What stays and what gets left behind

What stays and what gets left behind

A long-time Teaneck family talks about tough decisions as they make aliyah

Richard and Ellen Gertler stand in front of their Teaneck house. (Jamie Janoff)
Richard and Ellen Gertler stand in front of their Teaneck house. (Jamie Janoff)

Dr. Richard Gertler packed at least 300 music CDs onto the lift that will sail across the ocean with everything that he and his wife, Ellen, are taking to their new home in Israel.

Why on earth did the dentist — then still but for not much longer from Teaneck — include these relics of a bygone era, before Spotify and YouTube?

“Ellen would have thrown them all away,” Dr. Gertler admitted. His wife of 44 years nodded in acknowledgement of that assessment. She also would have preferred to toss the myriad photographs and concert T-shirts he couldn’t bear to part with — and that also found their way into the lift.

Moving to a distant land after 43 years in Teaneck and nearly 29 years in the same large house involves some tough calls. What to take, what to leave, what to give away, what to sell?

The Gertlers’ departure on September 24 was preceded by countless hours spent combing through their possessions, weighing their options, and compromising on decisions.

“Richie thinks I am totally unsentimental,” Ms. Gertler protested good-naturedly. “I’m not. It’s not easy throwing away memories. Although you’re not really throwing away memories until you lose your memory.”

For a music fan like Dr. Gertler, the discussion naturally leads to this thought: “Paul Simon writes a lot about photographs and memory and aging,” he said, offering an example from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 song “Old Friends/Bookends” that exhorts, “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”

“So, going through the pictures was tough,” he said. “In the end, I probably didn’t throw out as many as Ellen would have.”

Speaking of Paul Simon, writer of the classic song “Kodachrome,” Dr. Gertler had several hundred Kodachrome slides scanned as JPGs to preserve them digitally. “Richie took in a box of these slides from the garage and said, ‘Okay, these are all from your family from the 1950s and ‘60s,’” Ms. Gertler said. “‘Which ones do you want to save?’ I said, ‘None. I haven’t looked at them in 40 years.’”

“So I looked at them,” Dr. Gertler continued. “And anything that showed a decent image of old times is either on its way to Israel or got scanned.”

His jacketed single of the Beatles’ 1964 hit “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (with “I Saw Her Standing There” on the flip side), enshrined in a Lucite frame, is coming to Israel too. “I’m not going to throw that out,” he said. “I also shipped my guitar that I haven’t played in years. But I do plan on taking music lessons.”

Among the few items the Gertlers sold, rather than gave away, was a 1950s model train set and an antique pediatric dental chair from the dental clinic that hired Ms. Gertler’s late father, Dr. Asher Massarsky, in 1945. (Yes, she is the daughter and wife of dentists.)

They held a book sale in their house, priced each title at 50 cents, and donated the $180 in proceeds to Rutgers Hillel. They gave away at least 25 boxes of additional books and took others to a used-book dealer in Monsey. “And it still didn’t make a dent in our collection,” Ms. Gertler lamented. Among the full sets of volumes that got shipped to Israel are the Mishna, the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Soncino Tanach, and the commentaries of Nachmanides (Ramban) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Some of their possessions will remain in Teaneck at the homes of their three children — Nitzana and Ari Silverman, David and Beverly Gertler, and Shlomit and Koby Sterman. Those couples, and their collective four little ones, certainly are more difficult to part with than are any possessions. But Ellen and Richard Gertler will be living near their two older daughters and their families in Beit Shemesh. Rivka and Elie Wildman made aliyah in 2002, on the first flight sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, and now they have five children. Rachel and Ari Gruenspecht, who made aliyah in 2010, have four children. The oldest is a National Service volunteer this year with Nefesh B’Nefesh.

The Gertlers had talked about moving to Israel since their marriage in 1975, and they always assumed that whenever it happened they would choose to live near the Mediterranean coastline. “We’re beach people,” Ms. Gertler said. “But once our kids moved to Beit Shemesh that’s where we were going to be.”

