THE PASSOVER QUESTIONS YOU NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK
By: Kelly Jemal Massry
It’s difficult, when writing about a spiritual giant, to find an entry point -- words that will even begin to do justice to a lifetime of goodness. Yet, as I listened to the end of Mickey Kairey’s funeral, I hit upon them – lines that came as close to epitomizing him as I ever could. Unsurprisingly, the words of the Torah had done it for me: “Et ha’elohim ye’ra ve’et mitzvotav shemor.”Fear Gd and guard His mitzvot. More than guard them, the word shemor asks us to protect the mitzvot, to cherish them with love. Mickey Kairey, a”h, was known for these two things in combination – the way he respected Gd’s words and the way he turned himself into a steward of His mitzvot.
The number of mitzvot Mickey took upon himself to perform on behalf of our community boggles the mind. During every life stage and many moments in between, he heralded tradition. At brit milahs, he carried the tzenieh – the tray filled with candles and coins meant to bring good luck. Then, as this same male child grew, Mickey appeared again, ready to coach him with a good amount of tough love, to read the Torah portion at his Bar Mitzvah.
Bar Mitzvah lessons with Mickey were a special experience. He was steeped in the pizmonim tunes of our community and nobody could replicate his melody. Mickey urged his students to read with perfect elocution and great reverence for what was before them. “This is the word of Gd, Pal,” Mickey would tell the bar mitzvah boy in training. “Say it like you mean it!” Though Mickey had no tolerance for mistakes in ta’amim, he employed his instruction with an unmistakable softness. As he once told Abe Manopla: “It’s not about teaching; it’s about touching the soul.” Indeed, Mickey touched so many souls - men who wear tefillin today only because he taught them how as young children, men who still remember their bar mitzvah lessons, though they are now decades in the past, men who were privileged to be taughtta’amim by Mickey in Magen David Yeshivah and now take on the role of hazan or ba’al koreh in his merit.
Mickey loved people and was passionate about collecting money for the needy of our community. As a founder of Ma’oz Le’evyon, what later turned into Sephardic Bikkur Holim, he traveled door-to-door, collecting charityfrom household tzedakah boxes. I remember this well, though I was only a little girl. It was somewhat of an event when Mickey came through the door, with his easy smile and jocular laugh. As children, we had an instinctive urge to make him proud of us and we rushed to get the tzedakah box, heavy with coins, for him to inspect. We wanted him to think we were singlehandedly responsible for filling it up. And he made us feel that way, oohing and ahhhing over the change as it tumbled out. Then he would pocket it to distribute where it was most needed, ready to go off on his holy mission. Just before he left, he would hold out a special treat for my brother; rare coins he had found in one of the many tzedakah boxes he emptied. He knew my brother liked to collect them and always kept him in mind. He stored Mickey’s coins in a box my mother kept for over 20 years and she found it shortly after Mickey passed away. “Remember,” he seemed to be reminding her; “this belongs to him – my special gift.”
Mickey’s generosity extended way beyond the Jewish community. His niece, Joyce Jemal, recalls how freely he disposed of his money to whoever seemed to need a lift of spirits. “I would take him shopping when he was here,” she remembers. “When he was walking out, he would give the lady at the cash register a $100 bill - and he would do the same thing for the person packing the bags. He used to say, ‘you don’t know what their life is like that they have to work this sort of job.’ And I always remember that.”
Though he had compassion for anyone in need, it was to the community that he wholeheartedly gave his services. Mickey would hang mezuzot, perform kaparot, man the geniza, distribute the arabot, drive students to yeshivah, blow the shofar during holidays and funerals; he did it all. “The wise man grabs mitzvot,” quoted Rabbi David Ozeri at his funeral, “and who could beat Mickey in that? He was a physically short man, but let me tell you something: He towered over us.”
Frankly, it amazes me that he involved himself in so many of these mitzvot. How did he do it with such ease, with such joy and with such consistency? The fact that he didn’t have a traditional office job may have had something to do with it. Or maybe that’s just what happens when a man dedicates his life to spiritual undertakings. Mickey was the caretaker of the Magen David Synagogue on 67th Street, for many years performing whatever was necessary to keep the shul afloat. “We always wanted him to move closer and not live on Bay Parkway - because there was no one there - but he wouldn’t leave the shul. It was his home,” says his niece, Joyce. Mickey lived directly behind the shul for all of his adult life. The building was as essential to him as the blood that ran through his veins. “When the shul was dying out Mickey Kairey would not let it die out,” said Rabbi David Ozeri at his funeral. “He hired yeshivah boys to walk from Flatbush to populate the shul and he played every role – hazan, ba’al koreh, whatever it took.” His nephew, Alan Chazanoff, shares that just eight months before his death, though he had to be carried to shul that morning because he was so weak, Mickey slipped from notice, went up to the Torah and began to read. He had to, of course; there was no one else there to do it. “Mickey went up, took the yad in his hand and proceeded to read the whole parasha,” Alan recalls. “It felt like a miracle.”
Something magnetic and powerful drew this man to Gd’s work and yet he carried it out in a way that was so unassuming, so humble. As his student said at the arayat: “He did not appear religious on the outside, by dress or manner of speech. He was one of us on the surface – talked about jazz, music, sports – but there was a secret most who saw him did not know. If you unwrapped him - if you madegeulah on Mickey - you found a perfect written scroll of the entire Hebrew Bible. He was much more than a man. He was a living, breathing Sefer Torah.”
