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B’MATANOT YADO: WITH THE GIFTS OF HIS HANDS THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF MR. ALBERT AZAR

By: Kelly Jemal Massry



After going up to the Torah to receive an aliyah, it is customary for men to give a donation in thanks for the honor. Some call out a monetary sum, and some choose not to specify an amount at all, but offer the gifts of their hands instead. The phrase, in Hebrew, is “Kol ish b’matanot yado” and it’s one that Hymie Azar and his sisters, Naomi and Adelaide, know well. After all, it was the trademark pledge preferred by their father, Albert Azar, in front of the Torah. As a traveling salesman, he didn’t have much money to spare, but he did know that he had a lot to give.

“Do with your hands, your mouth, and your heart. Give of yourself. He really epitomized that,” says Al’s son, Hymie. “He taught me that generosity is not only about money. It’s about recognizing your gifts and sharing them,” adds his daughter, Naomi. “Hashem gave my father the gift of laughter and humor and song, and he shared it with everyone he possibly could.” Indeed, Albert Azar was famous throughout the community for being an entertainer, a man who lived to make others laugh and spread good cheer. He always had a story or a joke at the ready and he would often break out into comical facial expressions to please a crowd. Everybody loved him for the feeling that he brought about – that if one could only see the humor in his situation all would be well in the world.

A deeply spiritual man, Al took great pride in being aKohen. He was raised in our religious traditions from a young age. His father was an observant Jew who was devoted to his shul and community and his mother was a very quiet and pious woman. His family abided by the teachings of Rabbi Jacob Kassin, and Al grew close to Hacham Baruch Ben Haim and Rabbi Edmond Nahum. 

Al’s Musical Gifts

Blessed with an innate sense of musicality, Al had a wonderful voice and took great pleasure in learning hazanut from the reputable Gabriel Shrem, A’’H.  He became a talented hazan servicing Deal Shul, which he helped pioneer, West Deal Shul, and Beth Torah through the years. “He spoiled me listening to any other hazan ever again because his kavanah was so strong,” Naomi remarks.  His daughter Adelaide confirms, “He loved to be a hazan more than anything in the world. To stand up there and sing to Hashem in front of everyone – that was his glory. Religion was never a chore for him – it was the air he breathed. And pizmonim were his oxygen.”

Al Azar earned his beloved reputation partly for teaching thousands of boys their bar mitzvah portions. Some did not know Hebrew at all and had to first learn to read the alef bet. Al undertook this mission with great aplomb and a deep sense of reverence for Hashem’s Word. “He taught perfect keriyah,” Naomi affirms, “because he believed that every nekudah was there for a reason and you had to read it perfectly and slowly and clearly.” Though nowadays most bar mitzvah teachers give their students recordings to learn from, Al gave over his lessons in person for little or no money in return. He would only accept compensation if he knew the family was comfortable financially; if the family was struggling, there was no question that he would offer his services for free. The great rite of passage that he was facilitating was what mattered to him most. It wasn’t about the money, but about the mitzvah.

During the week of the shivah, his beneficiaries came out in droves to pay their respects. “Your father taught me how to pray,” they told the family. “I didn’t go to yeshivah but I am religious today because of all your father taught me.” One man came to the house of mourning holding a 45-year old bar mitzvah speech that Al Azar had helped him to write. The influence of his hesed truly knew no bounds. “He did so much hesed that we didn’t even know about,” Naomi says.

Al’s Children Remember

Good religious form was important to Al Azar. To model this characteristic, he would habitually take all three of his children to shul. It didn’t matter that Naomi and Adelaide were girls. They both have vivid memories of standing under their father’s talet as he said Berkat Kohanim. Though Naomi wasn’t a traditional bechor, she delighted her father all the same. The story goes that when she was born, Al called his mother in tears. “Don’t worry,” his mother assured him as he sobbed, “the next one will be a boy.”  “I’m not crying because she’s a girl,” Al responded. “I’m crying because she’s beautiful.”

 “He always made a point of calling me his first-born,” Naomi remarks. “On the morning of Erev Pesah he brought me back a piece of cake even though I was a first-born girl.” Though his children remember their father as old fashioned, the effort he took to equalize them shows that he was years ahead of his time. The confidence he worked to instill in them is with them still.

“My relationship with him was full of love and pride,” Hymie says. “Every memory I have with him is a happy one.” Naomi also felt buoyed by her father’s regard. “It’s typical of little girls to try and meet their father’s expectations of them. He made very sure I knew that he was proud of me. And I was proud to be his daughter.” It’s a testament to Albert’s success as a father that all three of his children voiced the same sentiments unprompted. “He was very proud of the choices I made,” Adelaide says. “He was proud of my choice of husband. He was proud of how I raised my children. He loved to be at my dinner table. He loved the kind of home I made, the kind of family I built – everything.”

