I was crying in front of the computer screen during a funeral service livestream. Again. It wasn’t my first of this pandemic. Even if the person didn’t ostensibly die of COVID, he’d been ill alone, unable to see family for long stretches because of it. And, because of COVID, I couldn’t be at the funerals in person, which were all in the United States. In normal times, I’d be rushing across the continent to be at these services with my family.
The person being eulogized, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits, was a family friend, and was close to my parents. I called him “uncle” as a kid. He and his family were always part of our family’s holiday celebrations and gatherings. I played with his kids at his house. Their phone number was my elementary school’s emergency contact for me.
Rabbi Berkowits (Uncle Larry) was my family’s rabbi. He was also a Holocaust survivor. For a person who spent his teenage years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, my Uncle Larry’s positivity, joy and ability to find the good in others were amazing. He had an incredible, long career, supporting and inspiring others to make positive change.
At the funeral, his family and friends (including my pediatrician) talked about how my Uncle Larry felt so grateful for the kindness of others, including the kindness of strangers. Without that help, he wouldn’t have survived the Second World War. Without the assistance and loving kindness of strangers – in Sweden, the United States and beyond – he wouldn’t have regained his health, gone on to serve in the U.S. military or received a full scholarship to become a rabbi. He wouldn’t have had the opportunities that truly enabled him to make such a difference in so many others’ lives.
This pandemic makes me think about how important that effort, to be kind and to reach out to one another, is for all of us right now. A year ago, the CBC Manitoba webpage ran a piece I wrote, “Mom’s emergency granola bar is there when you need it – no matter who you are.”
The article was about how I try to carry around snacks (granola bars) for my kids, just in case they need one, but that, sometimes, the best option for me is to offer that extra snack to someone else on the street, who is hungry, instead.
The thing is, since the pandemic started, like many Manitobans, we haven’t been out and about nearly as often. I don’t carry around snacks now because my kids are remote schooling. We’re working and learning at home, trying, like most of us, to reduce the number of people who might get sick or die from COVID. On a daily basis, I am not physically handing out those granola bars to anybody other than my kids.
A week ago, I got the most amazing email from a single mom friend who is a grocery store cashier in a city more than 200 kilometres away. She works very hard to keep her family afloat. She’d been waiting until her break to write me: “A man came through with 25 boxes of granola bars. No judgment – they were on sale! Then, he tells me he read an article about someone and their child or children who handed a person a granola bar and it stuck with him. So, now he has granola bars in his car and always hands them out to panhandlers and people who need them when he can.”
I could imagine her hearing this at the grocery store, her jaw dropping in surprise. She told the man that we were good friends and that she would tell me about this. The man said to pass along that, she wrote, “he has been doing this since the week he read your article and to thank you! Simple acts of kindness are what is keeping him going these days.”
When I read her email, I cried. It had been “one of those pandemic days” – where the news, the work and learning struggles at home, had all felt so hard. We’re all tired of worrying, so concerned about our loved ones. In fact, I’d been feeling badly that I couldn’t do more for others, write more, donate more, while juggling things on the stay-at-home front.
Another email from my friend arrived. She’d mentioned this man’s purchase to one of the grocery store owners. He’d said, if she sees this man again, the store would give him a discount on these purchases. Then he printed out the story to pass along, too.
I felt so grateful to this anonymous stranger who was carrying around all these granola bars to feed others, and continuing this kindness when I couldn’t. I wanted to thank him, but I also respect just how many anonymous givers might be out there. It takes all of us to beat this pandemic. Next year, I hope to host my amazing essential worker friend and her kids for a big celebratory Chanukah dinner again.
I’m so heartened to hear that the kindness my Uncle Larry encouraged in others is continuing to be passed along. I carry with me his constant reminders to be an upstanding person who does the right thing, who helps others, shines a light for others, even if he himself isn’t here anymore.
My Uncle Larry would say, “Be the best. Be a blessing.” He’d add something like, “We never know how long we’ll be here on earth. It’s our job to do good for others whenever we can – right now.”
At his funeral, another longtime family friend, Sam Simon, spoke, reminding us: “Be that stranger whose kindness is a blessing to someone so that they, too, can become a blessing to the world.” I am sure the biggest blessing of all would be if more people took that to heart.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.