Home Perspectives Opinions The mighty have fallen: A tribute to community legend Philip Zucker

The mighty have fallen: A tribute to community legend Philip Zucker

Philip Zucker, left, with grandson Jeremy Kellerstein in 1988. MARTIN KELLERSTEIN PHOTO

When I first learned of the death of my father-in-law, Philip Zucker, the words that came into my mind were, “How the mighty have fallen,” a phrase from the book of 2 Samuel.

Today we marked the shloshim – the first 30 days of mourning – for my father-in-law, who died on Shabbat, Feb. 18 at the age of 98, and who was a veritable institution in the Toronto Jewish community. A Torah reader at Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue for over 40 years, he taught bar and bat mitzvah to more than 2,000 students in the city.

I called him “Dad,” but there was a certain old-world formality about him, and “Mr. Zucker” was the appellation used by his students, congregants, rabbis and even close friends.

Mr. Zucker was born on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice that ended the First World War was signed. Born in Serock, Poland, a town of a few thousand people north of Warsaw, he was the eldest of six children of Yosef Eliezer Hakohen Cukier and Faiga Hinda Rosenberg. He received a traditional cheder education, and as a teenager, he studied in a yeshiva in Warsaw, showing the beginnings of the gifts that would distinguish him in later life.

When visitors came to Serock, they would often bring new niggunim, the melodies of different chassidic sects. Mr. Zucker’s remarkable memory and musical skill made him the designated human “recorder” in Serock, the person tasked with remembering these new melodies, which were later added to the community’s repertoire. Decades later, he sang these melodies to his grandchildren.

Mr. Zucker’s family was poor, dependent on the meagre livelihood provided by the business of recycling burlap sacks for local flour mills. As the eldest child, he had to give up his yeshiva studies to return to Serock and work to support his family.

Mr. Zucker spent the war years in labour camps in northern Russia where many prisoners, including his father, died from starvation, disease and extreme cold. His fellow workers, many of whom were non-Jews, often refused to believe Mr. Zucker was Jewish, claiming no Jew could work with the drive that he possessed.

Towards the end of the war, my father-in-law met his future wife, Helen, or Chaya, Tuchman. The story goes that they met while Chaya, who is now 100 years old, was selling wrist watches, a valuable product during wartime. The two married in Russia in 1945.

The Zuckers subsequently returned to Poland and found that, of an extended family that had once numbered more than 100 people, the sole survivors were Mr. Zucker and two second cousins. Facing violent anti-Semitic attacks by the Poles, the couple fled westward into Austria and Germany.

They then spent several years in a refugee camp, where their eldest daughter Faye was born. They decided to emigrate to Canada, sponsored by relatives of Helen, and in 1949, the couple arrived in Toronto, where their daughters Shirley and Bella were born.

In Toronto, Mr. Zucker found work in a factory sewing coats. Always a perfectionist, he was known for the quality of his work rather than his speed.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Zucker began to read Torah occasionally in the Shaw Street shul. Soon after, he taught his first bar mitzvah student.

The Shaarei Shomayim Congregation subsequently recruited Mr. Zucker to read Torah and blow the Shofar. Later, Jack Burke, the principal of Associated Hebrew Schools, hired Mr. Zucker to prepare Grades 7 and 8 students for their bar mitzvahs. With this opportunity, my father-in-law was able to give up factory work and devote himself full-time to Torah reading and teaching.

My son Eric recalls the reaction he got from fellow participants on a March of the Living trip he attended many years ago as a teen, upon sharing with the group that they’d visited some of the Warsaw sites his grandfather had prayed and studied at. “After I spoke, many of my fellow participants came up to me and described how zaide had challenged them to reach a potential they didn’t know they had,” Eric marvelled.

Mr. Zucker was known for the accuracy and musical quality of his Torah reading, as well as a demanding yet enlightened approach to teaching. He would insist that his students learn the Torah trope and not simply memorize their portions, telling them, “Don’t learn like a monkey.”

As a Torah reader, he crafted his own distinctive melody, building on the Serock style of his youth. His style was so distinctive that people could identify him as the teacher when his students, many of whom went on to teach themselves, read Torah.

Mr. Zucker knew the entire Torah by heart. He studied it every day, even in the last week of his life. Well into his nineties, he prepared the weekly Torah portion and was able to read Torah at a moment’s notice.

Never, to my knowledge, did Mr. Zucker deliver a public sermon or d’var Torah. His teaching was always one-on-one or done in small family gatherings. As a result, when he shared his insights with you, you had the feeling the lessons he imparted were a kind of secret knowledge he wished to share with you alone.

“People who learned Torah with zaide understood that he was a treasure,” Eric said. “One could feel that his knowledge came from a bygone era.”

At the age of 82, Mr. Zucker had a stroke. I was struck by the response of the Shaarei Shomayim community and his students during his recovery. Whole families came to visit him, some making the trek to the hospital by foot, children in tow, to see him on Shabbat, as though making a pilgrimage to visit a holy man.

With Mr. Zucker’s death, the family felt a great loss. One grandchild said of him: “Zaide was a kind and loving grandfather who modelled an unwavering dedication to family and Judaism, and a strong sense of justice.”

My father-in-law had three daughters, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. At happy family occasions, he would often remark that he was amazed at how his life had passed from tragedy and loss to joy and renewal.

At his funeral, I pronounced the words: “Blessed is the One who imparted from his wisdom to flesh and blood,” a blessing traditionally said when one beholds a great Torah scholar.

My father-in-law’s passing is a huge loss. His legacy is greater.