Taking Leave of Yosef

I received a surprise call yesterday afternoon. It was from the president of my synagogue in Arnona. He told me he had sad news for me. My friend Yosef was found dead in his home.

I was more shocked than saddened by the news. Yosef was but 60 years old. He had no life threatening illness. I had just spoken with him late Sunday afternoon. How could this be?

Three hours later Yosef was buried on Har Hazeitim. I attended the funeral half dazed. Only today did the reality sink in and the tears begin to fall.

Yosef was an unlikely friend. First I saw him I thought him the most pompous man I ever met. He was flamboyant to the point of almost being a caricature. He dressed  as if he wore a sign “look at me”.  Nothing he wore at least on Shabbat, from his colorful and unusual styled hats to his suits and shoes that often seemed of another era were commonplace. I generally am totally turned off by people whose manner reflects self importance. Yosef radiated that very quality.

But life has a way of bringing together even people who seem opposite of personality and preference. Some years after I saw this man I took an instant dislike to, a Rav friend asked me if I would invite Yosef to a Shabbat meal. The Rav knew I often had guests and knew that Shabbat Yosef needed a place. Reluctantly I agreed all the time wondering how I would welcome Yosef to my home and table.

If life has a way of bringing together opposites it also has a remarkable way of turning those opposites into friends. Yes, Yosef was totally different of personality and preference to me. He was flamboyant and a name dropper. He knew everyone. He had an encyclopedic capacity to both collect and remember facts.  Over the years he sat at my Shabbat table time and time again he would say “do you know so  and so”. To which I would reply in truth, “no…I know really no one”. And in comparison to Yosef who knew virtually everyone that was true.

Yosef loved people. And he needed them. He was constantly on his phone or attending events, schmoozing and engaging others as if he was running for office. To be silent was a dread for him. He needed desperately human contact.

It’s kind of odd when I thought about it in light of Yosef’s life and circumstances. He was an only child, a prodigy. He was a finalist at the Israeli  Bible Quiz in his youth. He lived so many years alone after his parents died and in a big private home rather than an apartment. He never married, never even had a serious relationship. He never even had a pet. Yet he hungered for people and was desperate for their affirmation.

I am a loner. Silence for me is not only golden but silver and bronze. I hate talking about myself. Yes, I love to host guests, but I have few real friends and prefer it that way. I prefer to be anonymous rather than known. Yosef was my total opposite. He was a collector of Judaica, of information, and yes of people. As much as I valued privacy he cherished belonging.

How did Yosef, so different from me become my dear friend? How did I get over my anathema to flamboyance and the attention getting behaviors essential to Yosef?

I think that what endeared Yosef to me was his innocence. Despite his learning which was considerable, he even gave lectures, he was at heart a child, in need of love and affection. I came to see his craving for honor and affirmation not as grandiosity but as a pure soul starved for love. What others might get from a spouse or children Yosef got from community and persons who affirmed that he was special. His dress and manner did not say “I am great” as with others. It said “look at me. I need you”.

My friend Yosef died alone Sunday night. He was not found until Tuesday. I think I was the last person to speak with him. I can honestly say as unlike him as I am I loved him. I loved Yosef.

The last time we spent meaningfully together was a few weeks ago when Lindy, my wife, and I took Yosef out for his 60th birthday. I still see his happiness that night, the joy he felt in knowing he was cared  for. And he was, by me and many others.

Yosef was a unique soul. He taught me much, not by dint of lecture or shared thoughts, but just by who he was. He taught me about the incredible importance of human contact and about how much we really need one another. In his unabashed need for validation he revealed a truth all of us in our heart of hearts know well. People need people even ones who pretend we don’t like me.

Yosef needed me. What I learned is I needed him too.

I will miss him dearly.





About the Author
Yisrael Ben Yosef holds Masters degrees in both Philosophy and in Education from the University of Western Ontario. He was a former Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education. He founded and served as Director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care in New York City. He has authored two books "Whence My Help Come:Caregiving in the Jewish Tradition" and "The Torah and the Self", both published by Mazo Press, Jerusalem.