The reason his children felt so secure in his love and so certain of his pride was because of how openly he showed his emotions. “People will tell you that he loved to joke and laugh and tell stories, but the part of his personality that strikes me even deeper is his emotional side,” says Adelaide. “He felt all of his emotions – whether they were happy, sad, or angry – very intensely. He was a man of emet. He talked, walked, and lived his truth.” Never was that quality more readily on display than in front of his children. “Personally, he taught me that a man could love, and that a father should be able to express love, emotion, sensitivity, and pride in his children out loud. He would regularly tell us ‘I love you. I’m proud of you,’ instilling confidence outwardly and publicly.”

   To illustrate this trait, Hymie shares what it was like having his father as his Little League coach. “My father was the guy inspirational baseball movies were based on,” he says with a chuckle. Picture this: Bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded and, of course, the worst player on the team is up at bat. Most coaches would make a substitution, putting a better hitter in place. Not Albert Azar. “Not only would my father make the player go up there, he would make the entire team get up and cheer for him. Winning was nothing to him. It was more important to build confidence and demonstrate camaraderie.” If you were a bully, you were off the team. Al’s wife Carole adds, “If he felt something was wrong, he had to speak up and make it right. But his bark was worse than his bite. He was a softie.”

A Natural Born Entertainer – Who Honored Shabbat

Born with a theatrical nature, Al aspired to become a professional actor.  His nephew, Alan Tobias, recalls his uncle telling him about the time he tried out for an off-Broadway play. He was so good he was given the part! Al was elated – until he was told that rehearsals would start that Saturday in Manhattan. His heart dropped knowing his dreams were dashed, but still, Al didn’t hesitate.

“I’m out,” Al told the producers.

“What? You’re out? How can you be out? You’re the top actor in this troupe and this is the opportunity of a lifetime!”

“I’m Orthodox,” Al said simply. “We can’t travel or work on Saturday – that’s non-negotiable for me.”

“He could have been a great actor,” Alan reminisces, “but even more than that he wanted to be who he was – he wanted to be true to Hashem.” Hymie affirms, “He couldn’t survive being mehalel Shabbat. It wasn’t something he would ever consider.” “He gave up acting to be dati,” Adelaide agrees,“which was an important thing for us to see.”

A Natural Salesman Who Merited Miracles

By occupation, Al was a traveling salesman, who pursued retail accounts throughout the country. “He was the consummate salesman,” says his son, Hymie. “One of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen.” This was due to his personality and his natural ability to put buyers at ease. Still the work took its toll on him. He would often be gone for four to six weeks at a time, leaving Carole to hold down the fort at home. “He worked harder than any man I’ve ever known to put food on the table,” says Adelaide. “My father never wanted to make millions of dollars. He just wanted to take care of his wife and children. There were hard times but it never really mattered. We always felt loved and cared for.”

Al’s career as a salesman was all the more notable for the miracles it brought him in contact with. “My uncle was constantly talking to Gd,” says Al’s nephew Alan, “asking Gd to help him or thanking Him when things went well. He experienced dozens of events that brought him closer to Hashem and helped him bring out kiddush Hashem for other people.” Two of these occurrences – which were nothing less than open miracles – are documented in the book Visions of Greatnessby Rabbi Yosef Weiss, and are worth retelling here.

 Just before he was about to travel to Louisville, Kentucky on business, Al had a dream. In the dream, he was indeed in Louisville, Kentucky, behind the wheel of a rented red Chevrolet. He was driving along smoothly until, without warning, he lost control of the car. He could do nothing except brace for impact as it crashed into a twenty-foot high embankment. When he opened his eyes, he found himself relatively unhurt except for one problem – he was trapped! The force of the crash rendered him stuck inside the car, with the doors and windows refusing to budge. Al sniffed and thought he smelled something burning. Yes, he did: The car was on fire! Within moments, the car exploded with him inside it.

Al woke up with a start, drenched in sweat. Heart pounding, he re-told his dream to his rabbi at the time, Hacham Baruch Ben Haim. The rabbi asked him kindly if there was a mitzvah he had recently stopped performing. Regrettably, Al said, “I don’t always wear tzizit.”

“Albert,” Hacham Baruch said, “You must promise me that from now on you will always weartzizit. Do as I say and all will be well.”

Al followed the rabbi’s advice and donned tzizit that very day. A week later, Al took a chance and traveled to Kentucky. When he got to the car rental place, the only car available was a red Chevrolet. With a feeling of foreboding, he got in and began drive towards his appointment. Within moments, Al’s dream was playing out in real life: His car was careening towards a twenty-foot high embankment and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He braced for impact as shards of glass peppered his body. When he opened his eyes, just as in his dream, he found himself trapped in his car with no way out.

