The Smile Lives On A nephew’s memories of Rabbi David Jemal, a”h


Isaac Jemal

As I sit at my computer typing, I am flooded with tears over the loss of my uncle, my best friend, my mentor, my confidant, my spiritual guide, and my rabbi, Hacham David.

No amount of words will ever describe the depth of my personal relationship with him, and how much he meant to me. He truly understood me. He guided me. He loved me. I mean, he really loved me, the way one dreams to be loved. He picked me up when I was broken, he listened to me when no one would, he built me up and encouraged me when I felt that I wasn’t enough. He never judged me; He only made me feel how proud he was of me. He saw only my potential. He influenced and shaped my life more than any other human being on the planet.

But the truly remarkable thing is not that he meant this much to me. It’s that he meant this much to so many others, too.

Everyone who was blessed to have Hacham David in his life felt this way. Family members, congregants, students, friends – even if he was just your son’s mohel. He had a profound impact on everyone.

Looking Deep Inside the Soul

For a time, I accompanied Rabbi Jemal to every berit he performed. He exuded such genuine love for the family, and true joy, as if it was his own child.

Once we had a berit in the city, and the parents and guests were not familiar with any of the traditional songs that we would sing, or with Judaism generally, for that matter. An awkward silence filled the room as he was preparing. Just as the rabbi finished setting up, he turned around with his magnetic smile and started clapping and singing, “Havah Nagillah.” He then broke out in a dance, and in but an instant, the entire room was engaged, inspired. Rabbi Jemal had brought them all to their feet.

This is who he was and what he meant to everyone whom he came in contact with. He truly loved every Jew. He looked deep inside your soul, and found the place in your heart where he could inspire you to love being Jewish and to love Hashem.

My Sandak

Rabbi Jemal was all those things for me from the moment I was born, in 1972.

The youngest of my father’s ten siblings, Hacham David was 20 years old at the time, and the only family member in New York. My grandfather was still in Lebanon, and so my father was faced with the decision of who would receive the  honor of sitting as sandak (holding the infant during the berit) for his firstborn son. He could have chosen to sit himself, or to accord this honor to any of the rabbis who would be attending. But instead, he asked his youngest brother to be sandak.

Years later, I pressed my dad to explain why he chose Hacham David for this honor.  My father sat up, looked me with his light green eyes, and grinned.

“It was an easy decision,” he said with a chuckle. “He is a talmid hacham, he loves the Torah, his middot [character traits] are better than mine, and that is what I want for you.”

Whenever he traveled to Israel, Hacham David would visit the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri in his home. Once, when I was with him, we were given the great honor of being invited for Melaveh Malka (the traditional Saturday night meal) with Rav Kaduri and his wife. During the meal, Hacham David told the rabbi that he had been my sandak. Rabbi Kaduri laughed loudly, and told me that I would never have to worry about anything, and that my life was already paved in front of me.

The gratitude I have to Hashem knows no bounds. I was blessed with my own personal guardian angel!

A Humble Scholar

Already at a young age, Hacham David distinguished himself as a brilliant and diligent Torah scholar.

During the time he spent studying in the Mir Yeshiva, he lived with my family in a little apartment on East 7th Street. I was able to see firsthand how he was consumed by the love of Torah. If we happened to wake up in the middle of the night, we were likely to find Hacham David with a Gemara, learning by flashlight in order not to disturb anyone. This is who he was – a humble scholar who demanded nothing from others but gave all of himself.

But perhaps his defining characteristic was embodying the precept of “Ivdu et Hashem besimhah – Serve Gd with joy.” Rummaging through pictures, both old and new, taken in both public and private, I did not find a single one in which Hacham  David was not wearing a huge smile.

He taught me to never feel despondent, no matter the circumstances. While sitting shivah together for my father, a”h, he would never allow us to feel despair for even a moment. Just as Aharon silently accepted the tragic death of his two sons, Hacham David taught us to be strong in times of hardship. He followed the inspiring example of his illustrious namesake, King David, who exclaimed, “Lema’an yezamercha chavod velo yidom” – that he would give honor to Hashem by joyously singing and giving praise, without ever remaining silent, no matter the circumstances. This is the way Hacham David lived, every day of his life.

I can personally testify that Hacham David acquired this quality through hard work, immense effort, and personal struggle. By no means was his life easy. It was hard, painful, and very challenging at times. But he always served Hashem with joy – when blessings were given to him, and when blessings were taken away from him. He had some hard times leading his congregation. He endured financial struggles and illness. But no matter how Hashem challenged him, he never broke. He accepted everything with joy. He was always a proud, faithful servant of Hashem, in every situation.

The lessons I learned from him are far too numerous to be written or spoken. His passing left a hole in our hearts will never be filled, but it also left a great burden of responsibility that now rests upon our shoulders – the responsibility to carry the torch that he gave us, and pass it on to the next generation.

Hacham David will live within us forever, in our smile, in our hearts, in our spirit and in our souls. Let us commit to serve as living examples of his teachings for our children and grandchildren, until the coming of Mashiah, speedily and in our times, amen.