Nearly 2,000 years ago, the sages realized there would be scheduling conflicts, so they determined that if on the same day, at the same time, a funeral procession and a wedding party reached a fork in the road and one group needed to pass the other, the funeral procession would yield for the bride. The reasoning, according to the Talmud, is that the celebration of the living takes precedence.
A similar conjunction of life and death will take place on Nov. 16, when members of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha will observe the yahrzeit of those killed in last year’s attack on the same day they celebrate the 100th birthday of Morris “Moe” Lebow. The former will be marked with a special yizkor service, while Lebow’s birthday will be feted with a Kiddush lunch and birthday cake.
The peculiarity of life, and the gifts it offers, was apparent to Lebow on a recent day when he sat in his Squirrel Hill home and leafed through birthday cards sent from students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia.
“Happy birthday Moe,” one read in almost unintelligible writing.
Another read: “You’ve lived a century and that’s something to be proud of! Be happy!”
One of the card’s messages was composed in alternating blue and purple marker: “Happy birthday Moe even though your friends aren’t here I want you to know you have friends everywere [sic]. But you espicley [sic] have friends in Philadelphia.”
“I read every one of them 10 times,” said Lebow.
The birthday greetings made him laugh, as did the spelling attempts.
“Like the word ‘education,’ they would spell it crazy but I knew what they were saying,” he said.
Mostly, though, the cards generated another response.
“These kids are in third grade, second grade, and they’re writing, ‘Dear Moe, sorry about your loss.’ They knew about the loss. I lost my friends. It made me cry. I mean why should kids know about my loss? I lost 11 friends. Why should a kid in the third grade know about this? What kind of a life is he leading, is he coming into?”
That’s just one of many tough questions Lebow has.
“Of all the places, why would a guy go into a synagogue, where people are praying to God, and kill them? It doesn’t make sense. Or go into a church and kill people (when) they’re praying to God?” he said.
During the past year, Lebow has thought much about the events of Oct. 27, 2018. On that day, he was supposed to be at services.
“I usually go every morning, but that morning there was something wrong in my stomach,” he said. “I just didn’t feel good. I said maybe I’ll take a day off.”
Instead of riding with Joyce Fienberg, who frequently drove him to shul, and seeing Rose Mallinger, who often greeted him with a kiss, Lebow stayed home. Several hours later, when he turned on his television and observed events unfolding down Shady Ave., he was bewildered.
“It was like a dream,” he said. “Could that happen here? What kind of a world is this?”
At the same time, he was worried about his police officer grandson, Commander Jason Lando, a first responder to the shooting. “He just gives his life away every day being a cop, you know? Every time I see him, I say goodbye to him, I say take care of yourself,” said Lebow. “I worry about him every night.”
Meanwhile, Lando was worried about his grandfather. “For the first 30 minutes of the incident, I was pretty convinced that my grandfather was in there, and he was going to be one of the victims,” he told KDKA.
Awareness of life’s fragility isn’t new to Lebow.
His mother, Rebecca Lebow, died when he was 6. During World War II, he was stationed in Panama, where he contracted malaria. Later, while working as a traveling jewelry salesman, Lebow was robbed and locked in the trunk of his car. “It was quite a while until somebody heard me banging,” he said. “I could have suffocated.”
But Lebow is still here, though he has no explanation for why he’s lived so long. “I wish I knew,” he said. “I would patent that.”
What he does know, however, is that certain things are irreplaceable.
“You can’t replace pictures and you can’t replace friends,” he said. “When the picture burns, how are you going to replace it? It’s gone. Same with friends. When they’re gone, they’re gone.”
That’s the reason he continues to wear a white bracelet with the words “Tree of Life” given to him by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, and a button bearing the image of 11 candles.
It’s also the reason he’s so adamant about how Nov. 16 is marked. After celebrating his birthday at services, Lebow’s daughter, Roberta Brody, is throwing him another party. On the bottom of the invitations was an instruction from the birthday boy himself: “In lieu of gifts, please make a donation to Tree of Life in Moe’s honor.”
“I don’t need shirts and ties. I need money for my shul. I want my shul to open up again,” he said. “I’m a Tree of Life guy. Born and I’ll die it. I’ll die Tree of Life.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.