“We’ll just have to deal with the 40-minute ride to the beach,” Dr. Gertler added with a smile.

The Gertlers bought a Beit Shemesh apartment in February 2018, and Ms. Gertler bought their new large appliances through a store that a Facebook group called Living Financially Smarter in Israel had brought to her attention.

“I actually arranged it all through Facebook Messenger, and everything worked out great,” she said. “For small appliances I bought what I needed at a local store in Beit Shemesh.”

Dr. Gertler’s favorite gadget is a countertop hot- and cold-water dispenser. When it is switched to Shabbat mode, the machine flashes a picture of two candles and the message “Shabbat shalom.”

“Richie wanted to take our dining-room set and a couple of beds,” Ms. Gertler continued. “I did a lot of measuring and convinced him it didn’t make any sense” because their space in Israel will be much smaller.

Fortunately, they were able to donate many pieces of furniture, as well as their wall art, tropical fish, and fish tank to needy families in Rockland County through a kind soul, a volunteer who picks up such donations and matches them with new owners. Their piano went to a neighbor. And some of Dr. Gertler’s beloved LP albums found a loving home with the Jewish Standard’s publisher, James Janoff, an avid record collector.

The house has not been sold yet. “It would have been better financially if we’d already sold it, but everything that didn’t work out as planned has turned out to be easier for us,” Ms. Gertler said. “We’re coming back in November because our daughter-in-law is expecting, so we won’t have to pay for a place to stay. We have four beds left in the house out of 12.”

As for Dr. Gertler’s practice, which he joined in July 1983, things also worked not as planned but for the best. About four years ago, Teaneck Dentists (formerly Bloch, Bloch & Gertler) learned that the State Street building in which they’d leased space for many years was to be sold. Dr. Gertler built a new office on Teaneck Road, and last November sold the practice to the dentists he’d hired to work with him, Ari Frohlich and Sami Solaimanzadeh.

“September 17 was my last day as a dentist in Teaneck,” Dr. Gertler said. That Tuesday, Teaneck Deputy Mayor Elie Katz came to the office and filmed a short video for Facebook in tribute to Dr. Gertler.

Although he plans to maintain his dental license in case he comes across any volunteer or part-time work opportunities in Israel, Dr. Gertler is looking forward to spending a lot of his time biking and hiking around the Beit Shemesh area and beyond. His old steel Schwinn and his three-year-old road bike already await him at his daughter Rachel’s house. “A lot of the places I want to ride are not paved, so I also got a mountain bike that’s coming with us on the plane,” he said. “And my really good road bike, which I’ve been riding around New Jersey and New York for years, is coming too. It will work out well to have all these bikes, because some of my grandchildren want to ride and don’t have bicycles.”

The Gertlers have been feted twice in Teaneck in the week before their departure, once at a party made by their children who live in New Jersey, and once at Congregation Beth Aaron, to which they’ve belonged since moving to town in 1976. (Dr. Gertler was the shul’s president from 1987 to 1989.)

Leaving the life they have built over so many years is not a decision the Gertlers took lightly. “Teaneck has been an incredibly wonderful place to live,” Dr. Gertler said. But their desire to fulfil the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel never left them. In fact, Dr. Gertler’s decision to go to dental school was spurred by advice from the Jewish Agency in the 1970s to pursue a career in which he could make a living after aliyah. And although he ended up practicing in Teaneck instead, the time has come that “I am no longer anchored here for sustenance.”

At the end of the day, Dr. Gertler said succinctly, “There are mitzvot that are hard to do and mitzvot that are easy to do. Many people before us made aliyah when it was extremely hard. Now it’s a mitzvah that’s easy to do.”

Ms. Gertler explained her feelings this way at the family party on September 15: “When I was a young girl, trying to navigate my way through life, I found myself guided by spirituality. As I grew up, that spirituality only increased. And after spending some time in Israel in the ‘70s, I knew it needed to be my goal to eventually settle there. What I didn’t know was that it would take us so long.

“It is time, now, for us to move on.”

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