Meaning and Vincenzo

The strange case of a mummified body found sitting in a chair in front of a TV in a Long Island home.

swastika graves 88 (photo credit: )
swastika graves 88
(photo credit: )
It was one of those little slice-of-life items that you gloss over - a filler between the larger news stories of the day, just an offbeat sidebar in the journal of humankind. But there was something about this story that made me stop in my tracks, something that keeps echoing deep inside and won't go away. Vincenzo Ricardo, 70, was found dead last week in his modest Hampton Bays, Long Island home. He was slumped in a chair in his living room, in front of a blaring TV set. Nothing overly unusual there - a lot of folks, alas, can be seen daily in the same position. But what made this story so bizarre and so striking is that the Suffolk County medical examiner said Ricardo had been dead for more than a year. And he might have sat there even longer had city workers not entered his home to check on reports of a burst pipe that was leaking water. Ricardo's neighbors were surprised at the revelation, but not overly shocked. "We thought he must have checked into a nursing home or something, and that's why we didn't hear from him," said one. Another remarked that Ricardo had been blind for more than two decades, and so he rarely ventured outdoors. His wife had died long ago, and he had no children. My first reaction to Ricardo's death was acute sadness. Was he so alone in this world that not a single person came to visit him, or missed him enough to even inquire as to his whereabouts? Wasn't there someone, somewhere, to whom he was even remotely connected? Neighbors, according to some reports, remarked that no mail had piled up at his door because he rarely, if ever, received a letter. Even the electric company hadn't bothered to shut off his power, explaining that it takes a year or more to cut off the electricity on delinquent accounts. THEN I began to filter this story through a Jewish, historical perspective. I remembered how my mother-in-law, a survivor of the Shoah, had recounted to me her feelings when she returned to her Hungarian town of Czop, after being liberated from Auschwitz at age 17. She saw the town functioning as normal - with the exception of Hungarians now occupying her home, as well as all the other Jewish houses - and she was overcome with anger and bewilderment: "Don't you people remember the Jews who lived here? Don't you miss the services we provided, the doctors, the tailors, the shops and businesses along the main street? Did we just disappear without a trace, and no one even noticed?" And she turned her back; it was the last time she would see her hometown. And I picture the malevolent gleam in every anti-Semite's eyes. This is his ultimate fantasy - that the Jews will just disappear from the planet, and no one will even notice. That is why the Jew-haters of the world insist that all of society's problems - from Marxism to malnutrition to Mount St. Helen's - emanate from Jewish sources, proclaiming what a perfect universe will exist on that great day when Israel and the Jews simply "go away." It's not a new charge; you can hear it in Pharaoh's perverse claim that the Israelites were lying in wait to join Egypt's enemies; a canard echoed in Hitler's threat after World War I that "if the Jews succeed in bringing about a second Great War it will result in the final elimination of the Jewish problem." And, of course, it is the sentiment behind Hitler-reincarnate Ahmadinejad's grotesque, global campaign encouraging the nations to "envision a world without Israel." BUT THERE is a powerful message in all this for us. We Jews were given a mission to make our mark upon this world, to change it positively and in such a profound and dramatic manner that humanity will understand and appreciate the role we have to play here. We are meant to be a nation that is not fleeting, not expendable, not forgettable: a people that cannot just disappear and not be missed at all. We are to do this by serving as role models of certain Divine attributes that are universal: justice, ethics, compassion, scholarship, courage, selflessness, humility. The Jewish people is compared to the moon - indeed, we follow a lunar calendar - because, like the moon, we are charged to reflect a higher light upon the Earth, particularly at night, when darkness rules. To the extent that we understand and accept this mandate, we can make a difference in society's life and be neither denied nor dismissed. And we can be free of that primal fear that passes over us when we contemplate our life, a fear tragically realized by Vincenzo Ricardo: When we die, will our funeral be attended by more than just the grave-digger? The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.