I don't usually put up memorial posts for people who have died. When a famous or infamous person dies, there are usually enough bloggers out there who can put the person's life into perspective far better than I can. However, not everyone that passes away is famous or infamous -- and sometimes the person who dies is someone who was an important influence on my life. Until now, the only time I composed such a memorial post was for my first-grade rebbe, Rabbi Nachman Mandel when he passed away in 2008. Unfortunately, the time has now come for another such post.
Last month, Dr. Sandra Shimoff of Baltimore passed away at the age of 68. Dr. Shimoff was an instructor in the Judaic Studies department at UMBC, where she worked alongside her husband, Dr. Eliot Shimoff, who was a professor of psychology. She earned a Ph.D in aggadic literature. She taught herself both Greek and Coptic in order to better understand historical texts in their original languages. Her work was published in scholarly journals in her field. She completed learning Shas (the Babylonian Talmud) three times over* -- a feat that many men do not accomplish even once in their lives.
But I don’t want to talk about her intellect or her academic accomplishments.
She was born in New York in the 1940s to non-observant parents. In fact, having known her parents, I can say that they were certainly not neutral about Orthodoxy -- on the contrary, their biases leaned against it. Nonetheless, at the age of twelve, she decided to embark on a journey to Orthodoxy on her own. Her parents reluctantly gave permission for her to attend a yeshiva high school, provided she arrange for the transportation on her own. She acquired her own sets of dishes, pots, pans and cutlery in order to be able to keep kosher in a non-kosher home. I don’t know for a fact, but I would imagine, that Shabbos (and certainly Pesach) were sources of tension in the home as she stuck to her religious beliefs. She went on to a Jewish college and ended up as an observant woman running an Orthodox home raising four children in the Orthodox tradition. They raised a family with a love of Torah, Yiddishkeit and Eretz Yisroel (so much so that one of her sons made aliyah with his family).
But I don’t really want to discuss her incredible life journey either. Instead, I’d like to (perhaps selfishly) talk about how she affected my life.
Twenty five years after Dr. Shimoff grew up in a non-observant home, I was doing the same in Queens and later in New Jersey. As it turns out, my parents and the Shimoffs happened to know each other fairly well. As a result, my sister Skipper and I were often invited to spend time with the Shimoffs and their family in Baltimore, usually over Pesach when we got to join the family at the seder. In fact, my earliest memories of the Pesach seder are of the sedarim in the Shimoff home. I still remember those sedarim -- the songs they sung, the warm family atmosphere, the foods and, of course, Dr. Eliot Shimoff searching for the afikomen** (the highlight of the seder for any little kid).
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the time that I spent in the Shimoff home would mean far more to me than songs and matzah and afikomen presents. The Shimoffs were the very first Orthodox family that I knew. Aside from the Shimoffs, my parents generally didn’t hang around with many Orthodox Jews. While Rabbi Mandel (my first-grade Rebbe) was perhaps the first Orthodox role model whom I got to know on a daily basis, what I did not (and could not) learn from him was what Jewish family life was all about. He could teach me about a Yom Tov, but he couldn’t show me firsthand how a Yom Tov is celebrated with family. That lesson was provided by the Shimoffs. While teachers may have given me some of the educational tools to learn Judaism as a child, the Shimoffs showed me how to apply it to daily living. Of course, at the time, I was too young to understand that -- but their example remained in my head as an ideal for how to run a Jewish household when we later did become frum.
My parents separated when I was nine years old. About six months after they separated, my mother decided to become observant. She called in Skipper and I and asked us our opinion*** on the matter and whether or not we wanted to become Orthodox. We both said yes, but, at least for me (I can’t speak for Skipper), one of the factors in the decision was the fact that the Shimoffs showed me that being frum didn’t just mean no TV on Saturday or no more non-kosher food. The Shimoff kids never had a problem (that I, as a ten year old knew of) with being restricted on Shabbos. I never heard the Shimoff kids complain about missing out on a McDonalds burger. In short, the Shimoffs showed me that you could be religious AND be normal at the same time. They showed me (at the level of a ten year old, of course) that you can be observant and not have life seem boring or restricted.
As a teenager, I went to a very right-wing yeshiva****. You know the type -- where they put forth the message that going to college will ruin you completely and that if you get a secular education than there’s no way that you can ever properly learn Torah. I always knew that their approach was wrong. Perhaps because I started out not frum and because the vast majority of my family was not frum, I was well aware that most of what they espoused about the “outside world” was false, including their beliefs about college and secular education. But perhaps the best example I had, the one that I could always fall back on as proof that you can be college-educated and lead a Torah-observant life, was that of the Shimoffs. They showed me that it was possible to synthesize a Torah-observant lifestyle and a secular education -- and still be shining well-respected examples in the community.
It’s been about six years since Dr. Eliot Shimoff passed away and I often think back to his warm personality and wisdom. I cannot recall ever hearing a single person ever saying a bad word about him. I remember clearly when, in an internet posting on a Usenet group, he once described how, as a psychologist, he was very driven by data. In some ways, I adopted that ideal for myself and now, when discussing various matters, I often try to focus on the available data when making conclusions.
And now, his wife has passed away too. I don’t know if they ever truly knew the effect that they had on my life and my mother’s life (and, I strongly suspect, Skipper’s as well), and it’s perhaps to my shame that I never really told them. But they did have a very strong influence on me -- one that will be felt for the rest of my days and in the lives of my children and beyond.
* At the levaya, it was mentioned that there was a rumor in Ner Yisroel that if any bachur wanted to date one of the Shimoff girls, they had to be fahered (tested) by her mother! (I don’t know if there was, in fact, such a rumor or if the story is apocryphal. But either way, the fact that such a story could be said about Dr. Shimoff says quite a bit about her level of learning.)
** The custom in the Shimoff home was that the kids hid the afikomen and then the adults searched for it. One year, we hid it under a couch cushion. As it came time to look for the afikomen, Dr. Eliot Shimoff got up, looked around the living room and then eventually began pulling up the cushions on the couch. He eventually pulled up the cushion where the afikomen was hidden. You couldn’t miss the white afikomen bag against the dark fabric. Yet he just put the cushion down as if he never saw it, continued searching for a few more minutes and eventually gave up.
*** Looking back on it now, as an adult, I am truly awed that my mother asked us -- at the ages of nine and six -- what we thought about it. She might well have been within her rights to say “this is the way we’re doing it, the end,” but my Mom was (and is) a truly remarkable woman who would never think of forcing anyone -- even a child -- into such a life-changing decision without getting their input on the matter.
**** Don’t ask why I went to such a school. It was not of my choosing and our particular circumstances made that school the only option.