At Mickey’s funeral, there was talk of the angels that had followed him to heaven, of the unbelievable value Mickey had amassed in spiritual currency, of the fact that he was certainly going straight to Gan Eden, as does everyone who passes away on Erev Shabbat. There was certainty voiced by every speaker – here was a life well lived, here was a man to be envious of because of how elevated he was in the eyes of Gd. This appraisal is made even more remarkable because of how commonplace his beginnings were.
Mickey Kairey was born in 1922 to poor, immigrant parents. He grew up on the Lower East Side, where he and his seven siblings slept three to a bed and often came home from school to find their mother sitting on the front stoop surrounded by pots; they had been evicted from their apartment and the pots contained everything they owned. Mickey took something important away from this upbringing – how transient material things were. Perhaps that’s why he so valued the spiritual, whose impact would be everlasting. “He used to say you should care more about what comes out of your mouth than what comes into your mouth,” shares Freddy Zalta.
To Mickey, it was important to be a good person, to stay true to your heritage and make indiscriminate use of your talents. Never was this more apparent than in his military service during WWII, for which he earned five bronze stars. Mickey fought in the war’s most important battles, such as The Battle of the Bulge, and stormed the beaches of Normandy when liberation was near. As a trained medic, he stopped to offer his help to anyone who might need it, whether they were German or Jewish. To him, a person in pain didn’t have a nationality; they simply had a beating heart and a need for assistance. As he came to their aid, though, he did make sure these German soldiers knew he was a Jew. He may have done so out of pride – pride to be part of such a resilient nation, a nation that had still survived, even after the most brutal of oppression. He also did it, though, to teach basic humanity to people who seemed to be devoid of it. I empathize with you, he seemed to tell the hurting soldiers as he administered to their wounds, even though you’ve never shown me that courtesy. I will help you because I don’t view you as beneath me, even though I have every right to, after you have behaved so lowly. In doing so, Mickey performed the ultimate kiddush Hashem, reversing every commonly held belief about the Jewish people during that time period.
There is another famous story told of Mickey as a soldier – of the time he punched out a GI who had dared to insult the Jewish people. “They should kill them all,” this heartless GI said as he read of the annihilation of the Jews in the newspaper. Mickey, overcome with zealous rage punched this soldier in the face. He was mercilessly penalized for this, brought before his superior officer, fined ten dollars and made to dig a six-foot trench with a teaspoon. Until his dying day, Mickey remembered that story - of being made to give up ten dollars, while still holding on to what was most important to him of all: his identity as a Jew.
After the war, Mickey married Pat, a woman who would make up his whole world. They shared such a joyous life together, going to ball games, summering in Netanya, Israel, where they had an apartment and listening to the music of orchestra conductor Stan Kenton. “Mickey knew every instrument,” Charles Zalta said of his great love for music, “every beat of the percussion, the horns, sax!” Mickey’s niece, Roberta, whose parents shared a two-family home with Mickey and Pat on 66th street, recalls the way he would draw her to his record player as a young girl: “Listen to this!” he would tell her once she had ventured to his side. “Now the horns are going to come in. It’s going to start low and the music is going to build up. Wait for it!” Just as notable, was Mickey’s natural talent for sports, which he played with such agility, even into his old age. Brothers Charles and Freddy Zalta recall playing stickball with Mickey as recently as five or six years ago. “We’d battle each other like two teenagers,” says Charles. “He tried to trick me with his nasty pitches.” Freddy adds, “Even in 95 degree heat, in jeans, Mickey would win. He had boundless energy.”
Only one thing might have dampened Mickey’s zest for life – his lack of children. To his credit, though, Mickey always accepted this fate as Gd’s will. “He would say, ‘That was Gd’s way,” recalls his niece, Joyce. “That’s how he wanted it.” Instead of descendants, Hashem bestowed Mickey with several devoted nieces and nephews, who all did their part to take care of him. Relatives aside, Mickey always felt that the many thousands of students he taught were his children. As it turns out, Hashem was in agreement with him. As Rabbi Kassin brought down, Gd considers a child’s spiritual teacher to be his father - and then elevates him even further. After all, a child’s father only brings him into this world, while his spiritual mentor shepherds him to Olam Haba.
So it is true, then, that Mickey had innumerable children and was unreserved in his love for them. He loved the community unconditionally and felt we gave so much back to him by letting him share in the milestones of our offspring. He taught them and coached them with a father’s warmth and investment, and he made each one of them feel like the best. “Wow! What an honor!” he would tell visitors when they came to see him. “Now go home.” Mickey didn’t want anyone to expend too much time for his sake and yet they couldn’t get enough of his rich stories. “I never tired from his reminiscing,” says Charles Zalta. “He was so vivid in his recollection.” Perhaps these three words, coined by Daniel Sultan, say it best: “Mickey the legend!”
It is said that the saddest loss to bear is that of a parent witnessing their child precede them to the grave - and yet that it precisely the burden Mickey bore for all of our sakes as a member of the Hebra Kadisha. He prepared the deceased for burial as meticulously as he read the Torah, carrying everything through to the letter of the law. He saw the task for what it was – not morbid, not haunting, simply the great privilege of readying a person to meet Hashem. To him, it was the most monumental of occasions and he wanted us all in perfect condition.
And now Mickey has met Hashem. Let’s imagine him up in Gan Eden singing pizmonim to his heart’s content. Let’s imagine him surrounded to no end by angels, one for each good deed he committed in his lifetime. Let’s imagine him greeting everyone he lost – wife, parents, sisters, and brothers – with a “How you doing, Pal?” And finally, let’s imagine him reaping tremendous zechut for the perfect nature in which he led his life, and using it to pray on the community’s behalf. We’ve lost a truly inestimable man, but for every mitzvah we perform in remembrance of him, he will live on.