Encyclopedic lives

Mordechai Simon

By Mordechai Simon

With the recent news that the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica would stop producing hardbound, paper copies of their venerable reference, yet another nail was hammered in the coffin of the 20th century.

For those of a certain age, or of sentimental disposition, such news is difficult to swallow. The vanishing of what was once meaningful—for real or by association—is cause for contemplation and contextualizing.

As with things, how much more so with people. Particularly when individuals represent a generation; a standard and an ethos that is dwindling or gone.  

I am overcome with that feeling with the recent passing of Dr. Noah Susman, a radiant human being and luminous Jew (apropos adjectives for a former Chief of Radiology at Jewish Hospital). Dr. Susman was one of the last of a generation going, like hardbound books and home run kings, into extinction.

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When I first came to St. Louis as a newly observant Jew nearly 30 years ago, the Orthodox community was blooming with individuals who were children of immigrant parents, had navigated the parsimony of the depression and the perils of war, studied diligently to get a higher education, and then set about to start families and succeed in the American dream. But they did so within a larger context. They remained steadfastly loyal to Jewish observance and education, even while the trend was to run for the greener and less steadfast backyards of suburbia and beyond.

Dr. Susman’s generation started shuls and schools, backing what is today chic but was then provincial and regressive. They set aside time to study Torah long before adult education and outreach programs were commonplace; they took off from work on Shabbat and Holidays and ate kosher food before Heinz produced its first can of vegetarian beans. They weren’t pioneers, but they sure stayed on the homestead and cultivated their parcel of faith to stock the silos of Jewish continuity with feed.

In recent years, many of those blossoms have dropped off the flower. People like Irving and Marvin Fredman, Alan Green, Jerry Lefton,  Kenny and Rita Spetner, Ralph and Annette Raskas, Matilda Zeffren and now, Noah Susman; names synonymous with building, resolve and commitment, are no longer living.  

From my perch, this is a pivot point in the story of Orthodoxy in St. Louis. The old guard, those that forged the community that exists today, is setting sail from the Grey Havens. Marconi’s wireless is making way for digital optics. This is the inexorable march of life. But in the meantime, we could think about the values and virtues of these individuals and do something to perpetuate their contributions. We could sacrifice an hour of our time to study Torah with a friend or attend a class; we could adopt a Jewish cause and give more money than we are comfortable with; we could disconnect our e- and iLives for 24 hours one Shabbat a month. We could treat a fellow human being like the countenance of the Divine.

No, the typewriter, rotary phone, full service gas stations, Oldsmobile and even Encyclopedia Britannica, are not coming back. Nor is the generation to which Dr. Susman belonged. But their passing can be marked and perpetuated by our determination not to let the sacrifices they made and the achievements they earned fade away, by staying true to the principles for which they lived.