“Dear Saadya…”

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“Dear Saadya…”

by Avi Ganz | 01/5/2020

Saadya Ehrenpreis z"l

Dear Saadya,

Tonight I’m not crying as much.  It’s not because I am any less sad.  Tears are but one way to help digest that which is perhaps too difficult to digest.  Tonight I am not crying as much because I am enveloped by the collective hug of the many hundreds (thousands?) who knew you and are reveling in the memories they have instinctively dug up even as they are mourning your passing.  It’s a funny thing — and one you didn’t appreciate: we cry for ourselves….for your family and friends; not for you.  You are fine.  On many occasions, I’d seen you sniff out someone who was sad and just walk over, put your arm around them, and insist: “Don’t worry, ________, it’s alright.”  The formula was always the same.  Whoever you are.  Whatever the problem.  It’s alright.  This formula — truth be told — got you into plenty of trouble (cue memories of missed rides, lost phones, wallets, etc.), but also got you out of that very same trouble: “Come on, Avi Ganz, it’s OK.”

You only tolerated “OK.” Only twice did I ever see you upset and that was because things, to your estimation, were not OK. It wasn’t pretty. Like a fish out of water, you simply were not built to function in situations which you deemed not “OK.” So there you were, an unscathed champion of circumstances which would leave average people to lick their wounds in shock and disbelief and yet if you couldn’t cheer someone up — if they couldn’t join you in your quest for “OK,” it would be a problem. As someone mentioned today at your funeral, your worldview was a good reminder for the rest of us to keep things in perspective: “It’s OK.”

Saadya, I need to thank you.  You were a fantastic teacher to me. While most friendships start with an introduction, your introduction was like no other I’ve ever experienced. “Hi Avi Ganz! I’m Saadya.  I’m your supervisor!” I wasn’t quite sure why you had decided that, but as the director of your yeshiva, there was only one thing to reply, and so I did: “NO YOU ARE NOT.”

Thus began our 13+ year relationship.

Through your four years in yeshiva, I learned about your strengths and your challenges. Of course, you didn’t see them as challenges. You patiently and consistently maintained your way of life no matter how much I insisted that there may be a better one, and then, gently and subtly, you taught me that while I may be right, you usually still weren’t wrong.

Saadya, you tolerated my learning curve and made sure that there were plenty of opportunities to develop my understanding. You honed my stubbornness with your own and showed me how important it is to keep my eyes trained on the target: whatever the issue at hand seems to be, the only real issue is the person in front of you, how they feel and how your presence in the dilemma might result in a better outcome for all. You challenged me to challenge you so that we would both benefit and I am ever richer for it.

You taught me about true friendship; about never seeing another human being or their needs as beneath you. You were, first and foremost, a person, and so was everyone else: little children, maintenance staff, professors and Roshei Yeshiva — they were all the same to you.  Everyone was an equal and everyone’s needs were your own. You organized other people’s rooms when they asked (and sometimes when they did not……and were upset about it…..especially your parents’ tax files which you reorganized in size order) and what do you know? Kindness and friendship begot kindness and friendship. As you made friends beyond your more indigenous circles, they found a friend in you, as well. Since the news of your passing, I have received dozens of messages from your long ago friends telling me that you were the best part of their year in Israel or their summers in camp and that they, too, can’t help smiling through the tears as they unearth old photos and try to conjure up the memories and the stories that lie within them.

You taught me about perseverance because perseverance was the great price you paid to maintain your constant supply of “OK”: When schedules, rules, and expectations; social or otherwise, defied your version of reality, the only thing that kept you going (and with a smile, no less!) was that everything is OK.  While you and I had many occasions to butt heads and I very rarely succeeded in convincing you that I was right, you were also willing to meet expectations, to step outside of your comfort zone, and do what you could to make sure that these glitches wouldn’t stand in the way of the big picture. Everything had to be ok – at any cost.  When others might throw in the towel or walk away, you managed to stick to your guns and, simultaneously, allow others to stick to theirs. And then, ever the gentleman, you would always call or text or stop by the office just to say thank you. Because, after all, even the uncomfortable confrontation gave birth to some more of your beloved “OK.”

