Joel Zelcer (Yoel ben Shmuel), Of Blessed Memory
As some of you may know, my father passed away this last Shabbat. I am still sitting shiva in Toronto and would like to share the hesped (eulogy) that I wrote and read at his funeral this past Monday. It’s the talk I never wanted to give.
Thank you all for your many messages of condolences. I may not have responded, but please know that I read, and was comforted, by everyone.
May his neshama (soul) continue to have an aliya (ascendance).
And may we all share simchas soon.
A few years ago I told my mother, “I have a very strong work ethic.” She said, “Well, you didn’t get it from my side.”
My father was a man who took words like commitment, integrity, and responsibility seriously—words that today, many men run away from. You have a job—you do it, and you do it well. He did not respect when someone started something and did not finish it—whether it was a course or a puzzle. He was a man of his word. You say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, be on time. My father was always on time, or early—but never, ever late. Some of my kids found this out when he would bring them to the airport hours early for their flights home from a visit.
I never once remember him breaking a promise or a commitment—not to me, nor to anyone. You could count on my father. How many people can you say that about?
Was it easy living up to his strong sense of right and wrong? For many here who knew him, it wasn’t. As one of my kids said when they were little: “Zaidy is very loud.”
But a few weeks ago when I was at his bedside in the hospital after his stroke, all I could remember were happy times. And I want to share some of those with you now.
For my father, working hard was so he could provide for us– our family was everything to him. When we were little, I only remember my parents going away without us once. Vacations were always with us—Can you imagine working hard for 50 weeks and then driving across Canada with four kids in a car—not a van, not a station wagon, a car? That does not sound like much of a vacation. But that’s what he did—and we loved it. I remember him waking us up in the middle of the night on that vacation to watch a black and white, grainy live feed of the first man on the moon. Later we went out west, this time in a Winnebago, and to Florida in a station wagon– He always drove while we read, slept, and fought—he was the man. With him in the driver’s seat, we always knew we were safe.
My parents used to play bridge with friends. But he always preferred to spend time with us, so he patiently taught us, when we were little, how to play. I was the only 8-year old I knew who played bridge. 500 Rummy, Monopoly, Rummoli. He taught us, played with us, and enjoyed us. And then when the next generation came along, he taught them.
No more vacations on the road, because now we had the cottage. Did my Dad like communing with nature? No. But Mom did, so he bought and maintained a place where we could be a family—because, for him, family was everything.
My father was the one who got us up in the mornings for school. Years later he drove us to high school every morning, which was not on the way to his work—of course, we were there early.
He never missed a recital, a play, a graduation…. Would he be effusive in his praise? No—that was Mom’s job, but we so wanted him to be proud of us. And you could tell when he was.
Why didn’t he express his pride in us more? He was definitely of the generation of men that were not raised to express their feelings, and my husband pointed out to me that my father was…shy. He was the introvert, my mother, the extrovert. It was not easy for him to express things in words, but he always showed them in deeds.
It says in Pirkei Avoth: “Say little and do a lot.” That was my father.
He always looked to help others—but in a special, other-centered way. In Judaism, we call that “chessed.” Not what you feel like giving—but you see others needs, and you want to fulfill them. You had a favorite TV show but lived in Israel (or had parents who didn’t let you watch TV)? He would remember you loved that game show, record it and sent it to you. Some of my kids had long outgrown a show but didn’t have the heart to tell Zaidy and just let him express his love that way.
I once told my Dad in passing that I loved sushi. On my very next visit, he was excited to give me kosher sushi he had driven miles to acquire. I don’t think he realized that if it was in the fridge for a couple of days, it wasn’t so great….but, of course, I ate the sushi because I knew that it was how he showed he loved me.
And then one by one we became religious. Where did that come from? My mother again would tell you, “It’s not from my side!”
My father was very, very proud to be Jewish. He shared stories of standing up to anti-Semites in fist fights in his youth—but he was also raised with having to go to after-school cheder where if you didn’t know the answer the rabbi would hit your hand with a stick.
He fasted every year on Yom Kippur—so we—the kids– all did. He honored his parents. So we all did.
This last bout after the stroke said it all—although none of us live in Toronto, every one of his kids showed up and stepped up. I am very grateful to my brothers and sister who dropped everything and together we never let a day go by without one of us being there, supporting my mother, helping her navigate the medical system, and spending one-on-one time with our father, giving to him instead of him giving to us. This created healing—more for us, than for him.
My father became friends with the Aish rabbis, and the staff of Aish Thornhill, where he volunteered to roll the tzedakah coins from the pushkas. He always told me he knew if Aish was doing better or worse by the amount of coins he had to roll. (Rabbi Mandel, he told me, you need to step it up)
He knew every kosher restaurant and kept me up to date on which one opened and which one closed. When my Bubby passed away, he sat shiva in our home on Ava Rd. and did everything according to Jewish law. “Just tell me what to do,” he said.
And when our sons turned 13, he proudly bought them their tefillin. A few months after our son Zev’s Bar Mitzvah, he and some siblings flew to Toronto from Denver where we were living to go to the cottage with Bubby and Zaidy. My father picked them up at the airport, brought them to their home in Downsview, and the next day they all drove over 2 hours up to the cottage. When they got there, Zev realized he had forgotten his teffilin at my parent’s house. Without missing a beat, my father got back into the car and drove back to Toronto, got the teffilin, and drove back to the cottage so Zev could put it on before sundown.
My parents kept the cottage kosher year-round for the grandchildren. Anything for the grandchildren. We would call up and ask how the kids, who were all under ten at the time, were doing. My father said to my husband, “I told them no TV until they all daven. I don’t know; I don’t think Moshe is really davening….”
Until recently when I got a new passport, where it would say Emergency Contact—I would always fill in my father’s name. Because he was the one you would turn to, he was the one you could count on.
Yes, we all lived to make him proud. Only once did he ever say it. It was on my wedding day, I was sitting in my dress, on the chair, my husband to be had just put down the veil and they were dancing him out. My father leaned down and said, “I have never been more proud of you.”
Dad, thank you for your fierce love and devotion. I hope all of us continue to make you proud.