Hananya ben Petahya

I was honored with the task of performing a final act of loving kindness for my friend Ben Simon just before shabbat this past Friday. Ben Simon passed-away peacefully in his sleep last Friday morning. The local Chevra Kadisha, knowing of our friendship, called me to assist in carrying Ben from his home, then performing a Tahara. When I received the call concerning Ben, my world stopped; everything can wait as I take care of my friend…an unscheduled final act of unconditional kindness.

Ben’s family – Victoria (his wife), Tatyana, David and Corrine (his children), and his grandchildren adopted our family as part of theirs.  We celebrated many Shabbaton and Yom Tobim at their home.  But we were not the only family who spent Shabbaton at the home of Ben & Victoria…their house was like the tent of Abraham – always open to visitors.  We’d listen to Jo Amar CDs, drink tea, and enjoy each other’s company…as did many others who knew them for a lifetime.

Ben was born “Hananya ben Petahya” in Mogador, Morocco, in 1943. He was from a community that had been there for over 2,000 years. Mogador is now known as Essaouira – once the home of the 2nd source of Murex snail used to produce a unique blue dye used called Techelet. The word Mogador is a corruption of the Berber term for “self-anchorage.” The city was occupied by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the 5th century B.C.E. From the Middle Ages to the 17th century there were sugar-cane refineries in the vicinity of Mogador whose operation was brought to a halt in the latter half of the 18th century.

The town became a bustling seaport in 1764 under the Alawite Sultan Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdullah, who sought to transform it into a rival port to Agadir and have it serve as his main port for international commerce. The most important Moroccan Jewish merchant families from Tangier, Agadir, Marrakesh, and parts of northern Morocco were recruited by the sultan to take charge of developing trade activity and relations in Mogador vis-à-vis Europe. The sultan chose a handful of families, especially from the Corcos, Afriat, Coriat, Knafo, Pinto, and Elmaleh families, for the task and granted them the status of tujjār al-sultān (the “king’s merchants”). The sultanate offered them the most luxurious dwellings of Mogador within the more prestigious casbah quarter. They not only became the leading merchants of the sultan’s court – parallel to a tiny elite of Muslim tujjār – but were entrusted with the role of mediation and diplomacy with European consuls and entrepreneurs. Not only were they influential in Moroccan economic affairs, but their functions extended to include the leadership of the local Jewish community. From their ranks the Jews chose the tujjār as presidents, vice presidents, and treasurers.

This is the environment into which Ben was born. Ben’s familial connection to the Pinto Family and the Abuchetzera family were obvious to all who entered his home – paintings of these families abounded.

Ben was once Manager of an underground mine in the Atlas Mountains. One day, a large section of the mine wall fell in and crushed the legs of one of his workers. Doctors were slow to arrive, and hours passed as operations came to a halt and all attention was focused upon Ben…what was Ben to do? Knowing that we always choose life over death, Ben did what he thought best. Get the trapped miner drunk, then amputate his legs to free him from the boulder. According to those who tell the story, Ben used a saw and did the work himself after reading an emergency medical manual instructing him in how to do it. Ben freed the man from certain death…that man lived. Ben saved a world in entirety on that fateful day.

Later in his life Ben worked for a company who built nuclear propulsion (and high-voltage distribution units) for the U.S. Navy. In particular, Ben was a high-voltage distribution expert who frequently worked in, and around, maritime nuclear reactors. So good at his job, was Ben, that the Navy flew him around the world, on a moment’s notice, using helicopters to deliver him to ships and submarines to repair systems which were beyond the skills of those onboard the vessel.

This work took a toll on Ben’s health. Exposure to radiation left him with chronic leukemia, among other health problems. But Ben never had a harsh word…”baruch hashem, things are good” were always his first words when I asked how he was doing. Ben and I would spend long periods together discussing the Mogador community and its connection to the caravans of Sijilmasa, Tahert and Qairouan. It was during these chats that we both came to recognize that we were very distant cousins whose family paths had not crossed in over 700 years.

Participating in Ben’s tahara confronted me with my own mortality. The fragility and tragic loveliness that encompassed Ben’s life were laid vividly before me. The time spent washing Ben, preparing him for burial, presented me an opportunity to say goodbye to my friend – and I cried with every swipe of the flax upon his skin. As I held his head for cleansing, I recalled all those times I kissed his forehead upon departing his home. As I washed his hands I recalled him picking up my children and laughing with them. As I cleaned the dirt from his fingernails I was reminded of his love of sweets…sugar-laden sweets made by his loving wife, Victoria.

Treating Ben with sincere dignity and compassion, I felt a profound connection to my wife and children. In this silent room interrupted only by prayers or minimal speech relating to the work of the tahara, I had the opportunity to reflect upon the life of Ben Simon…and my own. I found myself thinking about the split-second difference between life and death.

Over 20 years ago I was in Afghanistan doing consulting work loosely connected with USAID. On one fateful day our convoy was attacked by Dostum’s Uzbek forces. I managed to hide in a ditch alongside the road. A bullet had exploded near my face and I looked up to see a figure making his way over to me to finish what he started. As he approached to finish me off, trying to clear a jammed round, he was knocked into the ditch opposite my position. He had been shot. He reached out his hand and begged me to hold it – in perfect english. The man who was moments away from shooting me now wanted me to hold his hand in his last moments. I felt a profound sadness as his breathing became more panicked and he stared into my eyes. In those final moments of his life, I do not recall hearing any noise at all…I was completely focused on holding his hand as his grip weakened. I have always wondered if he would have granted me the same gracious dignity if our roles were reversed…but it doesn’t matter. I am alive, and he is not. The profound sadness I experienced holding the hand of that man in Afghanistan pales in comparison to the solemnity of those final moments with my friend “Hananya ben Petahya”.

When the shooting stopped, Dostum’s troops had been driven off, and killed,  by those Mujahideen who were protecting the convoy; all of the living were sharing the same feeling as I – I was so happy to be counted among the living. It felt good to breathe in all its messy, cordite-tainted, splendor!

I experienced a similar feeling as I arrived home, after the tahara, just before Shabbat. I was so happy to be among my wife and kids, all of us thrilled to see each other. My kids tackled me, the crush of humanity was exhilarating. It felt good to breathe in all the aromas of hamin, kefta, tea, coffee….all at once.

Since I was a child I have been plagued with three questions:

1. What is the nature of the Universe?
2. What is my role in it?
3. How do I make the most of my time in it?

Those last moments with my friend, Ben, afforded clarity in answers to all three questions.

I love you, Ben, and I miss you.

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