This article, to be published in Links Magazine dedicated to helping girls cope with loss, is an excerpt from Mrs. Nechama Laber’s upcoming book. Dedicated in the everlasting memory of her beloved father, Azriel Yitzchok ben Yisroel Wasserman, whose 33rd Yartzeit begins tonight, Menachem Av 4. May his Neshama have an Aliyah.
THE LIGHT IN MY FIRST DECADE OF LIFE
Growing up, I always treasured my time with my father. Each night, I couldn’t wait to hear him walking up the stairs, humming a melody after his long day of teaching, and to see his smiling face when I greeted him at the door and he scooped me into his arms. When he wasn’t spending time with family, he was preparing for classes, grading papers, studying or davening. I loved going shopping with him for Shabbos, and I gained so much from our time together that I didn’t mind waiting in the long lines. My father cherished me, often telling me how proud he was of me and carving out time from his packed teaching schedule to tell me stories and to learn with me.
My family’s home was quite modest, yet I considered myself rich because of the light and love that surrounded me. Our Shabbos table was always filled with laughter and lively singing, and my parents welcomed people from all walks of life to join us. My dear mother, of Sephardic origin, grew up in Algeria, my father in Boston, MA. Together, they gave me the perfect blend of both worlds; my mother’s delicious Sephardic dishes and enthusiasm, combined with my father’s passion for igniting souls through Chassidic teachings and songs, created a home filled with a vitality that could inspire men and women of all backgrounds. And, as much as I enjoyed the variety of guests at our table, I also have fond memories of spending quality time with my parents and siblings at our designated family-only Shabbos meals.
Once, during the holiday of Purim, my father brought home a Jewish beggar from the street. His clothes were oversized, his hair long, and he devoured the warm Purim meal set before him with a smile on his face. He didn’t stay long, telling us that had to return to his street corner to collect coins from those who were observing the Purim mitzvah of giving gifts to the poor. It was in moments like those that I learned from my parents how to love unconditionally.
Pesach Sedarim around a full table of guests, led by my father, were filled with deep and lengthy discussions on the Exodus from Egypt and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. He used to prepare and study the Haggadah with commentaries, writing notes on the side of his Haggadah with great devotion. Why did I think that it was fun to stay up all night talking about the Exodus? My father knew how to make Judaism a joy. I remember clearing off the table after the Seder, as I marveled at the sun rising from my Brooklyn window.
In the summer of 1984, my father was hired by Rabbi J.J. Hecht, z”l, as Rabbi at Camp Emunah in the Catskills. My father was diagnosed before Pesach, at the young age of 35, with a life-threatening illness, but he continued giving classes with the strength of steel. As a beloved and enthusiastic camp Rabbi, he broke out color war by composing an original song for the camp. A girl recalled, “I was in Camp Emunah the year your father was our Rabbi. I remember his spirited songs and his laughter and smiles that lit up camp like the rays of the sun. I recall when he taught us a song he composed called, ‘Kingston Avenue.’ It was the hit song in camp. Who would have known that he was, in fact, struggling with a severe illness and was on a very restricted diet all summer?”
The light of my father’s soul touched every girl at camp, and I was so proud to call the Rabbi, “Tatty.” He shared with me that he treasured every moment and that he would love to spend future summers in camp. He was so in touch with his inner joy; his spiritual light envelopes me and so many others until today. My first overnight experience was a summer that I will cherish forever.
PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS
It was only one year later, and my world looked very different. I found myself once again in the same camp, surrounded by the same grass and trees, bunkhouses, and many of the same people, but this time the sun wasn’t as bright for me. Alone and deep in thought, I rocked myself on a swing during rest hour. The next activity was announced on the loudspeaker; it was time to leap into the swimming pool on this beautiful, hot day in July. Happy, carefree girls ran back to the rustic bunkhouses holding canteen treats and laughing with glee. I wished I was one of them. I had other things on my mind, though. I had received news that my father wasn’t doing well. His condition had worsened as he lay in a hospital bed in San Diego, far from New York. I received the message to pray, and so I did. I prayed with my entire heart and soul for his complete recovery. I had been counting the days for his return. How I missed him! With hope in my heart, I held back my tears and joined the girls at the next camp activity.
