By Leslee Komaiko, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Last summer, an Op-Ed I wrote, titled “It’s Too Expensive To Be Jewish,” ran in the Los Angeles Times. The story, which was inspired in part by my search for a Hebrew tutor for my son in anticipation of his bar mitzvah—for the record, I was quoted anywhere from $80 to $175 an hour—was syndicated around the country. I got a lot of responses, some positive and some negative. I chose to respond only to those people I know. My skin is just not that thick. Then my father asked me to call David Kleinerman.
Kleinerman, a Northbrook resident who had read my story, must have called information for “Komaiko” in Los Angeles and received my parents’ telephone number rather than mine. He and my dad apparently chatted for a few minutes. Both my parents grew up on the South Side of Chicago incidentally. My dad told David I would call him. And so I did.
When I called David, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My dad had indicated they had had a nice conversation. So I figured David wasn’t in the camp of people who wanted to give me a talking to. Turns out, he wanted to help Nathaniel. Specifically, he wanted to be his teacher.
What were his qualifications? David was a university professor. (To this day, I am not quite sure in what subject. But he is an intellectual.) His brother was a rabbi. Too, David had worked with and continues to work with several other bar and bat mitzvah students. He didn’t charge any of them. So I did not feel as if I was breaking any journalistic rules in accepting his extremely generous offer. We weren’t getting special treatment. We were getting David treatment.
A few days later, around the start of the school year, David and Nathaniel met via Skype. Since then, they have been meeting weekly. Though I generally try to give them their space, I can tell you their one hour lessons cover not only the Hebrew language, but include in depth parsha study as well as discussions about Jewish holidays and traditions. Somehow the two were able to transcend their respective loyalties to the Cubs (David) and Dodgers (Nathaniel). I think it’s fair to say that despite the 80 year age difference, they consider each other friends.
More recently, David began doing shorter sessions, often before or after his time with Nathaniel, with our 10 year old daughter Clara.
Because we fully expected to be paying someone to tutor Nathaniel (just hopefully south of $80/hour) and to show our appreciation to David, we started making small donations each month in his honor to causes we thought he would appreciate: the Anti-Defamation League for example, the Chicago Public Library, the Yiddish Book Center. David thanked us ever so graciously each time. But then in February, he sent us a note that included these words:
“My studies with Nat and Clara are a priceless reward for me. What matter supersedes the study of our Jewish Legacy? I’m rewarded every time we study. Please hold off on any tributes to me. I’m lucky to study with youngsters like yours.”
Naturally, we respected David’s request. Clearly he isn’t a big one for fanfare or applause. I don’t know if he will appreciate this public outing. Often it is the menschiest folks who don’t want to be recognized for their good work. But in my opinion, they should be recognized, if only because their menschiness might inspire others. Not to mention, we can all use a feel good story.
On May 12, Nathaniel will become a bar mitzvah under some old citrus trees at a nearby public park. We wish David could be there. His was the very first invitation we sent. But we understand that at 92, a trip across the country, or half the country anyway, is not so easy. We know he will there in spirit. My husband will read the words he writes to Nathaniel. And Nathaniel will share with our family and friends a bit about his teacher.
Right around the time Nathaniel began studying with David, I asked David what Nathaniel should call him. David? Mr. Kleinerman? Something else? David suggested, “Uncle David.”
So thank you Uncle David. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Leslee Komaiko is a writer in Sherman Oaks, California.