Rabbi Dr. Zecharia Dor Shav, my father’s youngest brother who changed his name from Dershowitz when he made aliyah to Israel, has just died at the age of 98. He was a renowned educator who taught at Bar Ilan University, as well as being a Talmid Chacham (Jewish scholar) who studied the Talmud almost every day. More than a half century ago he decided to make aliyah to Israel with his family and he hebraicized his name to mean the generation that returned.
Professor Dor Shav taught legions of students in psychology and education. He also taught thousands of readers and listeners through his writings and lectures.
Uncle Zacky had a profound impact on me and members of our large extended family, more than half of whom now live in Israel. He taught by example, not by preaching. Though we have differences in our religious and political outlooks, he always treated my “heresy” with respect and humor, as illustrated by the following story:
When I was a visiting scholar in Israel writing my book on the Genesis Of Justice, I decided to show the manuscript to Uncle Zacky, knowing that he would not be pleased with some of my attitudes toward the Biblical text. I asked him to critique and suggest changes because I admired his deep scholarship. After reading the manuscript carefully, he met with me and said that it was an admirable work of biblical interpretation and criticism, but he requested that I change one word. I responded, “For you Uncle Zacky of course I’ll change whatever word you want, what is it?” He looked at me, smiled and said, “The word Dershowitz on the cover.” I lovingly told him that this was a word I could not change since the book expressed my views. He laughed and said “I knew that, but for the sake of the family I had to ask.”
That was the nature of our relationship, as well as his relationship with our diverse family, whose views range from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) to modern Orthodox, to skeptical (that’s me), to agnostic, to outright atheist. Uncle Zacky loved us all and understood our different views, referring to them as “the eight lights of the menorah.”
Another story, that Illustrates a different side of Uncle Zacky took place on his 95th birthday. The family had arranged a Zoom call in which all of us from around the world would join in wishing him a happy birthday. Everybody was talking over each other conveying our good wishes, when someone interrupted and said “Hello Uncle Zacky, this is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling to convey my birthday wishes. Zacky gracefully accepted the good wishes of the Prime Minister but instead of saying goodbye, he made the following demand: “I’ve been in Israel more than 50 years and I’ve never had a chance to tell the prime minister what I think he’s doing wrong. This is my big chance, and I’m going to take it.”
He then went on to lecture Netanyahu about everything he believed was wrong with Israel. The lecture lasted quite a bit of time, and the Prime Minister listened with interest. When the Zoom call ended, I got a call from Netanyahu, whom I had asked to convey his good wishes, saying, “I thought I was just wishing him a happy birthday, I had no idea I’d be on the receiving end of a stern lecture, but he made some really good points.” That was Uncle Zacky.
Zecharia Dor Shav was a fervent Zionist, an Israeli patriot, the patriarch of a large and growing family and a great representative of his generation of Jews. In his 90s, he sat down to write a 500-page book chronicling the history of the Dershowitz family, from the Shtetls of Poland to the Lower East Side of New York, to the suburbs, and to Israel. He poured his heart and soul into this project and expressed great joy when the book was published during his lifetime. It tells the typical Jewish story through the eyes and pen of a remarkable American and Israeli. It represents an important part of the historic Jewish experience, and Uncle Zacky was the perfect person to chronicle it, with his love of Judaism, his erudition and his warm writing style.
Zecharia Dor Shav’s death marks not only the end of an era but hopefully the beginning of a new era in which the eight candles of our menorah can continue to shine brightly for the millennia.