In the wee hours of the morning, I was suddenly awakened. I looked around, and it was still dark outside. Was it topsy-turvy day in camp? I didn’t think so. My bunkmates were snoring away on the dozen bunk beds that lined the walls. In a whisper, I was told that Rabbi Hecht, the camp director, was waiting to give me a ride to Brooklyn. My family needed me, was all the information I was given. In a daze of confusion, I gathered several of my belongings and entered the Rabbi’s vehicle. I felt like a leaf blowing in the wind. I had no idea how much time I was going to be home. I refused to imagine the worst, yet I knew something was very, very wrong. Rabbi Hecht didn’t say a word to me the entire two-hour ride from the Catskills to Brooklyn, and there was an eerie silence in the car.
As we traveled, I watched the cars pass me by, along with my carefree years of childhood. I reflected on my father’s words to me, two months earlier before he boarded his flight to San Diego for treatment. He hugged me tight and told me that he was taking a trip to strengthen his health and would be back soon. I trusted him.
I was dropped off at my home on Eastern Parkway and ran up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. My mother’s sad eyes met mine, and in her silence, I heard that my worst nightmare had come true, changing my life forever. My dear father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman, z”l, returned his soul to his Creator on July 22, 1985, 4 Menachem Av, at 8:30 a.m. in San Diego.
With great courage and faith, my father had battled melanoma for one and a half years. He had departed to San Diego on June 22, Parshas Shelach, (which means “send” in Hebrew) for medical treatment. He’d boarded his flight with complete trust in G-d that his condition would improve and that he would be back home in good health for his family and students. He told his school principal at the end of the year when he handed in the student reports, “I will be back in September.” Unfortunately, this was not G-d’s plan.
I was taken to the funeral by two friends of our family. They held my hands as we walked down the stairs to join the overflowing crowd on Eastern Parkway, escorting my father to his final resting place. The rest of the day was a total blur. I only remember a Rabbi cutting my shirt when we arrived at the cemetery, and then we walked down the “path of mourners” with a row of people on either side. I will never forget the tears on my paternal grandmother’s distraught face, as she said to me, “It never dawned on me that he was so ill.”
After shivah was over, I was taken right back to summer camp. When I returned to camp, I faced a wall of silence. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned a word of comfort to me. Campers and counselors didn’t know what to say. Sometimes I wonder if the silence hurt more than the loss itself. I can accept Hashem’s plan because Hashem knows best, but it is harder to accept people’s lack of acknowledgment of the pain.
At the time of my beloved Tatty’s passing, I was ten years old (three weeks before turning 11), my brothers, Menachem Mendel and Sholom Dovber, were 8 and 6. Three months later on the 17th of Tishrei 1985, a precious baby boy was born and named Azriel Yitzchok. Little Azriel was called “Baby” for a very long time because it was difficult for all of us to use my father’s name. When he went to preschool, his teacher called him by name, but he didn’t respond. His first preschool lesson was learning that his name is not Baby, Cutie or Tzaddik, but Azriel.
I did not openly speak about my father for several years after his passing. I felt that it made others uncomfortable and I didn’t want to be labeled as a person with issues. Most of the time, I locked my heart and ignored the pain. It hurt too much to feel, and it was easier to bury my sadness like a seed in the ground. There were specific occasions that evoked his memory, and it felt like I was reliving the trauma of his passing all over again; like opening a wound that never had a chance to heal. I was forced to face the loss during Yizkor services, on the yahrtzeit, and during Yamim Tovim. In those times, my tears fell like the rain on a stormy night.
I turned to my loyal journal, always there without judgment, to express my emotions through self-reflection and poetry. My journal was a haven to express my feelings.
