The life and death of an extraordinary ordinary man

Alvin Thomas Feldman danced as he lived.

Alvin Thomas Feldman (photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)
Alvin Thomas Feldman
(photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)

Alvin Thomas Feldman was born in New York on February 23, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. The month he was born, Adolf Hitler gave his first speech as chancellor of Germany and authorized the formation of the first Nazi concentration camps.
Feldman’s financially struggling parents named him after an idol of theirs: Thomas Alva Edison, the great American inventor and shrewd businessman who had died just two years before. It was an appropriate name for the newborn – although he did not grow up to invent a better light bulb, he proved clever and successful at business.
Ever precocious, he graduated from LaSalle College while still a teenager with a degree in business administration, and soon put his learning to good use. The next year, together with his father, and with no capital, he launched a business. Their fledgling firm, Oxford Metal Products, slowly grew from a shoestring start-up that recycled scrap metal to a profitable concern – a modern factory producing a steady stream of bed frames and related metal products. Their fleet of trucks delivered loads of the merchandise to local furniture stores – dominating their market in the Philadelphia region, serving faithful customers from Baltimore to New York.
His factory employed about two dozen workers and Feldman made time every morning to start every day by walking around the factory, stopping to chat with each of his workers, one-on-one, one after the other. He knew about their families and demonstrated that he cared about their concerns. He was a good listener, and, instead of being resented as bosses generally are, he was actively liked by everyone there, as we later heard first-hand from many of the workers.
Similarly, he related to customers so well that it is said that in all his years of business, he never lost a single account.
At the age of 20, Feldman married and became a father. Though struggling financially, the young couple diverted a portion of whatever money they had to make sure that their children had at least a basic Jewish education from a young age. Though Feldman did not come from an observant background, it was important to him to safeguard and transmit the religious heritage that was passed down by his ancestors through the centuries. His efforts bore fruit, as evidenced by the fact that he has an observant Israeli son and Hebrew-speaking grandchildren.
FELDMAN WAS not a war hero. He was not a celebrity hounded by autograph seekers. He was not a Torah scholar, although he was proud of his Judaism and at one point was even president of his synagogue’s brotherhood. He was not a high-profile philanthropist with his name on buildings, although he did give to Jewish causes. He did not make aliyah, although he did travel several times to Israel.
But he was a kind and generous man and good father and grandfather. He dedicated every Sunday for years to taking his grandchildren (with their parents) to zoos and museums, to whale-spotting boat day trips and other horizon-broadening activities. Then, after whatever activity was completed on any given Sunday, he would invariably haul the crew to a kosher restaurant – of which there were very few to choose from in Philadelphia at that time. He didn’t keep strictly kosher himself, but he was always careful about having kosher food whenever his extended family was part of the equation.
In 1994, after more than 40 years running the business, Feldman sold Oxford Metal to a large national corporation, retired from manufacturing, and at the age of 61 surprised many of the people who thought they knew him by launching into a new career: circling the globe as a dance instructor on luxury liner cruise ships (this, of course, was before the days of coronavirus). He danced as he lived – with grace, fully focused on the moment and on the person he was with.
While globe-trotting, he sent his grandchildren picture postcards from every port of call all over the world – famous places as well as places they had never even heard of. When his massive liner docked at Haifa, he risked his job, violating regulations in order to sneak his curious daughter-in-law onto the magnificent Marco Polo so she could witness what the world of luxury cruises was like.
On his several visits to Israel, he spent quality time strengthening his relationship with his grandchildren – touring the country with them, planting trees in their yard and in their neighborhood and donating money each year to their beit knesset. His interest in Judaism and concern for Israel played a significant role in passing the spiritual baton on to the next generations.
He loved life. In retirement on the scenic intercoastal waterway in Florida, he enjoyed watching the variety of boats that zoomed by at all hours of the day. He even bought a boat of his own and captained it as long as he could.
AND THEN, as Feldman entered his 80s, Parkinson’s and dementia increasingly took their toll. A caregiver was hired to help him continue to live semi-independently in his condominium, but she took calculated advantage of his good nature and increasing lack of clarity to steal a considerable amount of money and valuables. Eventually his children realized what was happening and understood that they had to take control of his finances and assets.
He was relocated to an assisted living facility, where he continued to cut a fine figure as a ballroom dancer and danced with the women there as long as he was able, even as he increasingly needed a walker. He finally was limited to a wheelchair.
He was as good-natured in his decline, as he had been throughout his entire life. He never complained about his deteriorating mental and physical condition. He always asked about all of the grandkids as long as he was able. As his ability to speak and remember much inexorably diminished, he would thank calling family members for bringing up memories and expressing appreciation to him for the many things he had done for them. He was grateful to them for appreciating him – and for safeguarding the memories that were increasingly being lost to him.
One final yet typical example of his thoughtfulness and kindness:
When his son’s wife’s parents died, she and her siblings were plunged into a nightmare scenario trying to cope with the crush of funeral logistics and decisions and arrangements that they had to handle in a very short stressful time. When Feldman heard this, he was determined not to put his own children through the same hell, so while he was still able to do so, he chose a funeral director in Florida and made – and paid for – all of the end-of-life arrangements. Aware that his son would want to be able to honor the mitzvot of a grieving son, he acquired a burial plot in Israel near his son’s home. He also purchased plots next to him for his son and his wife.
What is a life well lived? Alvin Thomas Feldman was neither famous nor wealthy, but he was much beloved. Like any ordinary extraordinary person, he did what he could with the abilities he had and lived his life to the fullest.
When he was buried on May 28, 2020 at the Eretz Hachaim cemetery outside of Beit Shemesh, calls and messages poured in from people around the world who had known him through the years, saying that he was one of the kindest and most considerate people they had ever known.
His body is resting in the Holy Land; his soul has returned to its Maker. Those who loved him cherish the time they had with him and strive to carry on his memory and good deeds in the world. n