In this blog I usually post snippets of information about events that happened in Jewish history. For this week, I’d like to share my personal thoughts about the passing of Mr. Joseph Hasson who passed away on this past Saturday, Yom Kippur 5772.

When I heard of Mr. Hasson’s passing, I was sadder than usual than when a elder member of the community dies. My emotional reaction didn’t surprise me, much. After all, Mr. Hasson was born on the Island of Rhodes, the same island in the Mediterranean that my great-grandparents whom I never met came from, and survived the Holocaust. Six months in Auschwitz. My first thought was that he was an icon. But after the funeral, when I lay in bed, unable to help around the house, and just let silent tears drip from my eyes, I was perplexed through my sadness. What caused me to ache so miserably for a man who died in his old age, having merited seeing many grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Why am I choking back tears now, for a man with whom my relationship consisted little more than saying, “Shabbat Shalom Mr. Hasson”?
As a Jew, you know you are a minority. Your customs are yours, and no one else will keep them for you. When you are Sefardic, you are a minority within a minority. Being from the Island of Rhodes is a tiny minority within Sefardic Jewry. It is inevitable; to feel a strong sense of need to uphold traditions. Perhaps an inordinate amount of time is dedicated to questions of, “How did we perform this act?”, “How is the nuance of Biblical Hebrew pronounced?’ and other such questions that arise when a faith is mixed with a culture.
These sorts of questions consume and continue to consume a fair amount of conversation when I am at Khal (Synagogue). When one watched or listened to Mr. Hasson, you felt that the past and ambiguities that come from time had never existed for him.
Even though we attended the same synagogue, I really never appreciated Mr. Hasson until I had his grand-daughter in my class. It was through her that I first learned that her grandfather was born on the Island of Rhodes, and was taken by the Nazis when he was in his early twenties. It struck me that it would be an amazing opportunity to have him come and speak to my middle school students. Later, when his youngest grand-daughter was in my class, I asked him if he would visit. He agreed. I was not prepared to hear his unvarnished account of his idyllic life on the Island of Rhodes, or the miserable conditions and experiences he endured on the way to and while in Auschwitz. His recounting had no hint of anger or judgment. He played soccer in Rhodes (one of the best teams on the Island) and again in the displaced person camps. From as best as I can tell, he picked up he pieces of his life, and went on.
At this point, I started to appreciate his regular attendance early on Saturday morning services. As the men and young boys took turns leading the Zimirot, Psalms, that are read, Mr. Hasson would always read two: Psalm 136 “Give thanks to God for He is Good, for His mercy endures forever” and Psalm 145 “I will exalt my God the King”. This came from the man who weighed 85 lbs. at the end of the war, who lived with the number B7452 on his left arm. From that time on, I decided to stand for Mr. Hasson, an honor usually reserved for the Rabbi or one’s immediate family. As a survivor who lived with his faith, he deserved all the respect we could offer him.
The elder generation was, on the whole, well known for being people of few words. Simple pleasures and simple desires were good enough. In fact, what else was there? It came as no surprise, when Mr. Hasson, at an synagogue dinner, shared the importance of Ezra Bessaroth (Seattle based Rhodesli Synagogue) with the audience by saying, “I recall when I was a young boy in Rhodes I sat next to my father and he was happy. Now, my son sits next to me and I am happy.” The metaphysical musings of a person’s role in this world are not what was important. The simple pleasures of family and faith combined were cherished.
I heard so much of the Island of Rhodes, foods and customs and expressions, that I was somewhat surprised when I first looked at the island on Google Earth. I had begun to think that the place must be some magical fantasy. That it perhaps was frozen in time when my family arrived in Seattle in the 1910s. To see that it was real was almost shocking.
The Jewish life of the Island of Rhodes no longer really exists on Rhodes. It has been scattered into communities throughout the world. In the most positive assessment, it is a community that possesses a large number of culturally committed people with only few religiously observant. It is a community that is in most locations is in decline. But while Mr. Hasson was still alive, there was one person that we could look to and with confidence say that the story of the Jewish people on the Island of Rhodes was true. B7452 attested to the people that were murdered from these Islands. Mr. Hasson showed that our history has people of great faith, who could endure untold suffering, then pick up the pieces and go on again with faith. He was not an icon. He was a living embodiment of the values, hopes, and history of the Jewish people who came from the Island of Rhodes. We could listen to him lead the Zemirot and know that the way we are reading now was indeed the way people on the Island of Rhodes once read. I savored the end of services, since my seat is closer to the door, I’d wait for him to walk by and wish him Shabbat Shalom. On more than one occasion he showed the numbers on his arm to my children.
With his passing, my link, my community’s link to the evidence of our past is gone. I would point out Mr. Hasson to guests who would visit our Khal. He was our roots. Our community remains blessed with many devout people who are making great strides in preserving our unique traditions. But a man from Rhodes, who read Psalms like I was taught, is gone. A man who lived a quite faith, who exemplified what we as a people can be, is gone. Our sense of reality and grounding is lost. My spiritual grandfather is no longer with me, leaving me alone with my memories to form my self-identity. My sadness is not just at the loss of a precious soul. It is a at the shattering of my self-image. I am broken, and will need to re-mend with the memories of Mr. Hasson as a part of me.
I know I will always be wishing that I could say, “Shabbat Shalom Mr. Hasson” just one more time.