told him, “I would like that very much.”
After Pesach, and a few rough days in the hospital, he made his last journey to New York. I visited him every day, multiple times a day, and my family visited too. He was also visited by rabbis, fed kosher food, taken to a minyan where the hospice rabbi davened for him the entire Amidah aloud, because he was too weak to stand and say it himself. His friends made their journeys from Connecticut to say goodbye too. His sister and I worked together to get him ready for his final journey; burial in Israel. I asked my father his wishes, and at first concerned about the cost, he said no. But when he heard my family and his sister’s family would work together to bury him in Israel, that we would BE”H be making Aliyah, and that I wanted to visit his kever, he said yes. He truly loved Israel; the land and the State. I saw him swell with pride when he learned that his only granddaughter was making Aliyah to serve in the IDF. He looked at her with tears in his eyes and said, “There is no greater nedava then to give of one’s self to the State of Israel and to Am Yisrael!”
I knew that taking him home to Israel was the right thing to do; it was my last act of kavod for the man who had helped bring me into this world. On May 12th, the Seventh of Iyar he passed away with me by his side. I had said the Viddui with him a few days before, and I had told him that, though it was hard for me, I forgave him. He was treated with such dignity and respect by the Chevra Kaddisha that came for him and helped me fly him to Israel the same day. He was buried in Massuot Yitzchak, on the Eighth of Iyar, not far from his parents’ resting place, and his sister’s moshav. We had brought him home. We had reunited a family.
Along the way, during those precious five weeks, my father had asked me why I was doing all of this. I responded that the Talmud in Brachot teaches us that kavod for one’s parents does not just mean respect, it means dignity – as in kvod habriyot – and that it is incumbent upon one’s children, when a parent cannot feed or clothe themselves, that the children care for and restore their parent’s dignity. He looked up at the ceiling, as if speaking to the heavens and proudly said, “She knows the cite,” for he realized that I too loved our Talmud. I think we both realized then how much we missed in each other’s lives, what we could have learned from each other, and how very much alike we were in some ways. However, I realized over those weeks that he was just not meant to be in our lives for all those years. I thought about the discussion in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin) and its words about saving a life – “He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the world entire.”
I learned from his friends that he saved countless lives, literally. That he pulled people from the streets, fed them, clothed them, gave them jobs building low income housing; for this rabbi was an urban planner by day. One who lived in the low-income housing he built, and who gave away most of his social security money to those in need. One who had taught countless children their Torah portions, taught Talmud and Mishna to so many, and at the same time put rooves over the heads of countless struggling people. He fixed and remodeled for friends in need, for a shul that he loved, and helped anyone who asked. He was a rabbi with a wicked sense of humor, who combined his two worlds on his business card. Rabbi Moshe Meiri – “From Torah to Toilets.” He was a man of the people, one who preferred that people call him Moshe rather than Rabbi.
My father was truly one of a kind. He was stubborn, difficult, generous, kind, fiercely loyal to his friends, and a man who practiced tikkun olam each and every day. After he passed away, I went to clean out his apartment in Bridgeport. It was a humble place filled with books, and while there I met a woman on the street who told me a story about my father. She was so sad to learn that he had passed. She had been studying to be a nurse, and my father had found her an apartment, a room of her own, and he cared for that apartment and the building they both lived in. She told me that because of that she had finished her studies, “Summa Cum Laude!” she proudly proclaimed, and credited my father with making it possible. My father had turned many into carpenters (he was exceptionally skilled), others into plumbers, and had literally pulled people from the justice system, standing up for them and promising the courts he would help them gets jobs and benefits; which he did! Then he made each of them pay their taxes, some for the first time in their lives, because he believed everyone had to be a contributing member of society. In his city of Bridgeport he was changing the world, one person at a time.
In the end, my father truly lived up to his name – originally Lichtman – man of light. He changed it to Meiri; a play on his own name and after the Rishon – the Meiri – he loved and admired. He was a light in this world to so many and at the end of his days, he became a light in mine. He became a lesson in compassion and forgiveness for my daughter, and finally made peace with those of us he left behind. But now we know why he left. He was not meant to be ours. He was meant to enter the lives of so many others, rippling out acts of tikkun olam to countless people, some of whom I learned paid it forward. One man I met, who my father had taken in, and who my father had nursed back to health over many months in the hospital, told me that he was like a father to him; that because my father had taken him in, he and his wife had taken in a troubled teen, just like he had once been.
I learned so much on this too short a journey with him. I taught him something too – the importance of family. In the end, he recognized it and was so grateful for those final weeks with us. When I took him home to the land he loved, and buried him, I was comforted by family, many dear friends, and friends of my family. We talked about the way we Jews mourn and the saying of “Hamakom Yenachem” to the mourners. What does it mean? Is it Hashem? Is it a place? Is it a grave? Indeed, when I saw my father being buried, and watched the soil of the Land of Israel covering his body, I was indeed comforted. It was menachem me. I also learned that each person has a makom – a place – and that a person’s place is his world, his people. His people came to menachem me, both in Israel and when I continued sitting shiva in New York. In fact, one of his students from Connecticut, now living in Jerusalem, came to the funeral and carried his body for burial. He called him “my Rebbe” and spoke of the many hours they spent studying Talmud together. He said that he had many stories about my father that he hoped to tell me one day. We keep in touch now and I cannot wait to hear them all.
One Rav who came to menachem me told me that the word סִפּוּר shares the same root with the word ספיר – and just like a sapphire, telling stories about my father illuminates the world – he was a true man of brilliance and light, as were his deeds. I am glad I can now remember him that way. If you are reading this and you knew my father, please tell his stories and illuminate the world with memories of his deeds. Do acts of kindness and tikkun olam in his name. Pay it forward. May the neshama of Rav Moshe Mordechai (nee Lichtman) Meiri ben Tzvi Hirsch Halevi, A”H, have an Aliyah in the next world, each and every time his stories are shared in this one!