By Larry Gordon
We received a text message from Rabbi Sruli Deitch last week about our uncle, Manny Berger. Rabbi Deitch said that he was informed by the Hebrew Home for the Aged that Manny had passed away at the home early that morning, He was 96 years old, and he’s been a part of our lives from the day we were born.
Manny is my mother’s brother, the son of Malka and Aaron Berger. They only had two children, Manny and my mom. Manny looped in and out of our lives. When we were much younger and living at home, he would visit us from time to time. I can recall him and his wife, Bernice, coming to our home for the Pesach Seder at least twice.
Manny was a good Jew, just not an observant or what we might call a religious Jewish person. He and Bernice never had children but did adopt a daughter in the mid-1960s. Over the years, as she grew into adulthood, she moved around, and over the last many years we have lost touch with her. Friends tried to find her to tell her that the only man she knew as her father had passed away, but the phone numbers they had were not working. Maybe someone will post this on social media somewhere and she will see it. It’s a long shot, but who knows?
He was Manny—officially Emmanuel—to most. His Hebrew name was Menachem Mendel. My father usually called him Mendel and he did not seem to mind. To my mother he was always Manny. Like I said, it was just the two of them, and until the mid-1970s it was just them and their parents in Brooklyn. The onus to care for their aging parents fell to my mom as Manny moved around a bit. He was a physicist and a mathematician. For a while he taught physics at Ohio State University and lived in Columbus, Ohio. Later he moved back to New York and settled down in Westchester and sold commercial real estate.
To us, he was our uncle who just wasn’t an observant Jew. I mean, didn’t just about everyone have a member of the family like that somewhere down the chain? It was like we were safely tucked away in our protected cocoon and he was out there in the real world, for whatever that was worth. Thinking back on the experience, it was like Manny was our personal ambassador to the rest of the world.
Last Friday, my brother Binyomin, Rabbi Deitch, and I attended Manny’s funeral at Calverton Military Cemetery in Wading River, New York, not far from the signs that point you in the direction of Riverhead. He was a World War II veteran and was injured fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Manny was drafted as soon as he turned 18 years old in 1943. America needed bodies to fight and ultimately defeat the Nazi onslaught throughout so much of Europe.
Over 400,000 troops were commuted to that part of the war fought in Belgium, where 62,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and many tens of thousands injured. Manny received a purple heart for leg injuries that ailed him the rest of his life.
I don’t know much about the mindset of the boys who volunteered to protect the U.S. in World War II, but it seems that it was markedly different than during the next big war, which was Vietnam. It looks like there was a sense of obligation and pride that motivated young men to drop whatever it was they were doing to join the war effort. Manny never hesitated because even as a teenager in 1943 he had a conviction about the fact that the country needed him.
My mother said he did come back from the war a changed person. He finished his education, paid for by the U.S. government, and went on to work as a professional in his fields of endeavor. Apparently, from what I heard, he was seriously put off by the fact that his sister, my mom, got married in 1944 while he was overseas. I don’t know what he expected, but I do know that this was one of the things that always disturbed him.
It’s difficult to say why it was, but all I know is that even after my father passed away in 1989, Manny and my mom spoke infrequently over the phone and only saw each other a few times over all those years. There was a strain and I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it was the wedding that he missed, or that my father had a certain stature in the community that did not sit well with him for whatever reason.
Now all I know is that he lived a good life, quiet and private, and never hurt anyone in any way. Last week he was buried with full military honors at Calverton. The funeral director spoke briefly, offering his condolences for the loss of what he called a member of the “Greatest Generation.” That line caught my attention because they were indeed great inasmuch as they thought about the good of the country before they thought about themselves.
They didn’t think, ponder, or deliberate about whether the war was just or not. They did not consciously object or anything like that. America was at war to protect freedom, and there was only one way to do it—go out and fight. And that is what our Uncle Manny did.
There are more than 250,000 people buried today at Calverton, war veterans and their spouses or significant others. All the tombstones are the same, with the veteran’s name engraved, and in Manny’s case there will be a Magen David carved into the stone, too.
Manny’s aron was draped with the American flag which, after the tribute and ceremony and the blowing of “Taps” by the bugler, was folded, as is customary at a military funeral, and handed to us as a keepsake.
Manny has one memento from the war—the belt buckle of a Nazi soldier he shot in battle. The buckle is pictured here. Manny told Binyomin that after he was sure the soldier was dead, he went over to take a look at him; he told my brother that the Nazi fighter looked like a young kid.
Sruli Deitch, who was the closest to Manny and visited him at the Hebrew Home, knew him best over this last decade. The other day I asked Sruli what he thought Manny was all about. He said that Manny was very Jewish—whatever that means—he just was not a practicing Jew.
To my surprise, he told me that Manny has a full set of Shas in his home and a set of Hebrew-English Chumashim. He said that over the last several years Manny would study the weekly parashah and always had some questions for Sruli.
He added that Manny had a menorah and candlesticks in his house, too, though he did not know if he or his wife lit candles before Shabbos. He said that Manny was very gracious and accepting when Sruli would visit with matzah before Pesach or with mishloach manos at Purim time.
Sruli Deitch is the Chabad shliach in that part of Westchester County, and when I thanked him the other day for all that he had done, he said that this was the exact reason that the Rebbe sent out people like him all over the world, so as to reach out to Jews like Manny Berger, who was so disconnected for so long.
My brother Binyomin, who spoke to Manny with some regularity, asked him a couple of years ago if he is in touch with any of his friends, to which he responded, “Sruli Deitch is my only friend.”
I asked Sruli how he met Manny. He said that a few years ago, he was in the complex where Manny and his wife lived. He was delivering mishloach manos in the building. He says he stepped into an elevator and Manny was there. They nodded at each other but mostly remained silent, as people tend to do in elevators. Then, finally, Manny blurted out, “A freilichin Purim.” It was the beginning of a great friendship that rearranged itself the other day.
We salute you, Mendel.
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