I am a sports fan in California. As such I will never forget the magic of the Black athlete who wore uniform 24 here in California and changed the way the game is played. I speak, of course, about Willie Mays.
I live in Southern California. The recent death of basketball player Kobe Bryant was a tragic death, to be sure. Unlike other deceased celebrities who merit special sold-out tributes at stadiums and sports arenas here, Mr. Bryant did not die of a drug overdose or reckless behavior. Mr. Bryant had not simply built his own aircraft. He was not piloting the helicopter, and a jury eventually will be asked whether it devolved on the helicopter pilot and company to act with prudence during such hazy conditions. This is, after all, America; therefore, a wrongful death action already has been filed. It is a tragedy that he died as he did.
But I am not a basketball fan, and Mr. Bryant had absolutely no impact on my life — except for in one profound way. No matter where I go in Southern California, I am asked how Kobe Bryant deeply impacted my life. That is the culture here. Having been asked this question so often, I have begun thinking deeply about the people now deceased who actually did impact my life deeply.
There was my father, who was the eighth of nine children, born in Brooklyn to two Orthodox Jewish immigrants, one from Poland and one from Tsarist Russia. Dad’s parents had the proverbial “nothing but the shirts on their back.” Zeyde, my grandfather, actually had a pushcart on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, until he went into business with his brother and made men’s vests. They managed until vests went out of style. The family were poor, but they saw all their boys go to college. All except one. When it was my dad’s turn, Zeyde told him that they needed for him to skip college and go to work promptly to bring in some money for the household. So Daddy was the only son who never went to college. As a result, all his male siblings became financially successful, all his sisters succeeded also by marrying guys who went to college, and Daddy spent his life working six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, for his brother.
Daddy never complained. He loved life. He had an amazing work ethic. He did not mind that his brother was enormously wealthier than he or that his brother never gave him a meaningful raise all his life. He was grateful that another of his brothers generously and secretly would give our family some extra money to compensate for the tightwad brother. Daddy just loved life. He had the greatest sense of humor ever. He read Newsweek every week, so I got interested in current events, and he loved Car 54, Where Are You? — so I got into that. Within his local community he was deeply loved, so he became a lay leader in the synagogue setting. More than pursuing money, Daddy’s priority was his name and reputation as a decent, honest, honorable person; that meant everything to him. I absorbed that lesson from a different America at a different time. And he had a heart of gold. When New York City was hit with its first blackout, he raced outdoors with a flashlight to help direct traffic. When there was a birthday party, he drove all the kids home. Every Saturday morning he and I walked 30 minutes each way to synagogue, and we just talked — a man in his 40s and a boy on the cusp of being a teen. G-d brought Daddy home very early on his journey; he died of leukemia at age 45 when I was 14. Daddy deeply impacted my life more than Kobe Bryant did.
Mommy had a similar story. Also born in Brooklyn. Also the child of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants, one from Poland and one from Tsarist Russia. Her parents were even poorer. Zeyde, her father, worked in a sweatshop hand-sewing the itsy-bitsy shoes that dress a doll’s feet. Bubbie, Mom’s mother, would take city buses to a farm and bought eggs, then stood on the street and sold eggs during the Depression. Their apartment smelled so intensely of eggs that Mommy never would bring a young man to her home to meet the parents. As with Daddy’s family, in those days the boys went to college, not the girls. And no Jewish family complained that, because they had no money, the kids would have to go into street crime instead of college. There were no government handouts, no social safety net. If you wanted to make it in America, you had to earn it. So Mommy’s two brothers went to college, and Jacky became a rabbi and professor of mathematics at Baruch College. Murray became a NASA engineer. And Mommy, who had the highest grades in her high school senior class and loved Shakespeare, married Daddy.
All her life, Mommy regretted that she never had gone to college. She would tell of how she had cried and begged her parents for permission to go to college, too, but they insisted that, because of their poverty and because she was “only a girl,” she needed to become a secretary or phone receptionist promptly upon finishing high school. Mommy had a great head for math, so she soon moved up to bookkeeper. All my life I knew how much education meant to her. My parents sent me to yeshiva, Jewish parochial school, where we learned secular subjects and religious studies like Torah, Jewish laws and customs, and Hebrew. When I was in second grade, I had trouble with Hebrew words, so Mommy sat with me an hour every night with the new daily list of 10 Hebrew words that Rabbi Schroit had sent home with us. She helped me learn the words, memorize them, and become the best Chumash (Torah) student in second grade. Those hours cost her greatly. She had dreamt that her only son would one day be a doctor. But she imbued me with a love of Torah, and I became a rabbi instead. (Sorry, Mom!) And an attorney and law professor. And a writer. (Thank you, Mom, for all that Shakespeare!)
