I’m a big sports fan, and I’m also a news junkie. I keep up with the business world in order to advance my professional career. So it might surprise you that my favorite section of the newspaper – which I read habitually each day – is not the news section, the sports section, or the business section.
It’s the obituary page.
For one thing, I find the obituaries to be among the most well written articles in the entire newspaper.
I am also fascinated by the many interesting lives of people who have died – and who have been memorialized in the obituary section of the newspaper. Not surprisingly I am most interested in those who were Jewish or who had some Jewish connection in their lives.
Unfortunately, in the past 18 months, the number of obituaries has increased significantly during the COVID-19 outbreak, a sad and very noticeable reminder of the tragic effect of this horrible virus. And I’ve learned a lot about the lives of many Jewish people who have passed away … simply by reading their obituaries.
Of course, there were several famous individuals who we have lost this past year … Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and Rabbi Norman Lamm, all of blessed memory, to name a few. But I’m not talking about their obituaries. I’m referring to people I had never heard of before, even though they have made significant contributions to the larger world.
Angela Buxton, for example. She was the 1956 Wimbledon doubles champion, and befriended black tennis great Althea Gibson. Buxton was denied admission to the All England Club – which hosts the prestigious tennis tournament in England – because she was Jewish. Buxton also won a gold medal at Israel’s Maccabiah Games in 1953.
Sy Sperling died this past year as well. The name probably will not ring a bell to most folks, but his story will likely be familiar to many of you. He was the son of a Bronx plumber and became famous for his Hair Club for Men ads, in which he bragged that he was not only the company’s president, he was also a client.
Have you ever heard of Marlee Shapiro Asher? Probably not. She was an acclaimed visual artist of the Jewish faith who lived until the ripe old age of 107. Perhaps her most unique accomplishment was nothing she did professionally, but what her immune system was able to withstand. In 1918, she contracted the Spanish flu as a youngster, and then in her last year of her life she caught the coronavirus – and managed to survive both ordeals.
Larry Kramer, who died last year, was an outspoken Jewish writer and activist, who fought for LGBTQ rights before it became fashionable. He was the co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and wrote several books, plays, and screenplays.
Does the name Justin Sonder mean anything to you? I had not heard of him before reading his obituary. Sonder became a police officer in his native Germany, only six months after he was liberated from Auschwitz by United States troops. Later in his life he became a politician and an activists. In 2016, he testified in the trial of 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, an SS Guard, and helped convict him of crimes against humanity.
Many of us owe Jewish technology guru Larry Tesler – who passed away last year – a huge yasher koach. Tesler worked at both Xerox and Apple, and is credited with the invention of the copy-and-paste function on our computers and phones, something that we take for granted now but at the time he perfected it was a huge breakthrough. Thank you, Larry.
Robert Lappin was a philanthropist who gave generously to many Jewish causes. He was one of the founders of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and also helped sponsor teen trips to Israel, several decades before Birthright Israel became popular.
Maurice Bidermann was a French industrialist in the textile business. He survived the Holocaust as an illegal alien in France, crossing the Belgian border and hiding for 18 months in the home of a non-Jewish family. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence, before returning to Europe and entering the fashion industry. He acquired the brand licenses for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and became hugely successful, but later was convicted of illegal business practices as part of a corruption probe.
Have you heard of Yefim Goldberg? He lived for 106 years, and was a veteran of World War II. An author and a poet, Goldberg received four separate medals from the governments of Russia and Belarus, and spent 25 years of his life as a sailor traveling the oceans of the world.
Beny Zlochisty was a beloved Mexican Jewish leader who assisted Jews in the Soviet Union and led trips to Holocaust sites for the March of the Living program. In his youth, he was a loyal member of Beitar. Later in his life he represented Mexico at the World Zionist Congress in Israel.
There have been a sizable number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, and Jack Steinberger was one of them. Steinberger was the son of a chazzan, and immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1934. In 1988, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of neutrino, the world’s smallest subatomic particle. Earlier in his life, Steinberger worked with Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
Some folks feel that my strong interest in reading obituaries is an odd fixation – and points to a morbid curiosity about death. However, I prefer to view obituaries as a celebration of life rather than a lamentation about death.
As we enter the High Holiday season, and our focus turns to matters of life and death, may we all be blessed to lead meaningful, interesting, and productive lives. And when the time ultimately arrives for someone to write an obituary about us (God willing, a long time from now), let’s hope and pray it will indeed be a story that others can appreciate.