I wrote the eulogy of my father following the guidelines of the man who was conducting the funeral: give the facts of his life, sprinkled with a bit of his personality.
My father read the New York Times obituaries every day. Shortly after my father died my uncle handed me a long obituary he’d written and told me to contact the NY Times and have it published. With my hands full, writing the eulogy, trying to coordinate the funeral 1,200 miles away, I smiled as I took the pages and gave my uncle the famous, ever so gentle silent “fuck you” he’d no doubt received many times before. My father never had an obituary in the NY Times, as far as I know.
I suppose I am making up for that now, or trying to, in setting down everything I know about the old man, part wonderful friend of underdogs everywhere, part monster.
I recently read over the eulogy as delivered at the funeral. The guy conducting it got a couple of details from my aunt and uncle that he added. He added in some prayers, which he chanted beautifully. But most of it were the words I’d written about my father. The facts of his life sprinkled here and there with hints of his personality.
I saw one asshole mistake in there, a mistake I can easily forgive myself for, under the circumstances, but an assholish mistake nonetheless. I refer to my father’s lifelong friend Benjie as “a colleague he met at Camp TY”, in the context of the two of them, along with my mother, opening the restaurant Tain Lee Chow, which they operated for a number of years. I don’t even mention his good friend’s name. What the fuck? This is the guy I mystified right after my father was buried by a comment he had no hope of understanding as anything but the kind of weird “fuck you” I’d recently given my uncle about his absurdly grandiose obituary. The details of that bizarre dis are here.
Benjie had done nothing, outside of being the son my father never had. Benjie, for his part, found the father he’d never had. It was a blessing for both of them. I was an ungracious jerk to reduce Benjie to a faceless business partner. How easy would it have been to add “my father’s lifelong close friend Benjie”? Outside of that mistake, I think the rest of the eulogy was pretty good. I have cut and pasted it below, since it apparently is nowhere else on this blahg.
Israel I. “Irv” Widaen was born June 1, 1924 to Harry and Eva Widem in NYC. The Widem family lived on Henry Street in Lower Manhattan for the first few years of his life.
They moved to Peekskill when “Azraelkeh” was a young boy where he grew up poor with his younger brother Paul. Began kindergarten in Peekskill speaking only Yiddish, played sports, mastered English, graduated from Peekskill High in 1941. At least one member of Irv’s class went on to serve as Mayor of Peekskill.
Irv was a member, as was Paul, of Boy Scout Troop 33 of the First Hebrew Congregation and they marched together in Peekskill parades under a banner representing the First Hebrew Congregation.
He was Bar Mitzvahed (and attended post-Bar Mitzvah classes) in the downtown First Hebrew Congregation on lower Main Street, where services are still conducted to this day, even though the “new” synagogue is on upper Main Street, where a plaque on the front of the new synagogue memorializes Harry and Eva Widem.
Growing up he idolized the Jewish slugger Detroit Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg. His identification with Hank Greenberg was so strong that his schoolmates called him Hank and referred to him as Hank in print in the High School yearbook. He remained a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan.
Drafted into the Air Force in 1943 where, in spite of having almost no mechanical aptitude, he was sent to mechanic’s school and attained the rank of sergeant. He served after the war in Germany where his crew had a mutt they named “Schicklegruber”.
It was during WWII that his name became “Widaen” while the rest of his family remained “Widem”. A spelling mistake on his birth certificate, relied on by the draft board, resulted in the new name.
Irv graduated from Syracuse University on the GI bill with a BA from the Maxwell School of Diplomacy and Public Policy, and went on to a doctoral program in American History at Columbia. While at Columbia met Evelyn Mazur who lived downstairs from his cousin Dinch Stamper and her family on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx.
According to him it was love at first sight.
Evelyn was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and her love changed his life.
After initial resistance Evelyn was won over and has always maintained that Irv was the most brilliant, funny, caring and wonderful man she ever knew.
The couple moved to Queens after living for a while in Manhattan. Eliot was born in 1956, followed by Abby in 1958.
Irv taught Junior High School, then High School – at Martin Van Buren in Queens. At Van Buren he was the G.O. advisor and won the esteem of many a high school student.
In the early days of school integration in Queens Irv went from school to school to speak to hostile white parent groups about the need to bring black and white students and their families together.
He was more than once pelted with the proverbial rotten vegetables and traveled with a police escort. His addresses to school principals were greeted with similar enthusiasm.
He was selected to be part of a “Mod Squad” unit at the NYC Board of Education that intervened in riot plagued schools once integration began.
Along with a folk singing blond female WASP, an ethnic Italian, a Hispanic and a couple of Blacks, this mutton chopped secular Jew rounded out the Human Relations Unit.
As Coordinator of Pupil Programs he designed and implemented sensitivity workshops that used role playing, and team building workshops conducted with humor and insight to teach the leaders of student factions to stop fighting each other.
His team won over these hardened inner-city teenagers and peace reigned in the schools, until the students graduated and their little brothers began killing each other a few years later. He became a master of street talk, jive and playing the dozens in those years.
He moonlighted as the Director of the Nassau/Suffolk region of a Zionist youth group called Young Judaea. He later went on to become director of their national camp, Tel Yehuda in Barryville, New York. He directed the camp for more than a decade and became national director of Young Judaea.
He influenced many teenagers during his years as director, and kicked more than one of his son’s friends out of camp as well.
He also kicked his son out of camp once.
With a partner he met at Tel Yehuda he opened the first Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens. He ran “Tain Lee Chow” for several years with his partner and a Chinese chef, named, coincidentally, Mr. Chow.
He had a lifelong commitment to Social Justice, Animal Rights and the environment. He loved animals and he and Evelyn always kept a dog as a pet. He did not care for cats.
He was to the end of his life disgusted by the reactionary trend of American politics.
An avid reader of the New York Times — and a daily reader of the obituaries — once he retired and finally bought the computer his wife lobbied for, he added about five daily papers to his reading list and spent two hours a night on the internet. He subscribed to Sports Illustrated and followed college and professional football, basketball and the Detroit Tigers.
He had suffered anemia and weakness for the last two years. He always maintained that medical care in Florida was the worst in the world and that old people were treated as fungible cash cows. His final experience bore this out.
In spite of seeing as many as seven specialists a month for years, he died from a cancer that went undiagnosed until he got to the emergency room.
On Saturday, April 23, as Evelyn prepared the fish and matzoh ball soup for their quiet seder meal, my father woke up from a nap yellow with jaundice and unable to lift his head off the pillow or move his legs. He was rushed to the emergency room.
He was diagnosed immediately by the doctor who palpated his swollen abdomen, as swollen with cancer-related acites.
He died the following Friday late afternoon from a badly damaged liver that led to the shut down of his kidneys a day or two after he was hospitalized.
Once certain that medical intervention was futile he chose hospice care and died within a few days. His condition was inoperable, his decision to have hospice care was informed and intelligent.
He had no self-pity about the sudden news of his impending death and remained sharp, never losing his lucidity, even in his final minutes.
He died peacefully.
A personal note from his sister-in-law Barbara:
“Irv was the best man at his younger brother Paul, and Barbara’s wedding 55 years ago.
He was a man who could be depended upon with grace and compassion when a family member was in need.
Barbara has everlasting gratitude for the manner in which he came to her assistance when both of her parents died suddenly.
He and Evelyn were always gracious hosts when visiting them, whether at Tel Yehuda camp, their restaurant, Tane Lee Chow, in Queens) or sightseeing throughout south Florida.
Their energy was awesome.”
He is mourned by … [short list of names deleted] … and will be missed by many whose lives he touched.