Sunday, December 22, 2013

My father-in-law, Yitz Feldman z"l (of blessed memory)

This coming weekend is the 13th yartzheit of my father-in-law's passing.  He died at the relatively young age of 68 in a much older and unwell body.  Those of you who knew him don't need me to tell you about all that he accomplished in his life.  Yes, he was a community leader who was deeply involved in a multitude of Jewish organizations, from Jewish schools, yeshivot, Canadian Jewish Congress and kashrut.  If you attended a Jewish school in Toronto, ate kosher food in our city's restaurants and benefited from any funding for Jewish programming, you had Yitz Feldman to thank.  But more than that, he was a man who didn't bow to peer pressure and politics.  Instead of towing the line and siding with "popular" opinion, he followed what was right, even if it meant standing alone in the minority.  He dreamed of a unified Jewish Toronto, insisted on one kashrut organization so that the many groups of Toronto's Jews (reform, conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox) would come together as one instead of splintering into even more separate groups.  He viewed his job in the Jewish community as a responsibility to the future of Jewish Toronto, a duty.  All of the leadership positions he took were volunteer - he wasn't seeking to benefit financially from lending a much-needed helping hand.  He was principled, steadfast, modest about his role as a community leader and unwaveringly loyal to the Jews of his city; this entire Jewish world needs more men like him stepping up to the plate.  But you could find all that information about him by googling him.

What's not readily known about him is who the private man was behind the public 'Yitz Feldman'.
The polio epidemic hit Toronto in the early 1930's.  Poliomyelitis, also known as Infantile Paralysis, is an infectious disease that has been around since ancient times. The polio virus thrives in polluted water. 
In the past when poor sanitation and open sewage systems were the norm, constant exposure to this pollution meant people developed a natural immunity to polio. Ironically, when sanitation conditions improved, the virus became more lethal.  It quietly preyed on thousands of young Canadians. The disease caused paralysis, deformed limbs and in the most severe cases, death by asphyxiation. The fear of polio spreading was so rampant that as recently as the 1950s, Toronto closed its schools, emptied streets and banned children under 16 from entering public gathering places like churches and theaters.  It wasn't until 1955, that a vaccine became available.  Unfortunately, it was too late for Yitz and his brother Meyer; they contracted polio in the late 1930's.  While Meyer weathered through the disease with minor lasting effects, Yitz was struck with severe polio.  Paralyzed in both legs, he was hospitalized at the tender age of 5 and spent the next decade or so in the hospital, some of it in an iron lung.  The iron lung is a medieval-looking contraption that helped victims breathe.  Yitz's entire body, except his head, was sealed inside these "metal monsters," sometimes for months at a time.  

I remember Yitz telling me that back then, the hospital had visiting hours once a week, for about an hour.  And of course, that one hour a week had to be on Shabbat.  His stubborn mother found a way around that, but being a mother myself, I couldn't fathom Yitz at the age of 5 lying alone in a hospital and only seeing his mother once a week for an hour.  It was impossible to imagine.  Bubby Feldman might have been shorter than me, slight and slim as a whip, but she was a powerhouse of a woman and while most doctors in the 1930s and 40s, suffering from a God-complex, would administer treatment without bothering to consult with the patients or their parents, Bubby Feldman stuck her nose right in there and demanded to be kept up to date.  She rallied and supported and stood by her son's side until he, disabled and only able to stand with the aid of crutches, was able to leave the hospital and move back home.  After losing years of schooling, Bubby Feldman fought the city to keep him in a regular classroom instead of an institution for physically and mentally disabled children and eventually, he graduated with the rest of his class from Harbord Collegiate.  He told me that each teacher would let him out of class a few minutes early so he could make his way up and down the stairs to whatever classroom he needed to get to while carrying his books and holding his crutches.  I could see the determination on his face when he told me this story, his desire to be viewed as a normal teenager and not as a crippled kid who needed to be pitied.  He overcame every obstacle in his path and was called to the Bar at Osgoode Hall in 1959, founded the law firm Feldman and Weisbrot, married my mother-in-law Bella, had three children and was appointed a QC (Queen's Councel) in 1979.

The weekly reading in the Torah this weekend is Parshat Va'era.  It mostly talks about Moshe and the task that G-d has given him: to save his people from the hands of the Pharoah of Egypt.  In the beginning, Moshe questions G-d's decision in choosing him as a leader.  We know that Moshe had a bad stutter and was embarrassed by it.  This physical disability made it difficult for him to speak clearly and Moshe obviously thought that G-d could find a better spokesperson than someone with a bad stutter.  But G-d told him to overcome his nerves, to believe in his abilities and to get ready to lead his people out of Egypt.  I find it rather appropriate that this parsha falls out on my father-in-law's yartzheit.  Clearly, he must have learned from Moshe that regardless of the fact that he might have been seen by others as not the most agile man for the job, he was determined not to let his disabilities stand in his way.

