Thursday, November 21, 2002

Suzanne & Gaby

I never met Gaby Sassoon. He died four months ago and was buried in Bet Shemesh. But I owe him a debt of gratitude. He reunited me with my cousin Suzanne.

Gaby was born in Syria in 1946.He left with his family when he was two. It was 1948, Israel had just been born and things were becoming more than a little uncomfortable for the Jews of Syria. The Sassoons moved to Turkey where Gaby grew up.

When Gaby was 18, he immigrated again, this time to Canada. He earned his BA and worked as a "Knowledge Engineer." But his true passion was his heritage, and over the course of the next 37 years, he became a tireless supporter of Israel and all things Jewish.

He was involved in every imaginable Jewish organization in his new hometown of Ottawa: United Jewish Appeal, Ottawa Jewish Youth Library, The Tamir Foundation, Shalom Welcome Service, to name just a few. He Israeli folk danced and he sang in the Shira Choir. He was a Big Brother. He loved to eat.

A close friend of Gaby’s Anna-lee Chiprout wrote to me with a few words about him. “He loved life and had friends literally all over the world. He could always give us advice about restaurants, hotels, and cities anywhere on the globe…because he had been there himself. He spoke six languages. No matter where we would go, a function, a show, a dinner, he would meet someone he knew. He was one of the most caring and genuine people I know.”

Yes, he was big bear of a guy, a confirmed bachelor, loved by all but sadly by no one in particular until he met my cousin. Together for eight years, they married only three years ago when was Gaby was 52. It was his first time.

Suzanne and I had not spent any quality time together since I was 9 and she was 19. Suzanne got married when I was just a pre-teen and was busy raising two girls. Her marriage was difficult from the beginning; still, it took many years and a lot of courage before Suzanne finally broke free.

There’s probably no more fitting metaphor for freedom than dance, and appropriately enough, Suzanne and Gaby met folk dancing. He brought her into his world.

Gaby was traditional but not stringent or strictly orthodox. Through Gaby, Suzanne set up a kosher kitchen. They had Friday night dinners. Then went to shul. These things were not a part of my life, or Suzanne’s, when we were growing up, but Suzanne grew to appreciate and treasure them. Her daughter Gila and her husband began to keep kosher themselves.

Gaby’s influence was never coercive. Always through example. Always through the natural way that he was with things. This is just what Jews did. This is what Gaby did.

And others followed.

They followed him to Israel and around the world on various programs he led or participated in. They followed him in the numerous organizations he led. And they followed him, friends too many to count, to the hospital where he held court, putting on a brave face as a 24-pound tumor grew in his abdomen. The tumor had been jelly-like. It was able to mold itself around whatever was in its way. Gaby never felt it until it was too late for treatment.

And when he died, it was his wish that he be buried in his beloved Israel. He was only 55, but a full busload of Canadian Jewish community members accompanied him on this final trip, led in part by his widow, my cousin Suzanne Sassoon, to pay their final respects. And that’s how Suzanne got to me, as we met for the first time in so many years, in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel and then later the next day on Shabbat. Because of Gaby.

I never knew you, Gaby. But I thank you all the same.

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