Le’Chaim! My father’s rich life and lasting smile

On July 1, at the age of 85, Dad, better known to most as Chaim Collins, or “that nice old guy,” died in the compassionate surroundings of Hadassah-University Medical Center’s hospice.

CHAIM COLLINS celebrates his 84th (or 21st) birthday at ‘The Jerusalem Post’ last year (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
CHAIM COLLINS celebrates his 84th (or 21st) birthday at ‘The Jerusalem Post’ last year
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
‘Journalists should write about ordinary people,” I am often admonished. So here goes, except the person in question wasn’t ordinary to me. He was my dad. And it seems extraordinary to be writing about him in the past tense.
On July 1, at the age of 85, Dad, better known to most as Chaim Collins, or “that nice old guy,” died in the compassionate surroundings of Hadassah-University Medical Center’s hospice on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
In keeping with Jewish tradition, he was buried as quickly as possible. I prepared a few words to say as a eulogy.
Dad, I told the assembled crowd, was not a rich man. He did not leave a fancy apartment or a posh car and his bank account was not much healthier than his kidneys, which after weeks of faltering finally failed him. He was, however, rich in the things that matter. Along with his family – my mum, Yehudit, his wife of 60 years; three children; and six grandchildren – Dad was blessed with friends.
Being so close to my brother, Avi, and sister, Helena, even though we each live on a different continent, I once asked Dad how he managed as an only child. “You make friends,” he replied.
Since he refused to offer final words of wisdom, I pass on his philosophy from statements like this and the way he lived.
If there is one phrase that sums up our dad it comes, fittingly, from the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot): “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.”
Dad had the ability to find joy in the small pleasures of life and to make friends.
In my mid-fifties I have yet to meet someone who didn’t like him. And that’s an amazing legacy.
Nearly everyone who came to comfort us mentioned his trademark smile and laughter.
It was almost the death of him. In what I now realize was the first sign that something was going wrong health-wise, some 18 months before he died, Dad passed out during a Friday night meal as he laughed uncontrollably at something my son had said.
His British sense of humor, or humour, was as much a part of him as being a natural gentleman and a mensch. It was part of his charm.
Dad was born in London on February 29, 1932. (His leap-year birthday was his first joke.) His British-born father, somewhat naively, changed the family name from Cohen to Collins at the beginning of World War II when it looked like Germany would invade Britain.
Dad changed his first name from Vivian to Chaim (“like president Chaim Herzog”) when he moved to Israel.
He became friends with my mother, who always called him Viv, when she was still a teenager. Last December, our family celebrated their 60th anniversary with a Shabbat at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. Forget Paris! Over the last few difficult months I have often thought: “Well, we’ll always have Ramat Rahel.”
A second-generation printer, my dad (together with my mum) had a small press in London and then, after making aliya in 1979, set up a new company in Karmiel. During the 10 years my parents lived in the Galilee, they made more lasting friendships, but Dad really came into his own after they moved to Jerusalem in 1990.
Both my parents were active in JEST, the Jerusalem English-Speaking Theater, on stage and behind the scenes. Dad, with his ability to fix things, excelled as a prop maker. His acting career, in his own modest way, went on to bigger things – a role as an extra in Joseph Cedar’s Footnote. I like to quip that when he turned 80 (or 20 according to the number of leap-year birthdays) he won an Israel Prize (at least in the movie) and was nominated for an Oscar (although Cedar gets the credit).
Until his first retirement at the age of 70, Dad worked in a small Jerusalem printing press whose much-younger owner, Ro’i, still considers him a father figure.
At 75, Dad began working in The Jerusalem Post’s photo archives. (He was the younger of the two remarkable old men in the archive department: Alexander Zvielli died in May at the age of 96, having worked at the Post for more than seven decades.) I was blessed: How many people celebrate their father’s 21st birthday in the shared workplace? During the time he was hospitalized at Shaare Zedek Medical Center – where he was voted the favorite patient on the ward, a nurse confided to me – I occasionally broke down and cried at work. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find tears in the eyes of friends and colleagues, from the cleaning lady to editors – not just for me, but for their much-loved Chaim.
Typically, Dad managed to joke, his humor admittedly getting darker, until a couple of days before he died. Perhaps that ability was his final wisdom and legacy. “He’s quietly marvelous, isn’t he?” my sister once declared.
In three Jerusalem synagogues, Dad was fondly known for his role giving the traditional priestly blessing. My grandfather changed the family name but it didn’t stop him being a kohen, a member of the priestly caste. He died early in the hours of the Sabbath on which we read the Torah portion Hukat, which among other things tells of the death of Aaron, the first of the priests and, I feel, a distant relative in time.
During the shiva, the weeklong mourning period, people from all around repaid Dad’s acts of kindness.
Members of our former synagogue created a food roster, delivering meals and comfort; another synagogue provided the special low seats for mourners and a Torah scroll for services; our current community lent us prayer books and helped ensure we did not lack the quorum of 10 men for prayers.
Since my parents’ apartment is in a building facing mine, neighbors from both blocks came to share memories and impressions.
Perfect strangers offered condolences and assistance. A previously unknown neighbor delivered home-baked rolls, still hot.
Informed by the typically Israeli printed death notices pasted around the neighborhood, a constant stream of visitors arrived, including other dog owners who go to the same local dog park.
As a family, we consider his death at the age of 85 as sad rather than a tragedy. During the shiva, we were able to tell stories, recall camping trips and family boating exploits, and even crack jokes – just as he would have liked.
At the funeral, I told the large crowd that my dad wouldn’t have wanted them to be sad: “Go home and raise a glass ‘Le’Chaim! To life and to Chaim!” He would have appreciated the wordplay.
This week marked our 38th “aliya anniversary,” the first of many anniversaries without him.
“May the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” we were told in the traditional phrase for those visiting a house of mourning.
Dad is buried in Jerusalem’s industrial-like Har Hamenuhot Cemetery, nothing like the pastoral cemeteries that are the final resting place of my relatives in England. Still, I find comfort in the fact that in death, Dad, Chaim Collins, has become an eternal Jerusalemite.
His ability to make people smile and feel good lives on. May his memory be for a blessing.