He knew what would happen next – he had only seconds before the car blew up.

A woman pulled off the road and came to his aid. “Go away!” he shouted to her. “The car is about to blow up!”

The woman didn’t listen and proceeded to help Al get out through the window. He got away right before the car exploded.  When first responders arrived, Al begged them to attend to the woman who had helped him. But when the EMTs looked for her, there was no one around. 

 They brought their attention back to Al and began to pick the glass from his face, arms and legs. Miraculously, his torso, which had been covered by his tzizit, remained unharmed. They moved to do away with the garment, but Albert shouted, “Don’t touch those! They saved my life!” As it says in Gemara Shabbat, “mitzvot offer protection to all who acquire them.”

Miracle in Memphis

Many of Al’s accounts were based down South, where kosher restaurants were scarce. There was a kosher eatery in Memphis, Tennessee, however, so Al tried to arrange his schedule so that Shabbat would always find him in Memphis. On one particular occasion, though, the president of a major corporation kept him waiting endlessly in Birmingham, Alabama. It got to the point where Al was so late he could make none of his usual accommodations for Shabbat. He got to his hotel in Memphis with only minutes to spare, feeling utterly bereft, without food for Shabbat. Upon reaching his assigned room, he collapsed onto the bed and put his head in his hands. Internally, he railed against Hashem, asking what he had done to deserve this. He was just trying to keep kosher after all – why did he have to struggle so much? Half-heartedly, he got up and opened the dresser drawer to put away his clothes and quickly slammed it shut in disbelief. Before his eyes lay an elaborate Shabbat meal - kosher wine, several kinds of packaged meat, pickles, olives, potato salad, whiskey, and more. Albert devoured it all, thanking Hashem and apologizing for his former doubts.

But the story doesn’t end there. Three months later, Al attended a gathering of his contemporaries – where he learned it was they who had left the food behind in Memphis! Though originally there on business, the friends had to leave in great haste due to a medical emergency. They left behind the food in the hotel and forgot about it completely. Today, strangely enough, it had suddenly come to mind again. Out loud, they wondered what had happened to it. “I can tell you what happened to it,” Al said gleefully. “I ate it!”

Recalling this story, Hymie is filled with respect for the special man his father was. “A miracle can only happen to somebody special,” he says, “and I had a father who experienced two open miracles.” Reflecting on his blessed livelihood, Hymie says, “My father inspired me to build something permanent. I have always believed that any success I had was due to his merit. I know that I was the beneficiary of his heavenly reward.” Naomi, too, credits him with her 43-year career as a Special Education teacher. Because of the emphasis he placed on sharing his own gifts, she recognized hers early, and has not stopped giving.

Al’s Special Hesed and the Beautiful Memories He Left behind

In his later years, Al was bestowed with a clerical badge and became a member of the Pastoral Care of Southern New Jersey. Day after day, he would visit the hospitals, particularly Jersey Shore and Monmouth Medical, cheering the patients there. Whether it was to read a perek of Tehilim, say the Shema, listen to their aches and pains, or get a laugh out of them, Al did it from his heart. Though he did not have semicha,many came to see him as their rabbi, as he enriched the spiritual lives of Jews and non-Jews alike.  He saw the essence of every person and respected anybody who was Gd-fearing, regardless of his or her religion. “I’ve learned to love all Jews,” Al told his nephew Alan at the end of his life. More than that, it seems, Al loved all people made in Gd’s image.

Now that he’s gone, Al’s family will miss him dearly. “I’ll miss his whistle,” Hymie says. “That’s how you knew he was coming.” Adelaide will remember with fondness the lullabies he used to sing her at night. They weren’t traditional American lullabies, because he didn’t know any. Instead, they were pizmonim. Naomi will miss the performances she gave with her father after the Passover seder – with Al orating the pizmonim in Arabic and she dramatizing them in English. His grandchildren and great grandchildren will miss the way he used to play with them – joyfully and without reserve, for he was a child at heart.  The entire community will miss the famous “Azar sebets,” which will not be the same without Al leading the singing. Most of all, we will remember his generosity of spirit, as he gave of his gifts to so many.

At the funeral, Rabbi Edmund Nahum recalled a tradition Al used to perform every Yom Kippur. Just after Ne’ilah, he would shout, “Eshme’ah mah yedaber ha’El Hashem” - literally translated to mean, “We will hear what it is Hashem will say.” After Albert Azar’s long life of service and goodness towards his fellow man, what is it Hashem will say? Ki yedaber shalom is the answer that follows: “There will be peace.”