March 7, 1925 - January 31, 2023.
America is a place that literally performs miracles. That’s why people of every background - from all over the world - are irresistibly drawn here. We cure deadly pandemics in a few months, we put the entire world in the palm of everyone’s hand and we transform the lives of millions in distress - by inviting them here and breathing new life into theirs – as if by magic. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do - and it does not matter that we must sacrifice a little of this or that to do it.
One such group of people - were the mass of Jews who escaped the pogroms of Czarist Russia as the 19th Century came to a close.
Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Shalom Aleichem's stories about Tevye the Dairyman, perfectly described those intrepid souls who emigrated to America from the harshness of Russia and gave birth to my mother, Lila Golden Leventhal. She carried with her the genes, hopes and dreams of hundreds of generations who preceded her – hardy, unpretentious people – survivors - quite inclined to tell self-righteous, authoritarian jackasses and jerks of every shape, stripe and odor – to go straight to hell - and then prepared to pay some price for it.
She lived through three British Kings, one Queen and seventeen American Presidents - for about 40% of the time the United States has existed. She was a living witness to the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, civil unrest, of women burning their bras, the Age of Aquarius, two children, three grandchildren and of America’s first certified blackbelt jackass Anti-Semitic president. She could recognize a jerk in a split second, yet did her best to tolerate them, even those who deserved no such tolerance.
She was quite well aware that her first great grandchild is due in a few weeks – and she looked forward with great hopes for the life of a descendant who will likely see the 22nd century – most probably yet another new era of American miracles - and perhaps - perform a few miracles himself.
She played mah jong almost every week for 60 years. Yet when I brought her an authentic Chinese mah jong set directly from China, she had no idea what to do with it.
She was a world traveler too. With my dad Ray, after winning a sales performance prize from Chevrolet, they visited the capitals of Europe. As she would fondly recall forever afterward: “They treated us like royalty.”
She endured richer and poorer, sickness, health and more than one permutation of living hell. Through all of it, until her last moments on Earth, she maintained that same fighting spirit. She never gave up, she never gave in, she demanded what she believed was right, uncompromisingly – even if that extended to the exact specifications for the amount of fat in a corned beef sandwich or the temperature of her coffee.
She never forgot where she came from or to whom deeply ingrained moral duties were owed. She was the essence of a sovereign human individual. She would neither bend her knee to any person nor would she bow to any artificial human construct on Earth. Yet she dearly cherished those closely around her and would do anything for them. She did most major things in the American ideal – because they were the right things to do – not because she might gain from it.
She was an inspiration to us all and her spirit – that never-say-die, indomitable fighting spirit – will live on and persist inside of us forever. If you want to honor her - remember her lessons and live them yourself, every day. That’s the way we humans can keep the people we love alive.
The man who wrote the stories underlying Fiddler, was actually born in a former part of Russia that is familiar to all of us today – Kiev, in the Ukraine – the same region where my grandparents and great grandparents lived before coming to America. That author’s given name at birth was Solomon Rabinovich. After embarking on his writing career, he adopted the pen name Shalom Aleichem, which means “May peace be upon you.” In Arabic and Aramaic, it’s pronounced almost the same.
From far away, Shalom Aleichem foresaw the promise of America. In 1916 he wrote “Little Motl Goes to America.” Little Lila - granddaughter of that writer’s community - lived it. To close this great, hundred-year circle, peace is now upon Lila Leventhal. Shalom aleichem to all who loved her. And shalom to you Mom. We all love you now and forever.