Saadya, I mentioned your comfort zone above. Let’s talk about your comfort zone. To live in your head was to live in paradise. There was music. So much music. Some of which you made by yourself and the rest was supplied by any of a number of Jewish recording artists with whom you occasionally shared identities.  There was friendship.  So much friendship.  Merriam Webster defines a friend as one attached to another by affection or esteem.  Pretty sure that all of your many many friends were real, then.  You were certainly affectionate toward all and held each of us in esteem.  The feelings were mutual, Saadya.

Your comfort zone was incredibly organized, too.  Everything had a place: the new socks went here, the new new-socks went there, and the old new-socks went in a different place altogether because one never knows when one will need a perfectly good pair of old new-socks.  But you knew exactly when those would be appropriate attire.  Not only did things have a place, but events had a very specific place in your calendar and feelings needed to be properly and consciously appropriated.  Other than the ubiquitous but essential “OK,” very little in your world was reflexive.  What comes immediately to mind is the difficult conversation we had when your dear father passed away. It was still before his Levaya. You had just come back from camp late the night before and I wanted to attempt to help you prepare for saying goodbye.  We spoke.  We cried. Your OK had inarguably become, at least for now, not OK, and that’s when it hit me: “Saadya? They are going to ask you to rip your clothes. It’s a way to show Kavod to your father.” I knew how hard that would be for you, dapper Saadya with the perfectly coifed hair and always-centered tie, but after you assured me from 6,000 miles away that you understood, you turned away from the phone and went to get one of your brother’s shirts. Win-win. It was often win-win with you, even if the road traveled to get there was frustrating for us. The ultimate in mediation is when the concerned party can somehow negotiate the outcome without bias or prejudice. Somehow, you managed that. I have no idea how that even works, but you pulled it off. And things became OK.

Your “OK” wasn’t just a way of mitigating difficult circumstances, either.  It was also an important equalizer in the other direction.  You had left a sefer in yeshiva in 2010 and doggedly reminded me of it at regular intervals.  As I have never been anywhere near as organized as you, it so happens that I only remembered to pack it in my suitcase at the end of 2019.  For others, a reunion nine years in the making might be occasion for something celebratory.  Not you.  I met you at your apartment with the Tanach.  You came to the door in pajamas and your trademark smile.  “Oh thanks Avi Ganz!” is all you said.  And then bid me goodnight and closed the door.  Reliable.  Unwavering.  Upbeat. Appreciative.  But no schtick.  What Shakespeare might have been referring to when he said “Simple truth miscall’d simplicity.” You were a breath of fresh air.

So, my friend; my dear Saadya. My student and sidekick, I wrote elsewhere that you were my partner because “it takes two to tango” and tango we certainly did. At all hours. In strange places. In the good times and the bad. When it was less than conventional to keep challenging one another you knew that you could push me and it was my honor to push back.

While it is unfathomable to me that you are gone, the test of true friendship is distance.  The miles that separated you from your international fan-club as well as the time that lapsed between infrequent visits, never seemed to make a difference one way or another.  There was no celebratory dance when we met at yearly reunions and very little, if any, catching up.  I never got the sense that you missed anyone much less me. At the same time, you were always happy to see me and I, you. You didn’t miss anyone because, as your mother pointed out, we weren’t missing.  We miss those who are distant in one way or another.  But you always had your contacts and their individual stories at the front of your mind and at the tip of your tongue.  True friendship transcends time and space and I look forward to our continued friendship through the memories and the photos which have been bouncing into my phone (Thank you, WhatsApp).  But I also intend to enjoy our relationship by way of the many lessons I learned from you.  I share these often with our staff and students in Yeshiva and at camp every year and they have withstood the test of time (or, at least, the test of ten years of time).  As two current staff members said to me yesterday and today: “I obviously never knew Saadya, but I know Saadya because of how much you talk about him”.

Daven for all of us, buddy. For your family, for your friends, for Klal Yisrael.

Much love,
Avi Ganz

תהא נשמתך צרורה בצרור החיים

Avi Ganz is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Darkaynu Program for Men, the only  Orthodox year-in-Israel experience for young adults with special needs. 

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