My father, Max Prager, who died at the age of 96 on August 16, was fond of describing all of his grandchildren and great grandchildren as “unusual.” Unusually bright, unusually good looking, unusually good natured. Whether these descriptions were always appropriate is perhaps questionable. But one thing is certain to all who knew Max: he was unusual.
|Max and Hilda Prager went on to celebrate 69 years of marriage. He was 17 and she was a year younger when they met.|
To begin with, my father might return as the Messiah. He jokingly said so himself, many times, to anyone who would listen. That, he said, was because he was born in Brooklyn on Tishah B’Av, which, according to Jewish tradition, is the birthday of the Messiah. But aside from his claim to possibly being the Messiah, my father was a unique man in many other ways.
Max led a charmed life. For a starter, he was tall and blessed with extraordinary good looks. He was smart and possessed the most incredible memory of anyone I have ever known. At the age of 85 he decided, at the urging of my brother Dennis, to write his autobiography. This project took him a year. The only written data he had for his book were his wartime diary and the awards, financial records, and memoranda that he collected over his lifetime. The rest was taken from memory. (His book, “Attitude and Gratitude” is available free online at maxprager.com.)
My father was blessed with extraordinary good health. Not until he turned 93 did he experience any significant medical problems. Photos of him when he was 90 showed a man who looked 20 years younger. He was fortunate to be the youngest of four children of a very poor family whose parents immigrated to the United States from Poland at the turn of the 20th century. His three older siblings worked to support the family, and that freed him alone to pursue a college education. He graduated from City College of New York and passed the notoriously difficult CPA exam on his first try. He swore that he never studied for the test. Having a profession gave him job satisfaction and enabled him to have the means to travel and live a comfortable middle class life. And he was fortunate in having two sons from whom he shepped, as he said, much nachas.
Perhaps my father’s greatest stroke of luck was meeting my mother, Hilda, when he was 17 and she was 16. They met, appropriately enough, on the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah, when Jews rejoice after completing the annual cycle of Torah reading. The gathering was sponsored by the Zionist youth organization Hapoel Hamizrachi. Although she was on a date another young man, my mother told me many times that she returned home that night and told her mother that she met the man she would marry.
Four years later they wed - when they could support themselves – and they went on to celebrate 69 years of marital bliss. My mother died five years ago, at 89. My father never recovered from that blow. I had seen him cry briefly only twice until he was 91 years old. After my mother’s death, he cried virtually every time we were together, as he regaled me with stories of my mother’s virtues.
But my father was not only lucky. He was a man of principle: a proud and observant Jew, honest and charitable, and he took upon himself the often thankless burdens of community leadership. He was chairman of the board of Yeshiva Rambam, the elementary school my brother and I attended, and he did their books for years. He was president of Kingsway Jewish Center, a large and prestigious synagogue in Flatbush. He was generous and charitable, having learned from his mother the importance of tzedakah. He repeated stories of how she collected money for destitute Jews in her community and never turned down a needy hand despite her own poverty.
Max was a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” growing up in the Depression and fighting in World War II. My father told me of feeling guilty riding the subway in 1942 and seeing uniformed Gentile soldiers off fighting Hitler while he was “hiding behind Kenny’s diapers.” He enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1943 and saw combat in the Pacific as a supply officer aboard the USS Bollinger, a troop transport that brought Marines to many island battlegrounds.
While aboard the Bollinger, my father prayed every day and held Friday evening services for the Jewish marines aboard his ship. For this unsolicited activity he received a plaque from the Jewish Welfare Board after the war acknowledging this service to his fellow Jews. He was a voice for justice aboard his ship, and he earned the eternal respect and gratitude of the black stewards on board by threatening to court martial an officer who made racial slurs directed at them. (African-Americans were only allowed to serve as stewards and cooks aboard ships in World War II.)
Before the war, my father reluctantly worked on Shabbat after searching exhaustively but fruitlessly for a job that did not require Saturday work. He told me how he cried the first Shabbat he went to work on the subway. During the war he vowed that if he survived, he would never work on Shabbat again. He kept his vow, and was a strict Sabbath observer the rest of his life.
My father was scrupulously honest in his work as an accountant. During the nursing home scandals of the 1960s, when a number of Orthodox Jewish nursing home owners were jailed for cheating the government, my father’s nursing home clients were spared this humiliation. My brother and I were deeply influenced by my father’s sense of justice and honesty. My brother Dennis is well-known for his writings and speeches on many subjects that touch on ethics and morality, and I am director of medical ethics at my hospital.
At the age of 80, when many people his age head south to retire, my father sold his winter apartment in Miami Beach and his home in Brooklyn and bought a home in Englewood, just a short walk from me. The wisdom of this move became apparent when my mother became ill 10 years later, and I made the brief trip to my parents’ home repeatedly both to visit and supervise her medical care. Three years later the story repeated itself when my father suffered a devastating complication after a medical procedure.
My father retained his sharp wit and sense of humor even as he lay dying. His caregiver, to test his mental status after noticing him lying for long periods with his eyes closed, once asked him: “Max, do you know who I am?” Opening his eyes my father whispered: “the president of the United States.” A few days before he died, my son Benjy visited my father, who was smiling. His eyes were closed. “Papa, why are you smiling?” he asked. “I’m thinking of my eulogies,” Max replied, and his grin broadened.
My father and mother were admired and looked up to by their friends and many members of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. At the shiva, people told how they admired their warmth and love of life. They were indeed a stunningly handsome couple well into their eighties and their personalities matched their looks.
My father asked that his tombstone bear the inscription from Psalms 145:20, “the Lord watches over all who love Him.” My father had a close relationship with God; he spoke to God every night before closing his eyes. He felt that God was responsible for his charmed life, which he did not attribute to his own merits. He actually was puzzled by his good fortune (“why me?”) and concluded, after much rumination, that his blessings were due to “zechut avot,” the merits of his fathers.
My father’s stock answer to anyone who asked him questions about his fabled life was: “it’s in my book.” He was right. “Attitude and Gratitude” is quite a read.