Tel Chai! A Eulogy

By Ari Bussel

We often view life through a window, our window. The interesting thing is that different views then intersect at one point, in one individual.

Each of us knew a Rudy, our Rudy. The sum total of these Rudys is the Rudy we are about to lay to rest.

Allow me to share with you Rudy the way I knew him through my window.

At times you will laugh, “yes, this is the Rudy we knew.” Other times you will ask with amazement: “Is he talking about the same Rudy?”

I knew Rudy for about a decade from meeting him every Shabbat morning. In a way, these gatherings resemble life: Once these meetings started closer to nine, slowly they moved to 9:30AM and they are still advancing.

We met at a synagogue inside a retirement home. Neither Rudy nor I belonged there, but we came nonetheless. We were both outsiders.

Rudy would show up and greet me with “Tel Chai!” It was a battle cry, a common denominator only I was to understand, a very special blessing.

Tel Chai was a small Jewish “settlement” in the Upper Galilee formed in 1918, as the Ottoman forces retreated at the end of World War I.

On the first of March, 1920, Arab Bedouins entered Tel Chai. A fierce battle of the few Jewish settlers against the numerous Arabs invaders ensued.

During the evacuation after the battle, Yosef Trumpeldor (the first Jewish officer in the Russian army), dying, said, “never mind, it is worthwhile to die (on the guard) for our country.”

Trumpeldor and seven others died and the rest retreated. They would return in October the same year, and by the end of the year the area reverted from French mandate to the British.

Trumpeldor will be described in a song: In the Galilee Yosef plowed (the land), and a song was constantly on his lips. A song, it seems, was always on Rudy’s lips.

The eight young fighters were buried together. On their grave stands a statue of a roaring lion. A lion, in Hebrew, is Ari, which is my name. Each year, there is a national memorial ceremony held there on the 11th of Adar (the Hebrew date for March 1st, 1920), Yom Tel Chai.

The 11th of Adar was this past Monday, Rudy left us Sunday morning.

Berl Katzanelson wrote a Yizkor for them. This Yizkor is recited to this very day every year during the National Memorial Day to the Fallen in the Wars and Terrorist Attacks. It is the day that precedes Israel’s Independence Day.

A city in the north, Kiryat Shmona, is named after the eight. It is the city that for many years was subjected to constant bombardment of missiles from Lebanon.

Jewish heroism. Then and now.

Like a grand design everything ties together. Past and present, our very essence as Jewish people and the realization of our beliefs in the Land and the State of Israel.

This past Shabbat we read in the Haftara, the addition to the weekly portion, in Samuel I, 15:29:

And also the Glory of Israel will not lie nor repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent.

It is this sentence that will become the name of another organization, formed in 1915, of Jewish heroes. They were afraid that the Jews in Palestine would have a similar fate to that of the Armenians. They were helping the British against the Ottomans, primarily in espionage.

Rudy was born on March 8th, 1921, a year after the events in Tel Chai took place. So why would he greet me every time, every single Shabbat, with “Tel Chai!?” After all, Jewish people greet each other, when they meet and when they depart, with Shalom.

A close friend of Trumpledor, Zeev Zabutinski, formed a youth movement after him: The Covenant of Yosef Trumpeldor, which we know as Beitar (B-Y-TR).

There was a sacred oath to Beitar that included seven elements, including the rebirth of the Hebrew Nation on both sides of the Jordan River, a place where the Hebrew language will be spoken. “I will come from near or far, to go to Zion or to serve in the Diaspora.”

It was a commitment and a dream that became our modern-day reality.

It was in this synagogue at the old age home, where we have three Torah Scrolls, to where Rabbi Eliyahu comes every single week to hold Shabbat morning service that remnants of the original Beitar gathered. One, Harry Tsvi Madow, showed me his ID card he carried to his last day. Another, Rudy who greeted me every time with “TEL CHAI!”

Rudy was an outsider at the old aged home, as was I. But he was known by all, loved by all. He liked to perform magic, to make us embarrassed and everyone else laugh.

Immediately after his Aliyah each week, he would shake the hand of Rabbi Elijah, then of Kevin, a young man who comes every week to complete Minyan. Rudy’s handshake was stronger than steel, or iron, or whatever other metal that does not yield. It was the same strong handshake to his last days. Hands strong from playing the piano.

I knew he liked to dance and even more so to play the piano and sing, but these could not be seen through the vantage point of my window.

It was without fail that in the middle of services every Shabbat, staff would come looking for Rudy. He invariably blocked someone else in the garage, so he would take his keys and take a short leave, there in the middle of services, to go move his car.

When services ended, the place used to prepare for us Chalah and herring in sour cream, some cakes and a vintage (i.e. very young and completely alcohol-free) grape juice. There was plenty of food, and those gathered continued immediately after services for lunch in the dining hall downstairs.

So, we would prepare two, often three plates for Rudy to take with him home.

That is the way it was every Shabbat. Tel Chai. A bit of magic, making us laugh. Moving the Car. A strong hand shake. And take-away.

A Lasting Impression

In life, we tend to remember the last years of one’s life more than the decades that preceded. Likewise with Rudy.

I remember when he was hospitalized and returned to the retirement home, this time as a resident. It was temporary, he said, for he really did not like it there. He wanted to be in his home.

His hearing was gone almost completely, and I do not think he was driving any more. He used to wait for us at the Synagogue. He was the first to arrive, the last to leave.

Every time there was an issue with his phone. It was his connection to the outside, yet it miserably failed him. The phone (the simplest possible) was too sophisticated, too small, and invariably it failed for one reason or another.

In the coldest days he would appear with a thin shirt to his body, when it was warm he came with several layers. Nothing seemed to matter to him. It was every Shabbat that he would be called to the Torah.

His sister, Alice of blessed memory, took care of him from afar. She would prepare his mail in a large bag, and she would always prepare something else: He really likes this yogurt, she would say, and here are a few clementines.

I do not remember the story of Shanghai, although like Rudy she too liked to dance. I think they both were very gifted musically. I know they were both very independent, despite Rudy’s being unable to hear or his dependence on a cane (which he then made unique too, covering it with different stickers or colors – it could not be plain).

Services continued, and with only singular exceptions Rudy was always there. Until he was hospitalized at Cedars, a few weeks ago, which turned to be the last leg of his journey.

From the hospital he was moved to the rehabilitation center. During his last days, he had ups and downs, and at times was somewhat confused. The confusion was the choice that needed to be made: to remain at the retirement home, to go back to his home or to move in with his nephew and the family.

Purely amazing: Just days before one’s 91st birthday, and to have so many choices. May we each be so blessed.

But it was the twinkle in his eyes and the jokes he told to the very end that made me realize it was the same Rudy of yesteryears. He was not even “bed ridden” in the true sense of the word. For dinner, for instance, we walked to a make-shift dining hall (that served for rehabilitation exercises during the day). He was strong and determined.

His handshake was as strong as ever, and when, on Sunday morning, he departed from us, he looked at peace.

As Rudy returns to his Maker, let us remember the Rudy of the first 90 years, not the Rudy of the last year. I know the impression in our mind will be that of the most recent period, but Rudy was a product of a different era.

Let us take things that were important to Rudy with us: the deep belief in Judaism, in Eretz Israel, in bringing laughter and happiness to his fellow human beings.

Let us promise, as did those in Beitar, to protect the Jewish People and our Homeland, the Land of Israel.