My latest article in Kaminando y Avlando, the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:
Nissim Piha, a devoted member of the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town, passed away ten years ago on September 21, 2000 (כ״א בְּאֱלוּל תש״ס). That Thursday was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I was relaxing in my college dorm room before a finance class when my mother called me. “Nonnou’s passed away,” she said sadly. I don’t remember what I said in response. For the next few minutes, I spoke to my dad. He wasn’t the pillar of strength he usually was – he was devastated, he was human. I remember the next few hours well – they were spent remembering with friends a man I looked up to, and expressing my emotions in a short poem I wrote while crying quietly in class. Despite my great sadness at his sudden passing, I don’t think I fully appreciated what my Nonnou, my father’s father, meant to me until I moved to Israel and began my own family.
The first line of Pirkei Avot speaks of Moshe receiving the Torah from Sinai, and then passing it on to Joshua, who passed it on to the Elders, who passed it on to the Prophets, who then passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly. Whenever we visited Cape Town when I was a boy, Nonnou always asked me to write out the first few lines of that mishna (as well as the Shema) for him. Back then, I would sit down and copy these words from his books only for the money I would get once finished. Now, whenever I read that line I realize what Nonnou was doing. He was passing on traditions, ensuring the seeds of understanding and appreciation for our faith were continually being planted and watered. I thank him for helping to instill in me the appreciation for and understanding of Judaism I have today.
I always admired Nonnou’s generosity. Whether with respect to family, friends, community or complete strangers, Nonnou was always generous with time and money. In an age where the ‘me first’ approach is so common, Nonnou showed by example that one can find a balance between taking care of one’s own interests and helping others. Another trait I really admired was Nonnou’s ability to be happy with his lot. There is a famous midrash that says that Hashem gives an individual exactly what he/she needs in his/her life. Despite the many difficult times he endured, during which it may have seemed that he needed more, Nonnou always managed to stay positive and be grateful for the good he had in his life. Not only do I admire Nonnou for these traits, they are qualities I try to bring to my own dealings with the world.
Ten years ago, our family and the Cape Town community lost a man I admired and respected deeply. As my wife and I raise the next Nissim Piha, I always find myself wishing the two could have interacted. That the love and warmth Nonnou displayed when I was around him could have just for a second been in the presence of his great grandson. My Dad once told me that Nonnou always used to say, “I’m a very rich man, for my children are my capital.” It’s a sentence I always find myself repeating, another wise lesson from Nonnou that I carry with me. I think in a person’s death, you can tell a lot about how that person lived. Nelson Mandela once said, "When we were born we cried and the people around us smiled. Live life so that when you die you are smiling and the people around you are crying." From the way Nonnou lived his life, I know he's smiling from up above.