Chaim K. passed away late Saturday afternoon. He was 87 - not that you'd know it by watching the callers making condolence calls at his Shiva this week, some of whom are quite some years younger than his older grandchildren. "You don't know us", they tell his children, "but we were friends of your father. Such a luminous man!"
Chaim was born in a small Polish town no-one has ever heard of. He was 17 when the Nazis invaded, and his entire immediate family fled East, eventually washing up in what is today Kazakhstan. They spent the war years in what were combination refugee-and-labor camps. His father starved to death, but the rest of them survived. In later years his sister (who died a few years ago at 91) reminisced that Chaim would combat his hunger by reading whatever he could get his hands on until he fell asleep from exhaustion, thereby managing to do without a meal.
Also in the camps he met his future wife, "she didn't even own a pair of shoes". Chaim was good at cobbling things together, and managed to help her survive the hardships.
After the war they went back to Poland. None of her family had survived; there was no point in trying to rebuild lives in Poland, and by 1948 they were in Israel.
Arriving in war-torn Jerusalem in 1948 they found accommodations with a cousin who lived in Batei Ungarn, near Mea Shearim. The cousin had seven children in two rooms, but since it was crowded anyway, why not take in the newcomers? No long afterward Chaim found an abandoned two-room house on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fences which marked the new border that ran through the city. A block or two from Sheikh Jarrah, if you insist on details. The building was functionally in No-Man's Land between Israel and Jordan, but there was an IDF position on its roof; the troops reached the second floor through a trapdoor from one of the rooms. Still, it was better than the place in Batei Ungarn, so Chaim, his sister and their spouses moved in. No-one ever came to visit them at their house beyond the border, and the troops on the roof occasionally had fire-fights with Jordanian troops, but worse things can happen. Chaim and Gittl had three children there.
In 1960 they moved. Chaim was making a good living as an accountant, and they were able to afford a brand new 2-1/2 room apartment in the Katamon area. When they first moved in the 70-square meter place looked so impossibly spacious that they considered renting one room, or perhaps simply sealing it off for visitors. They remained for the rest of their lives (Gittl died two years ago this week). They had three children, 11 grandchildren, and right now there are 16 great grandchildren, with the 17th expected in two months. The youngest two grandsons, at 19, are hardly older than the oldest of the great grandchildren (17).
20-some years ago, as Chaim should have been about to retire, he was offered the challenge of setting up the financial department in one of the large settlements. He thought about it for a day or two, and took the job, which he held until he was in his late 70s. Even then he retained his position as one of the stalwarts of his synagogue, and as the accountant of a local charity; two days before he died he transferred all the details of the charity to his son. In recent weeks he has no longer been able to participate in his daf yomi study group (9:30 am, the "old codgers' group") so one of the others came to him each day to learn, all the way until the end.
Have I mentioned he was a nice man? Always smiling, often with a Yiddish joke, relating to people as equals. His son is the boss of one of our public utilities. A few weeks ago I met the two of them, the son supporting his father on the way to the synagogue; the father dressed, as usual, in his suit, tie and fedora even though he could walk only with the greatest effort. I pointed to the street we were standing on, where the son's company has been digging these past two months: "Chaim, can you please tell the boss of the company they really ought to fix this street already?!" He beamed and said he'd try.
Yesterday they paved the street and it looks spanking new. "He did it", I told his son. "He got it fixed".
Fifty years in a single neighborhood is quite a while, and alongside the unexpected mourners I told of above, the surviving old-timers are coming to pay their respects. The neighborhood was originally built by rich (mostly Christian) Arabs in the 1920s, when Chaim was a boy in that forgotten Polish town; it was sparsely populated, with large detached houses. In the 40s, as he fought his hunger, lots of important British officers and officials moved in. Once the Arabs and British were gone, it was filled with the Jews who had been deported from the Old City, two miles to the north, after the Jordanians took it over. Then in the 1950s, the mostly empty hillsides were built up with apartment buildings for the large numbers of refugees and immigrants pouring into Israel and living mostly in tents. Only in the 1990s did it begin to change again, so that today there's a large population of wealthy British and French Jews moving away from the rising antisemitism in their countries, and rich Americans not fleeing from anyone - and upper middle class Israelis, too.
Sit in the tiny apartment Chaim died in the other day, however, and you'll be reminded of the people who dominated the area for 40 years. The Lithuanian Holocaust survivor; the Polish one; the two Moroccans, the Iraqi; the man from the Old City whose father and brother-in-law fell in its battle; the 68-year-old Yekke (German Jew) who's father disagreed with Chaim about what sort of synagogue they needed, 50 years ago, so each built his own, and each sometime came to the other's.
You can see a lot of history in 87 years.