Monday, April 27, 2015

A Tribute to my Baltimore Dad: Malcolm Katzen, delivered 4/24/2015

Chesped for Malcolm P. Katzen
Moshe Hershel ben David 
7/20/1923 – 4/23/2015, burial: 4/24/2015

            The author of the Biblical book of Proverbs imagined “what a precious find a woman of valor, an eishet chayil” to be.  Had he run into Malcolm Katzen – had he the opportunity to know him, perchance to have had a suit crafted for him, he may have imagined a different vision of valor:  perhaps one of a man far more precious than prized gems, within whom his wife placed her confidence, and who in turn lacked no good thing; a man who was endlessly good and kind to his beloved, all the days of her life.  Who was clothed, not only in fine cloth, but with strength, dignity, and splendor; who looked to the world with optimistic cheer, his tongue guided by sincerity and kindness.  Always eager to engage with the world, never standing idle for long.  His family comes forward with deserved praise extoling the efforts and fruit of his hand.  Indeed, whenever people gather, his deeds speak his praise. 
            Born in 1923, the oldest of three sons of William and Bertha Katzen, our ish chayil, our Malcolm, grew up with his brothers Stanley and Leslie – better known as Lester - in Forest Park, a Jewish hub of Baltimore in the first half of the 20th century.  The name Forest Park still evokes a sense of community amongst those who lived there in those years.  Malcolm spent his formative years there, and so many of the friendships that began there have long endured.  His memories of that time, too, have endured, positive and crystal clear until the end.  Just a couple of years ago, at my eager request to see this famed Forest Park, Malcolm gave me a quick tour of his old neighborhood.  His face lit up, with a sparkle of pride and joy, as he pointed out the former site of Beth Tefiloh, his beloved congregation that was so central to his childhood, the house where the cantor lived, the home where his cousin and friend, Phil Sweren lived, the places they hung out, and of course, the house where the girl he was sweet on, Alma Weissman, lived.  You could take Malcolm out of Forest Park, but nothing could remove the old neighborhood from Malcolm’s heart and soul.
            Malcolm was close – very close - with his brothers, and they were all raised to follow in their father’s footsteps in the family business, Oakloom, a men’s suits manufacturing company that as recently as last year (in an article about the buyout of the Jos A. Banks) was described as among the finest of Baltimore’s men’s clothing manufacturers.  Lester sadly died too young to get as involved in the business, but Malcolm and Stanley both took leadership roles that would not only define the business but would come to define their work ethic and love of the industry.   Malcolm would serve as the President of Oakloom from 1972 through the sale of the business in 1995.  He held onto the title and continued to work for the new owners in Frederick until his retirement quite a number of years later.
            Malcolm loved his work.  He genuinely liked his employees, cared for them, and took great pride in providing a living for their families.  He loved the travel involved to meet with customers and to buy fabrics.  He loved sales: both the buying and selling.  I expect he thrived on the interaction with people as much as the business deals themselves.  Simply put, he took great satisfaction in what he did.  He eagerly gave customers tours of his factory and took pride in the quality of his product.  He could always recognize one of his suits.  And not just those green ones commissioned by the USF&G pro golf tournament.   He claimed that Robert Kennedy was wearing one of his suits when he got shot.  One of his bubbemeisses?  Maybe. Maybe not.  These were hand sewn suits, only the best – certainly worthy of the Kennedys.  And, Malcolm knew his suits: he knew the fabrics, he knew the designs, knew a good seam, a good stitch from a bad one.  He had every right to be proud of his work.   And, most of all, more than the pride, he loved that he shared the work, that he had the opportunity to work side by side with his brother Stanley in his craft.
            Malcolm and Stanley were as close as brothers could be.  They not only worked together, they sat in shul together, socialized together, played golf together, even bought their cars together.  Those matching Cadillacs.  I’d see one in the parking lot of the gym, and I wasn’t sure who I’d run into inside.  Would it be Stanley or Malcolm that day?   If I was lucky, perhaps both.  Those cars of theirs were easy to spot in small town Pikesville.
            As important as work was in his life, Malcolm always cherished family.  He and his first wife, Judy, had no children of their own, but Malcolm eagerly doted on his nephews and niece: Margie (z”l), Ronnie, and Jeffrey.  As they grew, their families became Malcolm’s family.  Ronnie and Ellen’s children, Sara and William, and Jeffrey and Debbie’s twins, Marilyn and Norman, were like an extra set of grandchildren to Malcolm.   He especially cherished his regular Shabbat afternoon visits with Jeffrey, Debbie, and the twins.  He loved watching them, and he loved showing them off to the rest of us through his pictures.
            Though Malcolm and Alma would date while still in their teens, it would be decades before they would marry.  During the war, they went their separate ways marrying others from their circle of friends in the neighborhood.  Alma married Rev, and Malcolm married Judy.   They all remained friends and continued to socialize even as they moved away from Forest Park to the Liberty Heights corridor and Pikesville.   Malcolm and Judy settled in the new Colonial Village only to find their lives sadly soon complicated by unexpected and protracted illness.  It wasn’t easy for them, but Malcolm remained thoroughly devoted to Judy and to her care until her death in 1979.   As we’ve all seen first in in the last few months, Malcolm is a fighter.  He doesn’t give up quickly, and he certainly didn’t on Judy.
