The lights are lit, bracketing the bronze plaque bearing the name of Herbert Barbanel, Nechemia ben Avraham Moshe. It’s up front on the right, toward the bottom of one of the giant yahrtzeit frames that fill nearly all the wall space in this small old beit midrash.
When in New York (I spend most of the year in Miami) you can find me in the second row to the right, perpendicular to the plaques of my parents. By Long Island standards this is an old room, built in the early 1950s. It has all-original brass chandeliers and casement stained glass windows. The dedication plaque commemorates the donors’ parents who were niftar in the Shoah. By Brooklyn or Manhattan measure, it’s not that old of a room. Yet this space houses what seems like the names of thousands of the dearly departed spanning most of the 20th and up through the first 20% of the 21st century. Vacancies are in short supply. If you want to be memorialized in this small sanctuary, you’d better reserve your spot pretty soon.
Before, during and after davening my eyes wander across the walls. I see the parents, grandparents and other relatives of most of the Five Towners I know along with other members of the shul who I knew back in the day. If you ever want to feel relatively insignificant in the panoply of Jewish life, just spend time in this room. Life is finite and it’s molded in bronze. The plethora of yahrtzeit plaques makes tangible King Solomon’s words in Kohelet that if you want to understand the meaning of life, visit a house of mourning not a house of partying. Like on the Mount of Olives when all the wall space is gone they’ll have to start double and triple stacking.
There are also very sizable metal plaques recognizing those who built the shul in 1950-51 and then those who built the annex with the social hall in 1972. All of these leaders of the community from those days are long gone. It gives you a sense of how short the lease on life truly is. In 25 or 30 years, the names of those who paid for the recent renovation will also seem like ancient history to those milling about the lobbies.
Herbert Barbanel was my father and his second yahrtzeit is coming up fast. To everyone but his kids my father was variously known as Herb, Herbie, Chem or Chemki, depending on who you were in the hierarchy of family and friends and when you met him; Mr. Barbanel, if you please, in business. I first met him in the fall of 1962 when I had just turned four years old. He and my mom met and started dating on Labor Day weekend of that year. To my mother it was imperative that whomever she dated would hit it off with her son and want to be my father. No evil or indifferent stepfathers need apply. Dad fell in love with my mother and with me. We came as a package. He committed to the two of us at the same time and he lived up to that commitment in heart, word and deed from the very first day together to his very last.
A real Horatio Alger story, my dad grew up dirt poor in Brownsville, Brooklyn. His father died when he was seven. He went to work at an early age and attended high school and college at night. A member of “The Greatest Generation,” he served his country in the Navy (stationed in Norman, Oklahoma, of all places) during the last year and a half of World War II. He scratched and fought his way up from nothing, ultimately to sit with princes of government and captains of industry and commerce.
In 2017, when Dad passed at 90, he had some famous company: Martin Landau (89), Fats Domino (89), Hugh Hefner (91), Harry Dean Stanton (91), Jerry Lewis (91), Adam West (88), Roger Moore (89), Don Rickles (90) and Chuck Barris (87). Fame can be fleeting indeed and soon forgotten. But love, values and Torah endure in the newsfeed of forever.
Like many in his cohort, Dad lived a life of quiet heroism; it’s no small matter to send kids to Jewish day school (as many know all too well today), to camp, to Israel, to college and grad school. Dad was not very Jewishly educated but it was a priority for him to send my brothers and I to get the education he missed out on. They say a mark of a successful Jewish life is if a person has Jewish grandchildren. Dad lived to see those grandchildren and a great-grandchild—all Jewishly committed. Dad, like Noach, was “righteous in his time”: the 1950s-1980s was an era of rampant assimilation, with most American Jews running as far away as fast as they could from Jewish life. In the face of this, Dad wanted Shabbat dinner with Kiddush and Hamotzei, celebration of the holidays and a kosher home. If you grew up on Long Island in that era, these were not the prevailing winds in the Jewish world. But against the wind he walked, which ultimately bore fruit in his descendants. V’shinantam l’vanecha. He accomplished that.
He also made it a point to always be home for dinner and to be there. Family was his first priority. When in camp I would get a short letter from him every day. Not that the letter said all that much, but he wanted you to know he was thinking about you. As I moved into adulthood we would speak most days, often for just a minute or two, and at the end of each call he would say in his Burgess Meredith-like voice, “I love ya, kid.” To say I miss that is a major understatement. He passed just before Rosh Hashanah two years ago, and not seeing him there in shul with us for the High Holidays is like a dull ache that does not fade. Dad chose to love me and I him. Often the loves we choose are greater than the loves we have to have.
So, Kaddish is coming and it will be said in that room where several generations of mourners have already rent their hearts if not their clothing. There is a comfort in the ongoing continuity of Kaddish—a chain that stretches back to the dawn of Jewish time. No one is truly alone or forgotten in the House of Hashem.
I continue to go to shul each day and try to live a good life in the merit of my parents—and in the hope that in Olam Haba God will reward this by enabling us to be together again for all of eternity.
By Howard Barbanel