Two years ago I was standing in synagogue, saying the Shacharit Amidah, when I saw an old man being wheeled in on the other side of the mechitza. He didn’t look familiar, but it was refreshing to see an older person coming to our shul.
I’m a shy person, so it took me a few months to say more than “Shabbat Shalom” and start up a conversation with this man. One day, my husband Danny Lobell and I walked over to the man, who was sitting at a table in the corner at Kiddush, sipping on a glass of water, and introduced ourselves.
“Hi, we’re the Lobells,” we said. The man didn’t respond. I was sure he didn’t hear us. We sat down anyway.
Then, after a moment, the man looked up at us. “Jerry Benscher, nice to meet you. Would you mind, please, to get me a real drink?” he said, eyeing the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the next table. Danny laughed. “Sure.”
On Feb. 1, Jerry – or Mr. Benscher as the community called him – passed away at the age of 85. Though he’d been in poor health ever since I first saw him in shul, he never seemed to let it catch up to him. Sometimes he would have uncontrollable bouts of coughing, or he’d need to be wheeled around with an oxygen tank. I would get worried when I’d hear him coughing on the men’s side of the mechitza that he wasn’t doing well that day. I’d have the incorrect assumption that if his physical health was going downhill, so was his mental health.
By the time we made it to Kiddush again every week, though, Mr. Benscher, a Holocaust survivor, would be cracking jokes, giving sweets out to all the little children and sipping on some whiskey.
Overtime, Danny and I came to know Mr. Benscher outside of shul too. Our friend and his friend, Eva Becker, would take him around town for fun, always posting pictures of him at the Santa Monica Pier or hanging out with his family. A few times, he came to Danny’s monthly comedy show at the Hollywood Improv, Bookshelf. He said, after the first show, “The other comedians were too filthy! But I loved you, Danny.”
Mr. Benscher and Eva were there to support Danny at his one-man show in the Hollywood Fringe last year. They came to a 10 p.m. show on a Thursday night, when many of our younger friends said they couldn’t make it, sat in the front row and laughed audibly throughout the evening. Mr. Benscher said he had the greatest time.
Mr. Benscher always livened up a Shabbat meal, too. When we’d have Friday night dinner with him and Eva at Rabbi Elchanan Shoff’s home, he’d never fail to get the whole table cracking up. One time, Danny said, “Mr. Benscher, you are pretty much my best friend.” There was a long pause. Then: “Pretty much, Danny? Just pretty much?”
Five days before Mr. Benscher passed, Eva held an 85th birthday party for him at the rehabilitation facility where he lived. I didn’t know what to expect before we went. Would it be a sweet little gathering? Would it be kind of depressing, simply because nursing homes always are?
When Danny and I walked into the communal eating area, it was filled with people. There were at least 60 men, women and children chatting, munching on pizza and birthday cake and giving Mr. Benscher well wishes. He was at the front of the room, wearing an oxygen mask and unable to talk. But balloons surrounded him, and a violinist, pianist and guitar player sang Jewish melodies for him. Danny approached him to tell him a few jokes, and he grabbed onto Danny’s arm in acknowledgment that he was pleased.
The nursing home had come alive for Mr. Benscher. Danny and I and everyone else there had a blast. You could tell he was loved.
This Shabbat, I plan to drink a little bit of whiskey in honor of Mr. Benscher. I’ll toast to his joyous attitude, his zest for life, his sense of humor and his unwillingness to let sickness stop him. Even though he’s gone, I know he’s up there, somewhere in the sky, cracking jokes with the angels and bringing a bright, happy light with him wherever he goes.