I remember the first Shabbat I spent with them.  I was already engaged to their son and I had gotten to know both his parents fairly well, but this was the first time I was spending the entire weekend with them.  I dumped my bags at my grandparents, who lived a few blocks away and walked over before candle lighting.  When I walked in, Yitz was setting the Shabbat table.  I know that when I set my table, it takes me maybe five quick trips back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room until I'm done.  But Yitz needed to hold his crutches and he was only able to bring in one plate, one glass, and one set of cutlery at a time.  I immediately went into the kitchen and grabbed the stack of plates.  He stopped me with a look.  "You go sit down," he said quietly but seriously, "this is my job."  Taken aback and not quite sure how to respond, I carefully set down the stack of plates and left the kitchen.  I sat in the living room and we talked about everything and anything while he painstakingly set the table, plate by plate, glass by glass.  I had to grip the cushions to keep from jumping up and insisting on helping but the resolute look on his face kept me in my place.  He probably knew that even if he wasn't on crutches, I would have still automatically helped him set the table, but he needed this to be his job and didn't want to accept help from anyone, even his future daughter-in-law.  Only once I brought my firstborn daughter over for Shabbat, did he acquiesce and sit on the couch holding her and playing with her while I set the table.  

At the shiva, my husband told me that he couldn't believe the amount of people that came from all over Israel to pay their respects.  Each of them had many different stories to tell, but most of them were about their dealings with my father-in-law as his role as a community leader.  But I, along with his immediate family and my sister-in-law Nechama and a few other close family friends saw him a little differently, and have different stories to tell.  I thought of him as a second father, and often turned to him for advice.  He was a great storyteller and I enjoyed all the stories he told me over the years, whether it be about work, about the people he encountered in the Jewish community or about his childhood in Toronto.  One of my favorite memories is when he introduced me to someone as "his daughter, Chavi."  I immediately corrected him, reminding him that I was his daughter-in-law, but then he smiled and said, "I always forget that part..."  I don't think a daughter-in-law could have asked for a better compliment than that.  

His mother, Bubby Feldman, who my third child is named after, should be credited - at least partially - for her son's fierce determination and independence.  She clearly imparted to him from the moment he was struck with polio that he could do anything he wanted to, and that a "simple thing" like use of his legs, should not define him as a person or be the deciding factor in his ability to accomplish anything he dreamed of doing.  

One of his dreams was to make Aliyah.  With all his children and grandchildren having already made their home in Israel, he and my mother-in-law finally decided to make the big move.  For most people in their late 60's moving across the country is a big enough ordeal.  Doing it while you're wheelchair-bound after having survived a bad stroke and suffering from post-polio syndrome, having to deal with an entirely new health-care system (which was of utmost importance for the both of them) while simultaneously struggling with a new language is enough to make anyone stop in their tracks and seriously reconsider.  But not them.  Israel was their dream and they were determined to make it come true.  Once they announced their plans to move to Israel, the entire Jewish community came together -yeshivot, Mizrachi Toronto, the COR (kashrut) and the Jewish Federation - and made a good-bye dinner in honor of the great work they did for Toronto Jewry.  They made Aliyah, and unfortunately, exactly one year later, my father-in-law passed away.

We've all read that classic children's story about perseverance and dogged determination, "The Little Engine That Could" to our children.  We carefully taught them that all-important lesson of believing in ourselves and not in what others may believe about us; that if we want something badly enough, we have the power within ourselves to give it our best shot.  The alternative - quitting before we even give ourselves a chance - only guarantees a negative outcome.  That story always makes me think of my father-in-law.  That polio-stricken five year old child had overcome the impossible odds that were stacked against him and became not just a great man, but a remarkable one.  Yitz was not little in either physical stature or presence, I never once heard him say, "I can't."  He always could, and he did.  His legacy as a father, grandfather and leader of Jewish Toronto will be with us forever.

Yitz at age five before he was struck with polio

Yitz at his graduation from Osgoode Hall Law School 1959

With Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir in 1985

With Dr. Henry Kissinger in 1984

At our wedding 1992

In his law firm, holding his only Toronto-born grandchild, my daughter Nava.  We drove straight from the hospital to his office - she was 3 days old.

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