Mitch Merlis was not a head of state. He was not a great rabbi or a community leader. But his funeral last Thursday drew "well in excess of 1,000 mourners," according to Rabbi Mark Karasick, who officiated at the funeral. In fact, he said, the venue, Robert Schoem’s Menorah Chapel in Paramus, was chosen, "because it was the largest in the area that we knew of. It holds 500 seated. We had an audio system set up outside" for the overflow. "He touched thousands of people, many of whom felt close to him," so it was to be expected that some of those thousands would come to the funeral.
Mitch Merlis dances at the December ‘004 wedding of Yitzi and Terri Karasick. Seven months later he was paralyzed as a result of a fall.
All those people felt, Karasick said, "that we had sustained a personal loss. Everybody had a story to tell, and I knew when I was up there that pretty much everybody in the audience would have welcomed the opportunity to speak . With few exceptions," he added, it was "the longest row of mourners wishing the family condolences" that he has ever seen.
The story Karasick tells of his longtime friend is touching in the extreme. Merlis, a Teaneck man who was only 50 when he died last Wednesday of cancer, was "magnetic. He had a tremendeous personality. He was a lot of fun, a storyteller, a joketeller, a performer at weddings and at simchas. Even at shivas, he lightened the mood. And certainly at a time of joy he was the life of a party, the life of a meal, the life of any situation in which he found himself."
Indeed, Karasick said, Merlis saw being the "life of a party" as "a responsibility. Whether it was a hospital visit or a mourning visit, a bar mitzvah, a wedding he made everybody happy to be there and to be with him. You waited for the jokes and for the stories. You knew they were inevitable."
Merlis entertains at a January ‘005 concert for the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. Cantor Shlomo Simcha is in the background
And then, "in his prime, five and a half years ago, his life was transformed."
Merlis was diagnosed with primary salivary gland cancer and, Karasick said, "there was a possibility that he, who was the jokester and the storyteller and a lawyer who earned his livelihood with his tongue would actually lose it."
And, Karasick noted, "in addition to the benefits that he gave and got by use of his tongue by speaking, he was a person who enjoyed eating. Had his tongue had to be removed, it would have compromised his ability to eat."
Neverthless, Karasick recalled, "he was totally at peace with whatever God’s designs were for him. He was even kidding around at that point, telling stories, joking, putting those of us who were with him before the surgery at ease."
And during surgery, "which started about 8 a.m. and concluded at 9:30 at night, people constantly were coming in to sit with his parents, wife, children and with themselves saying tehillim [psalms] and just participating in a vigil, waiting for the results.
It was very complicated surgery, Karasick said. "In addition to the removal of the tumor, a lot of plastic surgery was needed. Throughout the day updates were given to us, and at 9:30 at night when the plastic surgeon came out to tell us the positive results, 30-plus people were assembled in the waiting room. We gave the doctor a standing ovation, and he said that he had never seen anything like that.
As time went by, there were recurrences of the cancer, requiring surgery. "Most of the time he didn’t even let people know about it," Karasick said. "He wasn’t one to complain about it."
And then came a truly unexpected blow.
Merlis was an athlete who had played basketball, baseball, and football, and who was, above all, a wrestler, scoring an almost perfect record during his student years at Yeshiva College. Playing baseball in July ‘005, he dove for a fly ball. "The wrestler in him told him that he should dive a certain way to catch the ball," Karasick said. But he fell and became paralyzed as a result. "The use of his hands and legs was compromised."
Nevertheless, "over the course of two and a half years he was able to get back certain abilities and sensory capabilities. He pushed himself to walk without a cane.
"He continued to bring cheer to others," Karasick said. When he was sick in the hospital with the cancer he realized that there was an additional dimension to his suffering that he would be able to bring cheer to those who were sick by the example of how he was enduring. When he was paralyzed and it was difficult to walk, he continued to visit people in the hospital. They would see him coming in and it gave them hope. And those of us who are living normal lives, so to speak, [appreciated] from the way he carried himself and accepted everything that happened to him, what was really important in life, and we all reprioritized our lives."
Another longtime friend, Bonnie Eizikovitz, wrote in an e-mail that she and her husband Jack, who is widely known as Coco, "met the Merlis family when we moved to Teaneck some ‘0 years ago, but we didn’t get to be close friends until about 15 years ago or so when we started to spend the summers together in our bungalow colony, Greentree Acres. The Lobos, the colony’s championship softball team, needed a pitcher, and my husband recruited Mitch for the job. He was the consummate athletic competitor and would accept nothing less than victory over his adversaries. He led the team to many victories over the years. He would parlay this winning attitude into the fight of his life in the years to come.
