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Shavuot 5765-2005

“Abba’s Final Shavuot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Our father, of blessed memory, Moshe Aaron Buchwald, whom my sisters and I called “Abba,” passed away on the 14th of Sivan 5752, June 15, 1992. He was 89 years old and died of a broken heart. Our mother, his beloved wife of 59 years, Tillie Buchwald, had passed away only a year and half earlier, at age 85.

Abba spent his last Shavuot with my family in our home in Manhattan. He was his typical ebullient self throughout the holiday, telling countless stories and jokes, conveying Divrei Torah, singing songs, playing games with our children, the oldest of whom was 14 years old at that time, and the youngest, four. I can’t recall whether Abba stayed up the whole night on the first night of Shavuot to study Torah, but I am certain that he stayed awake till the wee hours of the morning in order to demonstrate his love for Torah and Jewish learning.

On the second day of Shavuot after the afternoon meal, Abba announced that he was going to take a walk. Wherever he was, my father loved to see the sites. We would have joined him, but we were still fatigued from the night before.

Born in Poland, in Biala Podloska in 1903, and arriving in America in 1919, his formal education consisted only of cheder and some night school in America. However, he had a marvelous memory and was a voracious reader in several languages. He was familiar with the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Guy de Maupassant, as well as the Greek classics and, of course, virtually all of the great Yiddish literature, which he made certain to share with his family regularly.

Walking with Abba was a genuine educational experience. He knew the names of all the flowers and all the trees. I envied the ease with which he could identify each fallen leaf. Having taken courses in art, he had a keen appreciation for aesthetics, although he disliked modern art. He was familiar with the different forms of classical architecture, but, as expected, he could not stomach modern design. Wherever he was, he would stop to speak to perfect strangers, and within minutes they were smiling and laughing. He was an expert pun master, and with little effort would spew out a series of puns about any topic, including dogs, politicians, garbage, policeman, or subways. Taking a walk with Abba was a real “trip.”

That Shavuot afternoon, Abba didn’t return for 5 hours. He had taken in the whole Upper West Side of Manhattan, checked out every park and garden, and inspected all the beautiful architecture of the classic buildings in the neighborhood. He excitedly reported to us all that he had seen on his “journey.”

Abba loved the Jewish holidays. Each holiday meant something special to him. He was determined to make the holidays special for his wife and children. For each holiday he would decorate the house with decorations related to the theme of the holiday. Even in his later years, he continued to decorate his home, and when he visited our home, he helped decorate it as well. As his son, I have inherited this propensity, and often decorate our apartment as well, especially on Shavuot. On Shavuot his home was turned into a Botanical Garden, which wasn’t too difficult since my parents’ apartment was always filled with the numerous plants that Abba grew and nurtured. As a young boy, I remember waking up each day to the beautiful morning glories that had just opened on my windowsill, as well as the blossoming geraniums, Jerusalem berries and even some vegetables, like peas and tomatoes. He loved his flowers, and would often bring us cuttings to plant in our home.

On Shavuot, his home, and now our home, was turned into a veritable garden/flower shop. He taught me how to hang vases with nylon fish string, so that it would look as if the flowers were floating in air. He insisted that there be a variety of brilliant colors in every corner of the house and on every wall. The plants from the window sills were moved to the center of the room, so that one could actually feel Mt. Sinai, and experience what it was like 3300 years ago in the wilderness.

After that long walk, and after Shavuot had ended, Abba sat down on the couch looking a bit uncomfortable. He said he felt some pain in his chest, but told us not to worry, that it was probably heartburn. The next morning I took him to his doctor who suggested that we take him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a slight heart attack. He never seemed to be in danger. In fact he appeared to be on his way to a full recovery, alert and energetic, and was about to be released, when he succumbed, more to the pain in his heart, than to the pain of his heart.

Each year I look forward to Shavuot, even though it isn’t easy to stay up all night teaching, and always love decorating our home for the holiday. But since 1992, there has been a bittersweet quality hovering over Shavuot because it is so closely associated with Abba’s passing. Our father, who taught all his children to love the holidays, to beautify the home, and to glorify G-d, was a master pedagogue who conveyed his lessons by teaching, not preaching.

On Shavuot, G-d gave His people the gift of the Torah, a Torah that has been studied for millennia by millions of Jews. But that Torah will always be seen by me and my sisters a little differently than others might see it, because we see and interpret it through the eyes of our very special Abba, Moshe Buchwald. May his memory be blessed.

May you be blessed.

Shavuot will be celebrated on Sunday night, Monday & Tuesday, June 12th, 13th & 14th, 2005.

Wishing you a joyous Shavuot!