Over the course of the past year, there were periods of warning that my husband, Marty, was beginning to suffer from dementia. An advanced mathematician, public school administrator and college professor, he was no longer able to do even simple math problems or play chess, his favorite pastime. In addition, his once robust appetite had begun to fade. I refused to accept reality, and kept telling him that he would be fine, and for many days off and on he was able to function despite these significant symptoms.
We spent much time talking about our wonderful family and our extensive travels around the world, including five trips to Israel. We also recognized that we both had had extremely successful careers. We truly had few regrets.
We discussed my husband’s feelings toward the religious aspects of Judaism: He put on a tallit and tefillin every morning, read from the siddur, observed the Sabbath, and even led the Sunday morning services in our synagogue for more than 55 years. We recalled the time when our young son had an out-of-town Little League game on a Saturday and as much as Marty wanted to attend, he would not travel on the Sabbath. Instead, on Friday he stayed in a hotel room near the baseball field and was able to walk to the game, where he happily observed our son’s home run that won it.
We remembered the time that we had planned a summer cross-country trip. Unfortunately, right before we were to leave, his father had unexpectedly passed away. He refused to go on the trip because he felt the need to say the Kaddish prayers for his father twice daily. I spent many hours contacting mayors of small towns, along with synagogues, rabbis and even local journalists. Surprisingly I was able to arrange for a minyan for him day and night every few hundred miles on our journey. From New York to California and back, he fulfilled his obligation and was able to recite Kaddish according to the tradition.
All these experiences no doubt influenced my husband’s thinking and desires and became increasingly important to him as he continued along the aging process. And then, as my husband, at the age of 93, grew weaker and was bothered by the fact that he couldn’t do many of the things he was used to doing, he became more aware each day that his end was really nearing.
Marty realized that the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah was approaching, and he announced that he would like nothing more than to recite his bar mitzvah haftara (the customary selection from the Prophets thematically linked to the weekly Torah reading) on the occasion of the anniversary. My daughter called the rabbi, who apologetically explained that there were two bar mitzvah boys who had practiced that same passage for several years and he couldn‘t take it away from them. However, he did offer my husband the opportunity to come to the bimah in the synagogue to recite other prayers.
My husband had done this so many times in the past that this was not a substitute for him. Over the years, in fact, whenever we walked into the synagogue on holidays or on a yahrzeit or yizkor, before we could even get seated the head of the ritual committee routinely approached him and asked if he wanted an aliyah. He readily accepted, but since he was weaker, I warned this young man to watch him very carefully as he walked toward the stage, because Marty was no longer steady on his feet. Nevertheless, my husband managed to reach the bimah, and actively participated in the Torah rituals.
As time progressed, my husband became weaker, less alert. After a short hospital stay, he returned home with a hospice nurse to take care of him. He began to fluctuate between wakefulness and unconsciousness. There was obviously no way he could have made it to the synagogue to recite his haftara, even if the rabbi had been able to arrange it. He was heartbroken.
On the Friday afternoon before the bar mitzvah anniversary he was lying unconscious, surrounded by family, when the doorbell rang and our rabbi and his assistant came to visit. The rabbis walked over to the bed, where my husband was fast asleep. He leaned over to him and said: “Marty, wake up. Your two rabbis are here. We’ve come to chant your haftara with you,”
My husband snapped to alert attention for the first time in several weeks. He opened his eyes, smiled and sat up, unaided. The three of them proceeded to belt out his bar mitzvah haftara passage from 80 years ago. My husband didn’t even need the printed pages; not a word was forgotten, and the melody was perfect. After all these years, he remembered the entire passage by heart. The rabbis were extremely impressed, and they told him that he was once again bar mitzvahed. Together the rabbis said a special prayer and wished him shalom. As they were leaving, our rabbi turned to me and, with tears in his eyes, whispered that this was one of the most memorable episodes in his many years as a rabbi — one that will never be forgotten.
Shortly thereafter, Marty followed the command of his bar mitzvah passage, titled Lech Lacha,— “to go forth — to leave” and closed his eyes for the very last time. His final wish had been granted. He died a very happy man.
Shula Hirsch is a retired teacher of Jewish Literature and author of the book, “An American Housewife in Israel.”