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Reminiscences of my father

by Ben Shneiderman

October 13, 1996

It is tough for me to write a biography of my father, but these notes distilled from various sources contain the facts and some impressions from others. Since I began to prepare these notes for publicity purposes in connection with the donation of my parent's Yiddish books to the University of Maryland Libraries, my father has had a massive stroke on September 27.

My sister called from Israel Sept 28 and I left for Israel on October 1. My father would have made something of the coincidence that he was in the same Tel Aviv hospital where Itzhak Rabin died almost a year ago. My father was unconscious, but breathing on his own. He was not responsive to our words or touch, and the doctors held out little hope for recovery. He remained stable but critical till he died on October 8, 1996

The funeral on October 10 was the most difficult day. I went to identify his body, which was wrapped only in cloth and a Jewish prayer shawl. Seeing his still face confirmed the reality, but it seemed tranquil compared to the labored breathing among wires, tubes, and oxygen hoses in the hospital. About 45 people joined my mother and sister as we walked under the hot noon sun to a covered place where several people made short emotional speeches. Then to the grave site where my father was laid to rest in the open grave, and several of us shoveled the dirt over his body.

Mourners commented that my father's death marked the end of a civilization and a period of history...that my father was a poet among journalists, and that his journalism was a form of poetry.

Jewish tradition is to have a week-long mourning period at home, where visitors have been coming to tell stories, remember, and laugh-cry. My mother is strong most of the time -- thinking of which unfinished projects to pursue and whether she could travel to Paris or New York -- but then she begins to realize the magnitude of her loss. I am saddened, but push forward with my purposeful self and do what needs doing.

(October 20: I returned to Washington, DC last night still sad, but warmed by the many supportive notes, calls, and emails. I am still inspired by my mother's life-affirming attitude, but worried about her weak state, and my sister's multiple heavy burdens. Next Sunday there will be a family gathering near New York City. Then on November 3, a planned ceremony around my parent's donation of their Yiddish books to the University of Maryland will become a memorial event.)

In my recollection, my parents always worked as a team. I often heard my father dictating in Yiddish, while my mother wrote her mystical shorthand notations. She would re-read sentences while suggesting improvements and he would revise repeatedly, searching for the appropriate phrasing and asking her for names, dates, etc. Then she would repeatedly re-type the text for several passes of cutting and pasting with strips of white and yellow paper covered with handwritten revisions. The final retyping would be with multiple carbon copies to be mailed to papers in New York, Israel, France, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, or Australia. It was accepted that articles appeared with his byline, but my father did acknowledge the vital partnership with my mother, who, in turn, admired his ability to create a story and find a powerful way to tell it.

Every trip brought a harvest of papers, photos, books, and notebooks filled with interviews. My mother maintained an elaborate filing system by topic and personality with clippings and notes. This was a remarkable resource for their writing.

My father had an uncanny journalist's ability to find the right people and to get them to tell their stories. Whenever we traveled he would start conversations with people who turned out to have played a role in some important event, and would be willing to tell their story. He would weave articles together with historical ironies and compelling coincidences, and embroider with local color and personal impression.

During the day he wrote publicity, mostly in Yiddish, for the United Jewish Appeal in New York, telling about activities in New York and Israel in a weekly page in the large circulation Yiddish press. This gave him contact and influence, and paid the rent. At night when he came home, he wrote his articles for the New York Yiddish newspapers - the Forwearts, The Day, and the Jewish Morning Journal. His journalistic writing, interviews, and deadline chasing were his identity, there was little else.

I have great pleasure when I travel and people around the world speak glowingly about my father's writing and his influence on their lives. I am always proud to be introduced as the son of S. L. Shneiderman.

My 21-year old daughter, Sara, sent a fax for the funeral with these thoughts: This summer during one of the rare and precious intimate moments that I have ever shared with Saba, he said something to me that I think you will all appreciate today. As he and I sat on the Ramat Aviv beach listening to children's laughter and watching the sunset, Saba dabbled his toes in the warm Mediterranean water and, for a priceless moment, opened himself up to my questions about spirituality and death. Wagging his finger at me just as he would have pinched my cheek when I was younger, he explained to me his understanding of the human soul: "there is no such thing as an independent 'soul'. Soul is the memory that people who have cared for you create." So Saba's soul, as he would have it, is here and very much present in this moment as we begin to create it. In this way, our mourning here is a generative process, the birth of something beautiful and new, rather than a finite end to anything.

Avraham Lis, Director of Beit Shalom-Aleichem in Tel Aviv, wrote (in Yiddish): Please accept our heartfelt words of consolation on the death of your husband and father Shmuel-Leib Shneiderman, who was one of the most richly-spirited persons as well as a first-rank writer and journalist. His work as a creator, a poet, a writer of prose, a translator, and an editor, is beyond measure. His unique contribution to Yiddish literature and journalism was - and shall remain - of a special dimension. With his prolific output, his individuality, he enriched and stimulated both his readers and the literary environment.