            Malcolm and Alma’s story is one that makes me believe in the possibility of fate.  Having remained friends throughout their adult lives and having both endured the loss of a beloved spouse, it seemed only natural that they would rediscover love and passion in each other.  Not to diminish in any way the value of each of their first marriages (Malcolm would be the first not to), it is as if Alma and Malcolm were meant to be together all along.  As Chuck has said, it was best for both of them. Malcolm adored Alma, and as Rabbi Buchdahl once remarked to me, Alma smiled more with Malcolm in her life.  It’s as if he brought her joy to the surface.
            Married for over 30 years, Malcolm and Alma had the joy of watching and nurturing their growing family.  Though he came into their lives late in the game, Malcolm cherished his new sons: Lou, Chuck, and Wayne. He respected their independence while also being eager to be involved in their lives.  He managed to achieve the perfect balance between being their friend and growing into, becoming their Dad.  He and Alma welcomed Yvonne, Cindy, Barbara, and myself, graciously into the family.  He loved us as if we were his own.  His graciousness is evident in how he has treated me even in the midst of my and Chuck’s divorce.  Having none of my extended family here in Baltimore, Malcolm always made it clear to me – even up to his last days, even as he had trouble excepting our decision, that he was still my Baltimore Dad, no matter what.  And, he always sealed this promise with a gentleman’s gentle kiss to the back of my hand.  That was classic Malcolm.  Generous, gracious, and loving.  I hope I was able to treat him with the love and respect he so duly deserved from a daughter.
            While Malcolm came to fatherhood late, he became a grandpa in due time right alongside Alma.  Together they celebrated the births of their six grandchildren: Orrin, Sam, Chelsea, Hannah, Ande, and Rachel.  You meant the world to Grandpa!  Each of you.  He was happiest when you were happy.  He loved being able to provide for you – to give you something – whether advice, a new sweater, something from Alma’s closet, an old car – his love and concern for you was selfless.  Even if it didn’t match what you wanted to hear -- he was from a very different generation than you, he was old school, it was always offered out of a generous and loving spirit.   He loved the family gatherings where he simply got to be with you.  And, in the last number of months, he cherished your visits.
            Kohelet claims that there is a time for everything under heaven. I don’t know if I agree with him generally, but I’d argue, in Malcolm’s case, it was time.  After over 91 years, he was no longer able to live in the manner that mattered to him.  He was no longer able to get up, put on a sport coat and slacks, and meet Tom for lunch.  He was no longer able to be productive and, for example, volunteer at the attorney general’s office as he had done for years after retirement.  He was no longer able to gather around the table with family and share a beloved story.  He was no longer able to get in the car and just drive.  He was no longer able to go to Temple Emanuel for Shabbat worship where he felt so welcomed and cared for by the “clump” of regulars.  He was no longer able to enjoy the companionship of his most recent new friend Elaine or take her out to dinner as he so enjoyed doing.  Malcolm was lucky in so many respects – for one, his personality was intact to the end; he was even in his final moments an absolute gentleman. But, the stark reality was that he was no longer able physically to be the best of who he was and who he wanted to be.    
            There were moments after Alma’s death, that Malcolm expressed a fear that he might lose his family, that the lack of biological connection would somehow weaken the bonds nurtured so well over time.  That with Alma gone, the boys –as they were always called - would forget about him or feel less compelled to include him.  An irrational fear, of course, but one that unsettled him nonetheless.  The three of you, Alma’s boys, proved him wrong, simply by being who you are: his sons.  You have made your mother proud, and you’ve given Malcolm a most extraordinary gift. 
            On behalf of Malcom’s sons and nephews, allow me to express appreciation to all of his care givers: to his companion Lucy for her care and company when family and friends couldn’t be by his side and to the care givers at Sinai hospital, Keswick, and most recently at Levindale who nursed, encouraged, and dealt with his at times impatient eagerness to get well sooner rather than later over the last four months.  
The end of life is full of challenge, and the challenge of it is compounded by our wanting to hold on to our loved ones for as long as possible. Let us take comfort in the words of the modern poet Alvin Fine:
            To the living –
            Death is a wound.  Its name is grief.
            Its companion is loneliness.
            Whenever it comes – whatever its guise,
            Even when there are no tears,
            Death is a wound.
            But, death belongs to life –
                        As night belongs to day
                        As darkness belongs to light
                        As shadows belong to substance
            As the fallen leaf to the tree,
                        Death belongs to life.
            It is not our purpose to live forever.
                        It is not only our purpose to live.
            It is no added merit that a man lives long.
                        It is of merit only that his life was good.

There should be no doubt among us: Malcolm’s life was long, but its merit came from the incredible goodness, the valor, he put forth in the world.  May we model our ish chayil, our Malcolm – may we live by the example of his generosity, his vibrant spirit, and his eagerness to get up, be involved, and engage with humanity.  Thus, through us will his name and legacy endure to eternity.
[A live stream video of the funeral is available through July 2015,]