Remembering inspirational meals with YU history professor and scholar Moshe Carmilly and his wife.
My favorite date a few years ago was 200 years old — he was 97, she was 93.
A few times a year, usually on a Tuesday evening, my late day at the office, I would spend a few hours over a kosher meal with Rhoda and Moshe Carmilly, a couple I had met in the late 1980s.
Assigned then to cover the opening of a Jewish research center in Budapest, I listened one Friday night as Rabbi Carmilly — born in Budapest, he subsequently lived in a part of Hungary that is now Romania, and taught history at Yeshiva University for nearly two decades — spoke for a few hours to a roomful of young Hungarian Jews in the meeting hall of the city’s main synagogue. He spoke in Hungarian, of which I knew only a few words. It didn’t matter; I, and the other listeners, were captivated by this voice of history, which was stilled two weeks ago at 102.
Back in New York, Rabbi Carmilly — I always called him “Dr. Carmilly,” his academic title — invited me for dinner, at his West Side apartment overlooking Central Park. Rhoda cooked; later, as her strength failed, we opted for one of the neighborhood’s upscale kosher restaurants.
They always insisted on paying.
We quickly became friends, despite the generational gap; I’m quickly approaching 60. We looked forward to sharing tidbits of our lives, discussing Jewish philosophy or Jewish politics, and sharing the latest books we’d read.
They would tell me how they had come to meet and fall in love after losing their first spouses years before. “I didn’t want to marry a rabbi,” Rhoda declared. But she was set up with this multi-lingual, world-traveling, Holocaust-survivor “gentleman” and, on long walks, found a new soul mate.
They would discuss the years starting in the late 1950s, when Dr. Carmilly taught at YU and led a rich academic life in retirement.
They would also kvell about children and grandchildren.
For me, it was a purely selfish endeavor. I was learning Jewish history from the mouths of people who had lived it; she, in New York City; he, in wartime Europe, then Israel, then here.
Bent over by age, pushing a walker, Rabbi Carmilly was as sharp in his 90s — at 99, when Congregation Shearith Israel sponsored a 100th birthday celebration a few months in advance; and at 100, when I was among a small group of friends invited to his centenary celebration; and at 101, when I surprised him in the Israeli home for the aged where he had moved shortly after he turned 100; and at 102, when I called him a few months ago on his birthday — as people 40 years his junior.
At 100, he published his latest autobiography, “On Three Continents,” hand-written, although he was at ease with the world of e-mail and computers.
Rabbi Carmilly would call me at the office, to discuss my latest article or his upcoming book. “Carmilly here,” he always announced. ” As though I didn’t recognize his voice.
One day a few years ago, on a Tuesday, coincidentally, he called again. He was in tears. “Rhoda is dying,” he cried. His wife, who had been ill for a while, had taken a turn for the worse. The doctors gave him no hope.
I offered to come over after work. “Please,” Rabbi Carmilly said.
Tending to her needs, stroking her forehead, bringing her a glass of water, he quietly ushered me into their bedroom, where Rhoda was lying quietly. I took her hands and she opened her eyes. She smiled. “How is your mother?” she asked. My father had died two years earlier.
Rhoda would call, “Moshe,” and Rabbi Carmilly would answer, “Yes, my love?”
After I bid goodbye — farewell, it turned out; she died a few days later — to Rhoda, Rabbi Carmilly led me into his study. He handed me an envelope that contained a page of notes about Rhoda. Her advance obituary.
“I know this is unusual…,” he said. I cut him off. “What do you expect?” I asked rhetorically. “Her meshugena husband sends me his own obituary.”
He smiled, probably for the first time in several days.
Rabbi Carmilly did send me his own obituary. Several, in fact.
He’d update it occasionally.
“I don’t want any mistakes,” he would explain.
“While I am alive,” he wrote me in his distinctive scrawl three years ago, “I write obituaries.”
“Professor Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger Yeshiva University [professor] is dead at 9…,” one version of his prepared-in-advance death notice begins. His obituary goes on to list details about his education, his escape from wartime Romania, his work in the foreign service of Israel, his invitation to teach Jewish history at Yeshiva University, and his many books.
What he left out was the blessing for a long life he received a long time ago from a chasidic rabbi to whom his father took him for a brocha. Or how he changed his original name from Weinberger to Carmilly (the German and Hebrew words both come from the root for “vineyard”) when he settled in Israel. Or his pride in a Jewish studies institute in Cluj, Romania, that bears his name.
He would attend the institute’s annual academic conference, and help edit its published proceedings, until well into his 90s.
He found the intercontinental traveling particularly taxing. “It’s not at easy as it used to be,” he complained. “How many people your age are in the shape to travel anywhere,” I would point out.
He appreciated his continued health. “Everything is from Hashem,” he would tell me.
On June 26, the news that I knew would come one day, came. By e-mail from his relatives in Israel. “Moshe passed away over Shabbat.”
He was buried in Holon, where he has originally lived after making aliyah.
Thank God, I have memories of Tuesdays with Moshe and Rhoda.
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