April 23, 1989
Another Pesach without my Tatty and I feel his loss even more now and feel so alone without him. He is no longer leading our Seders or making Kiddush. It hurts to recite the Four Questions without his physical presence, though I know he hears me from his heavenly abode. Yesterday, I cried for him in bed. I wish he hadn’t left us so soon. I see that life is so difficult for my mother and I don’t know what to do. My energetic brothers are difficult to raise without a father.
April 27, 1989 (Motzoei Pesach)
Last night I had a dream about Tatty, and he was giving me advice, which I don’t remember. I cried for him this morning. I can’t express to you in words how much I truly miss him. Moshiach, please come already. We had enough!
Today was Yizkor. Every Yizkor service is a huge ordeal. The shul was packed with guests, and the gabbai announced after the Torah reading, “Yizkor! All people with parents should leave.” I dreaded this moment. I wondered which lady would be the one to instruct us to move out. Sure enough, an elderly woman with reading glasses perched on her nose and a big hat sitting on her head pointed to the exit, very annoyed. She ordered Mommy to take my little brother Azriel outside the shul. Mommy rolled her eyes at me and responded to the woman, “Don’t you think I know what I am doing?” Later, we thought about revising our response for the next Yizkor. We will calmly answer, “We wish we didn’t have to stay.” It’s hard enough not to have a father, and these shul women only make it more painful.
May 2, 1989
At times, my longing for my father, z”l, makes it difficult to focus and concentrate on my schoolwork. My friend Raizy came over tonight, and we were supposed to study together for a huge history test on many chapters, but instead, we ended up talking about our deceased fathers. Raizy lost her father at five years old. I didn’t even study one complete page, and we have many more sections to review.
Today is Tatty’s yartzeit, and we had a farbrengen at camp with my bunk and the staff in his memory. I brought the cake, chips, and candy that my mother sent me for the farbrengen. We sang songs and learned with Rochel Schmukler, the head counselor, who led a beautiful gathering. I love and respect her. At the farbrengen, I showed no emotions outwardly. Honestly, when I walked in with the refreshments, I didn’t know how to act because everyone was staring at me and I was very self-conscious. I sat near Rochel and contained my feelings.
I was speaking to one of the counselors during Shabbos lunch [the day after the farbrengen], and I burst out crying. We left the dining room during the meal, and I shared memories of my father. Later, the camp director expressed her great disappointment when she found out that the counselor left in the middle of the Shabbos meal to talk to me.
After Shabbos, I courageously asked Rochel to speak to her privately. I shared my pain with her, and for the first time, I poured out my heart to an adult mentor. I told her that I never had a chance to say goodbye to my father and how much he meant to me. Rochel is the first adult that I’ve shared with so deeply; I feel that I can trust her.
The loss of a young life, leaving behind children, is tragic beyond comprehension. The only solace is accepting that this is part of G-d’s grand master plan that we cannot grasp. We don’t see the full picture. It was only decades after my father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman’s tragic passing, at the young age of thirty-seven, leaving behind my young mother and four children, when I began to see meaning in pain. We find comfort when we transform the pain into the pleasure of fulfilling our purpose in this world.
Many years later, I reconnected with my camp head counselor, Rochel Lazaroff, a Chabad Shliach at the Texas Medical Center, and she told me that she remembered that I shared with her that I never had a chance to properly say goodbye to my father. The news of his passing was a shock. Today she counsels families in similarly challenging situations and guides them to support their children through difficult times. She encourages parents to give children the gift of sharing loving parting words with a parent who is ill. She advises parents to expose their child to the reality of the situation so they can have proper closure later on. I am comforted knowing that all these years, my story has helped her comfort others. When I see a purpose in my pain, it is a glimmer of light in the darkness.
The current Hebrew month of Av is frequently referred to as “Menachem Av.” This reminds us that even in our greatest suffering, as we plod through our darkest nights, our Father in Heaven is always near to comfort us, instilling us with strength, guiding and illuminating our way. May the day be now, with the coming of Moshiach, that we truly feel our Father’s comforting presence, and that we merit to once more embrace all our dear ones who have passed on from this world.