WHAT’S IN A (MIDDLE) NAME?
May 1, 2012
By Sholom Staiman
With thanks to the Reporter for permission to repost.
Our story begins in the very recent past, although it brings back years gone by. On Sunday, April 22, Eli Groner came home to Binghamton. Eli came back to his old shul, Beth David Synagogue, to speak at what we used to call a “Jimmy Berg (alav hashalom) Breakfast”.
I wish I could have been present to hear his address, although thanks to the Internet, I was able to listen in on the principal words, if not to the Q&A forum that followed. Eli, the new Israel Minister for Economic Affairs to the United States, was welcomed by the assemblage and, as reported to me from those who were present, was charming, warm and very much right at home.
While many of his listeners might have expected to hear words about what is going on in Israel with politics and current problems, Eli had no such agenda. Eli was home in Binghamton, and paragraph after paragraph, his words were a love song to his home town. Charming and warm, yes—but more than that, even to me as I read his words, deeply emotional. Eli, who had been required, in order to qualify for his new position, to renounce his American citizenship, did so with deep regrets. Born and brought up in the U.S., he may no longer be able to vote in elections, but no one can take away from him this American heritage.
And now our story turns to some years past. It concerns the people of Binghamton and the nature of the community, as it was then--and as I hope it still remains. The story, as many of that era may remember, was that of the Gottlieb family. Dr. Moshe Gottlieb had been selected from a long list of candidates to leave an important career in Israel in order to come to Binghamton as head of the Judaic Studies Department of Binghamton University. When he with his wife Tsippora and their children arrived, they immediately became an active and vital part of the Jewish community, most especially with Beth David. Moshe was learned and compelling, always worth listening to. Binghamton was quick to find that Moshe was not only an outstanding scholar, but had a sweet singing voice as well. That voice, whether in scholarship or in melody, quickly made him a community favorite, and Tsippi and the children were surely right at home among the new friends in shul and community.
And then! In all too short a time in Binghamton, while showering and preparing himself for Shemini-Azteret-Simchat Torah, Moshe collapsed. Rushed to the hospital, it was determined that he had suffered what was probably an aneurism. I do not pretend to know the exact medical condition, but we do know that Moshe was in a coma. That coma went on for many long days and months. Binghamton neurologists seemed to be at a loss for diagnosis and treatment. All the new friends were deeply concerned, especially as Tsippi was pregnant in the beginning of her ninth month.
In those stressful days and weeks, it was not only the new friends who rallied to their support, but many who had really known the Gottliebs only casually. They became a constant source of whatever help they might be to this pregnant wife with small children. This cadre of volunteers took turns sitting with Moshe, talking to him in the hope of a glimmer of recognition, and they also saw to it that Tsippi had companionship and support. Tsippi gratefully accepted that support, but it was she who was the stalwart, the one who determinedly never gave up hope and prayer, in the face of the ongoing crisis.
All of this occurred while Rabbi Raphael Groner, Eli’s father, was rabbi of Beth David, and Rabbi Herbie Russ was principal of Hillel Academy. They took it upon themselves to “do something”. The two rabbis drove to Syracuse to consult with the head of the Department of Neurology at University of Syracuse Medical School.
Although here too there was not much encouragement offered, this doctor told our two rabbis that right at home here in Binghamton, there was a promising young neurologist, one Dr. Storrs. This doctor had studied in that special department and head neurologist felt that Dr. Storrs might be of help.
Unlike his fellow neurologists, Dr. Storrs accepted the patient. And it was at just about at that time Tsippora gave birth to a baby boy. The naming of a newborn son takes place at the brit mila (more familiarly referred to by us as a briss). The time came for the naming of the new child. That name is usually decided upon by the parents, but in this special case was left in the hands of the mother alone. She decided that the boy’s name should be Netanel, after Moshe’s father—and she then proclaimed that she also wanted a middle name. Among those present at the naming ceremony was the late Leon Goldstein, alav hashalom, who had been chairman of the search committee that brought Moshe to his position at Binghamton University, and Leon was participating in that ceremony. The middle name that Tsippi proposed for this young baby was something as close as possible to “Binghamton”, to show appreciation to the community for all the assistance bestowed upon them. Acting as advisor, Leon was for a moment speechless at the idea of a child carrying the name “Binghamton”, and during the conversation that followed; they compromised on “Binyamin” as the middle name—really about as close as one can come in sound.
In retrospect, this leaves me to speculate that if indeed “Binghamton” takeh been the choice, thirteen years later when this baby would celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, how a Gabbai might react when he called to the Torah “Ya’amod HaBachur HaBarMitzvah Netanel Binghamton ben Moshe Maftir!” I might guess that he would probably do no worse than those natives of our city who call it “Bimmington”.
Moshe remained in the coma. Dr Storrs decided upon surgery—again, I am not privy to medical details--and Moshe was brought into the operating room. Moshe’s mother, who lived in Israel, had come to United States when she learned of her son’s serious problems. She barged into the operating room as Moshe was being prepped for surgery. Carrying little red bendels which she had brought from Kever Rachel in Bethlehem as a segula for refuah, an omen for recovery, she began placing them on Moshe’s arm, and a nurse tried to push away this strange intruder. Dr. Storrs said “It’s okay, leave her alone.” The red bendels, possibly of Chasidic origin, are claimed to avoid the ayin hara, the so-called evil eye, and I should note that these red strings have become popular in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, particularly among celebrities. Madonna is among those bendel-users.
