Imagine eating stomach lining on your first date, served up by your future mother-in-law hoping to impress you with her choice of protein.
That was David Shapiro’s introduction to my Sephardic family in the late 1970’s, as he began dating my sister Kathy.
For many decades after that, he would remind me of that first date. My mother had served him a Moroccan delicacy– tripe seasoned in a spicy tomato sauce– and he would joke that he should have brought a blow dryer to handle the weird dish. For a straight-laced Ashkenazi Jew whose idea of a good meal was brisket, this new cuisine was a shock to his system. But it’s a shock that came with a redeeming feature— a large family he came to love and who loved him right back.
David only had one name in our family— “Shapiro.” That was my mother’s decision. There were so many Davids in the family that she decided Shapiro would suffice. This became so engrained in our family that one of my kids once asked him if he had a last name.
My brother-in-law and good friend Shapiro passed away on Sunday. His last words to me were, “I love you, too.”
Love was the beginning, middle and end of his story with my sister and our family.
He had plenty to contribute. He could fix pretty much anything and often did (that’s when we’d call him “Shapiro the hero”). He raised amazing children (we called them “Ashkefardic”). He cultivated beautiful gardens. He sang, played music and told great stories.
But it was his love for everyone around him—especially his wife’s very large extended family—that rose above all else. Maybe it’s because he was a single child whose life was punctuated by too much silence. Weird meats aside, he took to his new and noisy family with the attitude of a kid discovering a new toy.
I never saw him get angry. Annoyed, perhaps, but never angry.
He wasn’t an observant Jew, but he was part of hundreds of Shabbat and Holiday meals where he always joined along in good humor. He had a great voice. After the blessing over bread, he would often do an operatic rendition of “Amen” that still echoes in my memory.
He had a few songs he loved to play on his guitar—like “Going to Kansas City” and “Stairway to Heaven”—and boy did he play them. If you gave him enough wine, he would imitate French Canadian hockey players speaking in English. If I had enough wine, I would join in.
Shapiro met my sister while they both lived in Montreal. He had a long and successful career as a marketing executive for high tech companies. He was regarded highly enough that he got offered a transfer to his dream location of California. This posed a challenge to his relationship with my sister, who was comfortable in her family nest of Montreal.
But he had an ace up his sleeve—the harsh Canadian winters. It didn’t take long for my sister to embrace the idea of following her boyfriend and starting a new life under the California sun. At their wedding in Montreal in July of 1981, they both said to me: “Please come visit us!”
So I did– two weeks later.
While visiting, it dawned on me that I could emulate my sister, who is also my best friend, and join her in her California adventure. So, in the middle of another harsh winter, I packed up and moved. I followed my sister who had followed Shapiro. I can’t tell you how often I would raise a glass in front of Shapiro during a Shabbat meal and say, “Hey, Shapiro, if I’m here, it’s all thanks to you!”
Over the years, I’ve had many reasons to say thanks to Shapiro. Among them were when he’d help my youngest daughter with her science projects, or when he gladly accepted that another of my daughters would move into his Orange County home for three years to attend a high school she loved.
But the biggest thank you I owe Shapiro is for being who he was—the cheerful, decent and lovable Ashkenazi Jew who made my sister happy and who tolerated my mother’s exotic cuisine.
I love you too, Shapiro.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.