Merlis, said Eizikovitz, "was big and handsome. He fit into the chevre," the group of friends, "of the bungalow colony family, beautifully. He was a born tummler and a prankster, and loved a good joke." Tummler, Eizkovitz noted, is Yiddish for entertainer, "which fit Mitch perfectly. He could tell the same stories over and over again, but you’d laugh at them as if hearing them for the first time.
"So why did we love Mitch Merlis?
"We loved him for his positive attitude, even facing the worst. He was the world’s greatest warrior. When we’d talk about the hardships he was facing when he was getting treatments, he’d say, ‘They don’t know who they’re messing with.’ He’d give the credit for his fortitude to his college wrestling coach.
"We loved him because he never had anything bad to say about anyone, and encouraged you to [be] the same [way]. If you started to trash someone, or some incident, he’d admonish you to ‘take the high road.’
"We loved him because he treated everyone with dignity, from the seniors, parents of his friends, to the children who gravitated to him. And when he asked, ‘Howya doin’?’ he really wanted to know. He was genuinely interested in what you had to say, and remembered what you were involved in or interested in the next time you were together.
"We loved him because we knew that even though he was suffering, he took time to cheer people up who were undergoing the same fight that he was. He was encouraging and hopeful, with his pure faith in God, even when there was no hope. I know people who were helped by him and credit their recovery, in large measure, to Mitch’s helping hand.
"We loved him because he treated everyone’s simcha as if it were his very own. He put as much energy into making sure it was a wonderful party as the caterer; he’d steal the drums and cymbals from the band and play along with them. He’d dance with the waiters.
"But my favorite times with him were the Shabbos meals that we spent together. A few years ago he decided that we didn’t spend enough time together during the winter, so we started a tradition of a joint once-a-month Shabbos meal, alternating in each other’s homes. It would just be our two families around the table, joking, laughing, singing, and telling the great stories. The kids that were away for Shabbos that week always knew they were missing a great time."
Chaim Silber, part-owner of the Greentree Acres bungalow colony in Ferndale. N.Y., where the Merles family weekended for almost ‘0 years, told the Standard that "Mitch immediately became one of the guys, and was the most valuable player and pitcher on the softball team," the Lobos, that played against other teams in the Orthodox Bungalow Baseball League.
The team took its name from Silber’s nickname, Lobo, who said that Merlis’ nickname was ‘the big horse.’ We would say we rode the big horse to victory."
"He was this big, strapping, good-looking, successful, dynamic, incredibly gifted guy," said Silber, "stronger than anyone. And yet he would act in a totally self-deprecating way and we had the greatest respect for him because we knew who he was. Our respect heightened because he did not take himself too seriously. He would act appropriately silly, never putting anyone down, and taking great joy while doing it."
"The shtick was a constant thing," Silber recalled. "He was always doing something; you had to be there. At weddings, he would stand on the bandstand and play the cymbals, using the waiters’ trays. He eventually brought his own cymbals, and we would wait for him to make the first cymbal clap with a look of total joy on his face."
Also at weddings, "Mitch would grab the grandmother or great-aunt by the hand and dance with her in a way that was perfectly appropriate, in a way that was beautiful and exhibited his great love and affection for the family."
Linda Karasick tells a story that exemplifies Mitch Merlis’ sense of fun and the effect he had on other people.
A few years ago, she recalled, she and her husband Mark went to a friend’s wedding in Israel, along with Merlis and his wife Elaina. "After the wedding, where we’d all eaten a lot, Mitch decided we should all have shwarma. It was 1 a.m., so we flagged down a cab. The driver finally found the last open shwarma stand in Jerusalem, about 1:30. Mitch treated all of us in the cab, including the driver, to shwarma. We started singing every Hebrew and Israeli song we knew, for more than two hours, with the cabdriver joining in. Around 3:30 we let the driver go. He said, that in 30 years of driving, he had never had a ride like that." That was what being with Merlis was like, she said. "Every cab ride was an adventure."
His brother Paul, a physician from Atlanta, was the last to speak at the funeral. He told the crowd, "Your lives will never be the same."
Merlis is survived by his wife Elaina, son Elly, and daughters Zahava and Temmi. He is survived as well by his parents, Henry and Helene of Cedarhurst, Long Island, and brothers Mark of New York and Paul of Atlanta. A lawyer in private practice, he was a graduate of YU and got his law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. A member of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, he also belonged to Young Israel of Teaneck.
Interment was in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Fairview.
Friends of Mitch Merlis have created a blogspot, www.mitchmerlis.blogspot.com, on which people are invited to post memories, stories, and pictures of him. Long-time friend Paula Markowitz, who is circulating information about the blogspot, said, "To have met Mitch once was to love him forever."