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‘Little Big Man’: Truths my father taught me
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‘Little Big Man’: Truths my father taught me

Eli Kleinman
Eli Kleinman

My father Eli was a Kleinman — not a “Grossman.” But stature in life in judged not by height but by mitzvot and accomplishments. So, by these standards my father was a Little Big Man.

He was a Little Big Man because he overcame the worst adversities life can throw at you. Barely a teenager, he lost his entire family and survived years of terror during the Holocaust through skill, smarts, and good luck.

With Miriam, his devoted wife of 67 years, he gave his three children, six grandchildren, and, to date, two great-grandchildren and all their descendants the bonus of life and Jewish continuity.

After four years in Landsberg, the largest DP camp in Europe, where he served on the police force, he, Miriam, and my brother Abe arrived in the goldene medina, penniless, with no knowledge of English and no formal education beyond eighth grade.

He was a Little Big Man because he didn’t let school interfere with his education. Through the years he honed his business skills and developed and sold two successful businesses. He was such a good investor that he gave his stockbroker stock tips. He provided well for his family.

He was a religious man. I asked him why, after all the horrors he endured, he still believed in God. He responded that he lost faith in humanity, not God, who gave humanity free will. He was a Little Big Man because he worked to advance humanity by instilling Yiddishkeit in all his endeavors.

He exerted tremendous leadership. He was president of Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, one of the largest synagogues in the Bronx, for 19 straight years. He sweated every detail — fund-raising, capital improvements, and resolving conflicts. YI had one of the largest youth groups, led by Bnei Akiva, and the congregation pioneered the music of the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Hundreds of people today are products of YI’s efforts.

When we visited my parents’ Riverdale condo to collect memorabilia, we found dozens of awards honoring his work — YI’s Shofar Award and honors, among many others, from UJA, Israel Bonds, Religious Zionists of America, and Magen David Adom.

My father was a tireless fund-raiser. He led appeals during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and for the Annual Gathering of Survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, which he helped inaugurate and was attended by thousands, including governors, senators, and other leading politicians.

He was a Little Big Man because he came up with the idea and executed the purchase of 26 bungalows in the Catskills rather than annually paying rent with no equity. This was like a kibbutz of Holocaust survivors, which ran for over 27 years. He was, of course, elected president and chanted the Torah portion every Shabbat in the casino converted into a shul. He made sure the pool was maintained and the lawn mown, politicked with local authorities, and developed good community relations with neighbors. When he turned 80 and needed dialysis, this Little Big Man retired from office and led the efforts to sell the “kibbutz” with healthy profits for all its shareholders.

He was very tolerant of other viewpoints. He met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Benjamin Netanyahu and politicians of all stripes, and welcomed Jews by choice, including my daughter-in-law. He was a moderate, something less and less valued in an ever contentious world that needs moderation more than ever. He respected authority but criticized blind faith in it.

He was humble, epitomizing Shammai’s teaching: “Say a little, do a lot.”

He was a Little Big Man because he overcame his inner demons at the age of 84 to lecture about the Holocaust to high school students and adults. He was mesmerizing. He dispassionately described his experiences, praising good Germans who had helped him and condemning Polish neighbors who betrayed their Jewish ones. This is well captured in my nephew Evan’s film, We’re Still Here, shown at many film festivals, including in Cracow, Poland.

He was modest, a rare commodity among leaders, but spoke up when he had to. Although introverted, he was an emcee par excellence. He was a devoted family man whose true loves were his wife of 67 years and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He treated his son-in-law and two daughters-in-law like his own children. And he loved Brian, Alicia, and Sarah, my children’s and nephew’s spouses. Two weeks ago, at Gurwin Assisted Living, we had the entire mishpacha visiting him. His two great-grandchildren ran through the corridors like they were in a neighborhood playground. He beamed with happiness, even as he suffered from many physical afflictions.

Eli Kleinman, this Little Big Man, contributed mightily to the three pillars of Judaism described in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): Torah (study), avoda (worship), and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness).

He greatly advanced the humanity for which he had all but lost faith. He brought light to the darkness.

Zihrono livracha — May his memory be for a blessing.

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