When you walk up to the front door of the Wulkans’ house in Englewood, you suspect that you’re visiting a place where big personalities live. When you walk through the door into the front hall, you know it.
Dr. I. Akiva Wulkan — Kevi to his family and friends — died in November; the aftereffects of a life well and thoroughly lived remain, as his wife, Reba Wertentheil Wulkan, makes clear.
The door is purple, and a purple tie dangles from the knocker; the very high entryway, also purple, is covered with art, some of it Jewish, some of it not, all of it clear evidence of two people with complementary and bold taste.
Dr. Wulkan collected things; his collections — of guitars, of fountain pens, of art — reflected his passions. He was a radiologist, and for years he headed the radiology department at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. He told stories. He sang — sometimes cantorial music, sometimes American folk music, sometimes Irish folk music, sometimes music from some other time or place that he found evocative, soulful, or otherwise appealing. He was active in his shul, Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, which he served in many volunteer capacities, including as president. “He prided himself on his nusach,” the liturgical melodies he sang, Ms. Wulkan said. “He loved the honor of being asked to daven from the amud,” to lead a service from the front of the synagogue, as the voice of the community.
He was beloved.
His story began in 1949, in Brooklyn, where he was born as the only child of Aaron, who was born in Oświęcim, Poland (the town’s name in German, infamously, is Auschwitz), but was able to leave well before World War II, and Mildred, who was American born. They were modern Orthodox and sent their son to BTA — that’s Yeshiva University’s now-defunct Brooklyn Talmudic Academy. When he was a child, he sang in Moshe Koussevitzky’s choir at Young Israel-Beth El of Borough Park.
But Dr. Wulkan’s mother died when he was 15, and his father, who quickly remarried, lived for only another three years. Kevi lived with an aunt and uncle. It was a hard part of his life. “He always told me that he had all those collections because he always felt shuffled from place to place after his mother died, and he never felt like he had anything of his own,” Ms. Wulkan said. But he made up for it. “He loved shopping — for his children, for his grandchildren, for me,” she said.
Dr. Wulkan went to YU, where he was premed, and then went on to Lenox Hill.
“We met at Grossinger’s, at Sukkot,” Ms. Wulkan said; it was a singles weekend. That was in 1973; they got engaged on New Year’s Eve as the calendar turned to 1974, again at Grossinger’s, and they got married just a few months later. “He always used to sing to me while we were dating,” Ms. Wulkan said. The wedding was the night after Dr. Wulkan graduated from medical school.
The young couple first lived in Westchester County, but soon moved to Englewood, drawn there by one of Ms. Wulkan’s brothers, Dr. Alvin Wertentheil, an internist who practiced in Fort Lee, beloved like his brother-in-law, who died in 2012. “We fell in love with it,” Ms. Wulkan said.
Dr. Wulkan found cantors for the family’s shul, Ahavath Torah — often big-name cantors — who led the davening on the high holidays. “His approach to davening had such religious depths,” Ms. Wulkan said. “It wasn’t just about melodies,” although it also was about melodies. “It was about connecting to God.”
He also knew a great deal about technology from his work as a radiologist; he helped keep Brookdale’s department keep up to date, she added.
Dr. Wulkan told stories; his mother-in-law, Miriam, another large personality who lived in Brooklyn and summered in Long Beach, often was both the audience and the subject of those stories. (Miriam Wertentheil’s husband, Israel, had died years earlier.) One of his favorite stories, told with gusto and much body language, involved a watermelon that had been stored in a spare refrigerator that hadn’t been plugged in. When the whole family had gathered for Shabbat dinner and the watermelon had been lugged in, Miriam took the challah knife and plunged it into the melon’s green rind. “The whole thing exploded all over the kitchen,” Ms. Wulkan said, retelling her husband’s story. Even the grandchildren tell that story now, she added.
“I found a black-and-white composition notebook where Kevi started writing all these stories down,” she said. “But he wrote down only the titles, not the whole stories. There are about 20 of them.” She knows the stories; she could recreate them, she said, but even just the titles have life.
Dr. Wulkan suffered from health problems for much of his life; he developed something called fatty liver syndrome — it’s also called hepatic steatosis, and as Ms. Wulkan stressed, it has absolutely nothing to do with alcoholic consumption. As a result of the extra wear on his kidneys, they also started to fail. In 2015, after waiting on lists for a long time, he was able to get a liver and kidney transplant, from the same cadaveric donor.
The Wulkans’ house is filled with art. Ms. Wulkan is an artist and curator — she’s retired from the Yeshiva University Museum — with a curious eye and a passion for purple. Her husband loved Judaica. He also hung all of the very many pieces of art displayed throughout their house; he was a perfectionist, making sure that everything hung exactly right. Between the two of them, what could have been discordant pieces of art sit together in a house that is both comfortable and stimulating.
“He was a full-service do-gooder,” Ms. Wulkan quotes her sister-in-law, Susan Wertentheil, as saying.
And she has her own one-word description of her husband. “Soulful,” she said. “He was soulful.”
Dr. Akiva Wulkan’s survivors include his wife; his children, Ahuva Winslow, Rachael Platt, and Ahron Wulkan; several grandchildren, sisters- and brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, and many other people, family and friends, who loved him.