This was a rough year for everything outside the equity market and I say good riddance to 2021 just as I did to 2020 a year ago this time. But it must be said that at least we have vaccines, boosters and treatment, and there is hope now that the pandemic will finally transition to an endemic. I keep saying that in the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby, there was not one reference to the 1918-19 Spanish Flu in the book’s 152 pages. We’ll get through this.
The pandemic has sharpened our focus on what’s important. That much is obvious. And on how precious life is and remembering the close friends and family members we lost. It is memory, after all, that separates us from animals (not the only thing). I lost a friend and a mentor this past year, a dear family friend who I have known since I was twelve years old. His name was Rabbi Reuven Bulka, and if you Google his name, you will see that he was a tour de force. A huge influence on me and if you spend just a bit of time looking at his numerous interviews on YouTube or reading one of his many influential books, you will have wished you had met him in your lifetime. Sadly, he died of cancer last summer.
Rabbi Bulka, in a word, preached kindness. At all times, not just this time of year. That he had a PhD in psychology gave him an edge in knowing the societal benefits of being kind at all times. And Rabbi Bulka practiced what he preached.
So, I want to talk about kindness, and I want to share with you a profoundly personal story about an act of kindness that has affected me to this day.
It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly eleven years since my mother passed away. It was back in March 2011. The shiva was at my parents’ condo north of Toronto. We had many family members come for the week from out of town (and out of the country) for the funeral and the shiva. Now, of course, for those of you who have had any experience with mourning in the Jewish faith, you don’t sit shiva on Saturday (Shabbat). Now it just so happens that on that particular Saturday, it was my middle son’s sixteenth birthday (Jacob, who many of you have already gotten to know as my client service representative and the person who produces my webcasts, TV interviews, etc.). My wife, Rachael, said to me “I know how much you loved your mom, and this is a rough week, so we don’t need to have a big birthday celebration.” To which I quickly said, “no, a celebration is what we all need.”
And I wanted to do something special. It’s the proverbial circle of life. Mom died on Tuesday; it was Jacob’s birthday on Saturday. And I know what my mother would have said, too (“don’t skip a birthday party on my account!”). Thing is, in deep winter when dusk comes early, I had to think quick on what we could do before those first three stars show up in the sky on a Saturday eve — for those who have studied theology or who claim that some of their best friends are Jewish, you will know what I mean. And that’s because the shiva starts again once Shabbat (the sabbath) is over.
So, I called my friend who owns one of the top sushi establishments in Toronto. This was by far our favorite restaurant in the city and the kids caught their taste for sushi there (I recall once telling six-year-old Mikey, who has been featured in this personal vignette series before, as he ate salmon makis as if they were popcorn, “sonny, do you realize you have twenty dollars stuffed in your mouth right now?”). We had our table and our favorite server, Sumi (she got to know us so well that when we came for birthdays, she would always have a cake waiting). Edo was and is a very special place, and not just for the great food. The service. The ambiance. The kindness.
And that takes me to the owner. Let’s call him Barry since that is his name. Over the years, we had become friends and today, we have become very close friends.
I called him and here’s what I said:
“Barry, I have a big ask. Mom died on Tuesday. Jacob’s birthday is Saturday. I have 15 people, siblings from Israel (plus my family here) and cousins and aunts from Winnipeg, and I want to have an early birthday dinner party at Edo. Because the shiva will start again around 6 pm, I want to rent out the restaurant (Barry had a nice party room at the back) and I know that means you have to bring in the chefs early, we want Sumi to serve us (she was first class) and I want to pre-order the sushi (except for my dad who would eat herring and gefilte fish all day long, but raw fish? Forget it! He had the salmon teriyaki) and the wine. I am paying for the whole thing, including the extra time for all the staff, so add the tip to the bill and sometime close to 6 pm, just have Sumi hand it to me.”
I made it clear this was a huge favor — can you imagine opening a restaurant on a Saturday at 3 pm instead of the normal 5 pm? I made it clear, so that you know,
that all this was on my dime. You know where this is going, right?
So, Barry says “done.” And he added, “show up a half-hour early with your dad and your brother Mel (who was in from Tel Aviv) and we’ll have a toast to your mom” (Faigel, which is Yiddish for bird, and Mom was indeed a rare bird, and dare I say, also for years so very close to Rabbi Bulka). We got there, me and Mel, dad inching ahead slowly on his walker (with Parkinson’s but at that point still very much on the ball and he never, not once, complained about his condition), and Barry cracks open a Macallan 18 and we toast Mom. Surreal. And then everyone showed up; Barry made sure the party room was decked out, the wine on ice and the makis, sashimi, nigiri and hand rolls (and Dad’s cooked salmon) were pre-ordered and served with smiles and warmth from dear Sumi.
When it came time to pay up, and I’m paying attention to when the Shabbat is about to end so we can make the trek up to North Toronto, I motion to Sumi to bring me the bill. She comes with one of those leather file folders and hands it to me. No paper. No bill. Just 30 little wrapped Japanese candies. I motioned again to Sumi, and she came over and I said, “there’s no bill.” She replied, “Barry looked after it.” I said, “that wasn’t the deal, where is he. I need to talk to him. This wasn’t the agreement.” Sumi said, “he’s gone. Barry left two hours ago.” I blurted out, “this isn’t right!” and she quickly retorted, “you have no idea how much he wanted to do this for you. Please, just accept it as what it is. An expression of kindness.”
There’s that word again!
I will lay myself bare and tell you that I broke down and cried at that point. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, you can’t imagine. Mom dies and then four days later we have Jacob’s birthday and then this gesture of extreme generosity that was unforgettable. I could hear one of my boys say, “what’s the matter with Dad?” and Rachael said, “your father’s okay; Barry did something very kind for him.”
I tell this story a lot, but this is the first time ever in print. And when I do, the question I get back is, “can I meet Barry?” The look on everyone’s face when I get to the ending of how the candies fall out, no bill, and my reaction is always the same. Astonishment. And I’m not surprised at the question: who doesn’t want to meet someone who could provide such kindness? But as Barry — and Rabbi Bulka — would likely say: just make sure that as you receive the kindness, you also give some in return.
Happy Holidays and here is to a kind (and COVID-19-free) 2022!