Mommy never got that doctor in her nuclear family. One of my sisters married an aspiring law student who became a brilliant tax attorney. Another married a darling of a math guy who became a successful partner at an accounting firm. The third of my sisters, also with a brilliant math mind, went into business. We all were imbued with Mommy’s math skills and intense love of education and with her unremitting passion for honesty and ethics. She could not suffer phonies and hypocrites. Neither could Daddy. That became deep-rooted in me. Mommy deeply impacted my life more than Kobe Bryant did.
And so it goes. Zeyde, my paternal grandfather, took me to baseball games at the Polo Grounds when the Mets began in 1962. He, an immigrant from Russia, taught me baseball, passion for the game’s strategies, to love the Mets and to hate the Dodgers forever for leaving Brooklyn. He impacted me so deeply that, to this day, I hate the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn and moving to Los Angeles — even though I eventually did, too. (They did it for money, and I did it for a synagogue.) On Saturday afternoons, I would walk an hour from Mommy’s home to Zeyde and Bubbie, where my Uncle Yaakov (that is, Rabbi Jacky the math professor) would study Talmud with me for an hour, and then we three guys would walk to the modest congregation of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, where we would pray the Shabbat afternoon prayers and then would listen with rapture to Rabbi Miller’s weekly lecture on Midrash and Values. Bubbie, Zeyde, Uncle Yaakov, and Rabbi Avigdor Miller deeply impacted my life more than did Kobe Bryant.
The years passed. Rabbis came into my life and impacted me: Rabbi Shlomo Drillman, our family rabbi who was there for a teen boy whose father had died so young. Rabbi Yaakov Dardac, my religious studies teacher during my first year of high school. Many decades later, when my prior marriage was descending into divorce, Rabbi Dr. Levi Meir, the therapist whom we first saw to save our marriage and whom I continued seeing for a year after the divorce and who changed my life just in time to begin the greatest marriage ever, to my wife Ellen. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who brought dynamic contemporary melodies and hymns to Jewish ritual musical, and a great storyteller whose narratives touched my heart and inspired my soul. Rabbis Drillman, Dardac, Carlebach, and Rabbi Dr. Meir deeply impacted my life more than Kobe Bryant did.
And there are so many others, some still with us and some not, who have empowered me to develop my skills and to reach aspects of my potential. They ranged from professors who broadened my horizons and expanded my interests beyond the parochial to mentors in my professional career who gave me opportunities and opened doors for me when they felt I finally had earned that help. And then there were the trains passing through the night. Hearing Placido Domingo sing “E lucevan le stelle” the first time I attended Tosca. Michael Crawford the first time I attended Phantom. There have been so many who touched my life and changed my vision of self. The documentaries of Ken Burns. Almost anything written by Andrew Lloyd Webber or sung by Garth Brooks during his earlier years. Alan Jackson singing “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the lead character in Spartacus. The serious writings of screenwriter Ben Hecht, especially in his book Perfidy. Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiring me to fight for freedom, to stand up against injustice, and never to be intimidated by the mob or the majority when they are wrong. Ronald Reagan. Ayn Rand. Menachem Begin. Rush Limbaugh. Mark Levin. President Trump. And perhaps most of all, my dear wife Ellen. They all deeply impacted my life more than did Kobe Bryant.
Maybe Kobe Bryant impacted your life more deeply than did the kinds of people who deeply impacted my life. Living here in Southern California at this season, maybe I am the only American whose life was not deeply impacted by Kobe Bryant. And yet I never would have shared all these many thoughts, gratitudes, and impacts had it not been that I am asked daily in SoCal, and told by all the local media 24/7, about how Kobe Bryant deeply impacted my life. So, yes, I guess the unique opportunity to write this article to acknowledge those to whom I owe so much, is how Kobe Bryant deeply impacted my life.
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