My name is Yitzchok Feldman and I’m a rabbi in Palo Alto. I am no relation to the Feldmans. But our families go back more than half a century, to the time my grandfather welcomed Mendel to South Bend, Indiana. What we sometimes call coincidence brought us together and allowed me to meet Mendel in Palo Alto.
We are here today to honor and to say goodbye to this last remaining link to another generation and another era, Shmuel Mendel Feldman, O"H.
I want to read out a portion of a chapter of Tehillim, from the book of Psalms (chap 23).
As we did with Frieda a few years back, we’re going to walk a bit in the valley of death today. We are all here with the end of all life. But in another way, we’re also going to walk through the valley of death, as Mendel & Frieda did, and we’re going to try to come through it with as much zeal to live and courage as they did.
This was a scrappy man; a feisty, blunt, and determined man. Only someone with such qualities could have endured the tortures of the valley of death. This was a last link to another time, the living reminder of how the torture of being a Jew in the last century could give way to Yiddishe Nachas, to deeply satisfying Jewish pleasures like seeing your children excel and your grandchildren thrive.
He is, for me personally, from among the last people I will know who saw and knew my grandfather and even my great-grandfather in South Bend--“I knew his Grandfasser and his Great-Grandfasser,” he would tell people about me. But he was a link to more than just that. He was a link to a world that, thankfully, has given way to better things.
In Fred’s and Boris’s retelling, you hear a story with a lot of time spent on the college years, but not quite the soft and breezy years that one sees at Stanford or at Yale. Those years – the harrowing years of Blitzkrieg, of brutality, of flight, of fear for one’s life, and of anguish about what happened to those who were left behind – those years surely shaped much of Mendel’s outlook.
But there is another reason to spend so much time on those years. That is because the events of those years became the greatest test of their lives. There was always a question hovering over them: Were they going to be consumed by those years even if they survived or were they going to overcome them.
The Midrash, a compilation of commentary on the Bible from the Rabbis of the Talmud, says that there are three people who saw three worlds: Noach, Job, and Daniel. All three of them saw the world at its peak; they all saw it during the worst time of destruction; and they then saw the world back again in the time of flourishing civilization. The Midrash is good history but there were many people who went through these times. What is special about these three? What is special is that they saw the destruction and they survived it. But they also worked to rebuild it.
Noach and Daniel saw the public world destroyed; Job saw his personal world destroyed. Mendel saw both a public world and his private world destroyed. But like them he rebuilt. He brought children into the world, even in the midst of destruction, and he worked with fierce determination to make sure that they would be educated and truly ready to thrive in America.
And Mendel has another thing in common with them. They were all able to negotiate the middle stage with their identities and their faith intact. The flight from the Nazis and the search for survival in the east and west were the ultimate chess game of Mendel’s life. Thankfully, his ingenuity and his tenacity, and some help from above, allowed him to prevail.
Finally, Mendel was able to rebuild. The life of the immigrant generation is focused on basics, focused on day-to-day survival. Mendel spent his entire life working at jobs that circumstances forced him to take. They dirtied him up but they didn’t come close to defeating him. A successful immigrant has his eyes always on the prize, on providing the rudimentary steps to giving one’s children a still better chance.
Those children can amble through the New World without the burdens of foreign accents, of language challenges, of harsh memories. But they do so carrying the essence—always carrying the essence--of their parents. The Aramaic word for child is "Bar," from which we get “Bar Mitzvah,” the child of commandment. The root "Bar" in Aramaic means "outside," as a child stands outside as the expression or unfolding of his or her parents. In them, one sees the blossoming of the seed of their parents, in looks, in brains, in tenacity, and in ingenuity.
This is one of the foundations of the commandment to honor one’s parents. There is, when it works, simultaneously a deep urge to connect and a feeling of humility in the presence of the one to be honored. An instinctive sense for this is what explains the spectacular Kibud Av V’Aim, the honor for parents, that has gone on particularly for the last four years here and on the East Coast before that.
When the Satmar Rebbe was taking leave of his Chasidim, a student asked, “To whom will we go for a Beracha (blessing)?” He said, “Walk into any Shul in the world and look for someone who has survived the war. If you see a man who was there, and who is still identifying as a Jew, from him you can ask for a Beracha.“
Anyone who survived the valley of death and still remains fiercely Jewish, that is the one to whom one goes for a Beracha. Mendel was able to provide many Berachot and we will miss them as we will miss him. May his memory be blessed.