The surgery proceeded. When it was complete, Dr. Storrs gave a sigh of relief and said, “Whatever those red ribbons are, I want a dozen of them.”
Again, I am short on timelines, but several months later, Moshe came out of the coma. This was not the Moshe we knew before his illness. He spoke, but his words were often unclear and, at least at first, difficult to understand. But from the moment of his awakening, the outlook was more positive. He was given a teaching assignment which did not work out well but he was active in the publishing of at least two books. His days were productive, especially under the burden he continued to bear. From that first moment of awakening, he fully returned to his role as husband and father. Living life to his best efforts, he on occasion attended daily minyan, and would often on Shabbos daven Musaf at Beth David, although that much-admired earlier sweetness of voice was no longer within his reach.
Tsippi bore up in the new situation as well as she could. The entire community rallied, as earlier described, to support the couple in those difficult days. Therein lies the spirit of Binghamton and Beth David.
The older brothers, Eyal and Leeor, attended Hillel Academy, and in reality they too became Binghamtonians. Principal Rabbi Russ speaks of Eyal and Leeor in glowing terms both as to character and scholarship (Not yet of school age when Rabbi Russ was principal.)
Time went on, and, after nine years, Moshe persuaded Tsippi that the family should return to Israel to live. And it was another nine years, during which Moshe was active in many endeavors, that the Angel of Death came to claim him, and he was buried in Israel. Nine years in Binghamton, nine in Israel, eighteen in all. I am not much a fan of numerology—the term we use is gematria--where rabbis and sages push around the numbers until they reach the desired “magic number”. With all that, I am moved by this very simple gematria,--the number eighteen that we know as Chai, Life. Life indeed has its ups and downs, and the Gottliebs knew their share of each. On balance, let us dare to hope and presume that the “ups” prevailed.
Tsippi carries on, with her children well within reach, and the years in Binghamton and those memories must surely remain very much a part of her life.
I remind my readers that I have often referred to the youngsters of Hillel and NCSY, as they grew up and went their separate ways, as “The Greatest Generation”. Wherever they have gone, many to Israel, they have become leaders in many fields. I could cite names, but the record speaks for itself. Many of our readers know who they are. In such a tally, we might at first not remember that the Gottlieb boys were very much a part of that Greatest Generation. This column may put that record straight.
Rabbi Eyal’s career in Israel has been outstanding. Brother Leeor, who cannot go without commendation, is a recognized Torah scholar and teacher of Bible at Hebrew University in Israel, and his merits certainly complement those of his brothers.
Not many months ago, we had the privilege and honor of having in our living room here in Jerusalem four members of that Greatest Generation group. They included Eli Groner, Rabbi Dani Goldstein, Eitan Morell and Rabbi Eyal Gottleib, Netanel’s big brother.
Those young men have gone on to a multitude of wonderful directions in Israel and throughout the world. Indeed, Eli Groner himself is a noted member of that group; and although our middle-name youngster spent only the first nine years of his life in Binghamton, his accomplishments surely merit membership as a Greatest Generation “member”.
And what of that youngest son Netanel, he of the middle name? He is a rabbi in the Eli Mechina Yeshiva. Netanel lives in the town of Eli, forty minutes from Jerusalem; he has a long list of accomplishments to his credit, including the founding of a publishing house. His yeshiva prepares young men spiritually in their learning and Yiddishkeit before going into the Israeli Army, the IDF, and results can be readily be confirmed by the fact that fifty percent of the young IDF officers are religiously observant.
I have earlier mentioned that special spirit of Beth David of those long ago years. In truth, my Wonderful Wife and I were among the “deserters”, those who chose on retirement to flee the hard winters for sunny Florida. We can hope that we are somewhat redeemed by late-in-life Aliyah.
We remain close enough to know those who have chosen to stay loyal to the Binghamton community, and we feel confident that a wonderful esprit de corps prevails, and that it shall produce a bumper crop of Greatest Next Generation men and women.
I have at times asked the question, “Is there a Window from Heaven?” Surely this constitutes a yearning for those who have left this earth, all the while knowing that it is not possible, probably not intended, for us to know the nature of Olam Haba, the world to come.
But, wishfully or not, we can hope that Dr. Moshe Gottlieb can look through that mysterious window and shepp nachas from his Greatest Generation offspring. He has much reason to take pride.
And we too take pride in them all, past present and future--they are all of great merit. It is perhaps not fair to anoint favorites, but somehow even on the basis of short relationship, Rabbi Middle Name tugs very hard on our heart strings.
Note: I am indebted to the following people, whose collective memories
have contributed to the telling of this true story;
Rabbi Raphael Groner
Rabbi Eyal Gottleib
Rabbi Herbie Russ
And I am deeply grateful to my son Jeremy, who has acted as my de facto
personal editor, correcting my errors and contributing new thoughts
that have enhanced this piece, as well as my earlier columns.