19 December 2019
By Rabbi Nerenberg - Manager, Jewish Life
Leon Shulkin was an Elder of Gary Smorgon House, who passed away in August 2019. Leon had a personality that was very endearing to others. He loved to talk and felt it’s important to share his remarkable story with others. He had a strong handshake and a cheeky smile. He was a maestro on the piano and would frequently entertain Elders and their families at Gary Smorgon House.
A survivor of 13 concentration camps, Leon was quite negative when it came to discussions about G-d and religion.
During my first encounter with Leon, he was quick to notice my American accent and mentioned that he too lived in the Bronx in New York City for many years. He then rolled up his sleeve and showed me the letters “KL”, which were tattooed on his arm. He asked, “You see these letters? They stand for Konzentrationslager. I was in 13 concentration camps! You won’t meet anyone else alive that has survived as many camps as I did.” He then went on to ask the familiar questions about G-d’s existence during the Holocaust and about religion in general. Although we got along quite well and enjoyed our discussions, this topic was always a sensitive and contentious one for him and felt like I had to walk on eggshells whenever I was around him. This all changed a couple of weeks later.
On the first night of Chanukah, I chose an Elder to light the first candle. This was followed up with traditional Chanukah songs and a speech by me. Soon after, Leon approached me and asked, “Do you think I can light the Menorah tomorrow night? I said yes, but reminded him that a blessing would have to be said before the lighting and it involves saying G-d’s name. He said ok and asked for help with the blessing and said that he will bring his own Yarmulke (head covering). The next night, with his Yarmulke on his head, he lit the candle with pride and gladly danced with us as we sang the traditional Chanukah songs. Although, I had intended to choose other people to light the Menorah each night, everyone gladly allowed Leon to light it the remaining nights.
This Menorah lighting seemed to have sparked Leon’s interest in Judaism. On his own initiative, he started wearing his bright red Yarmulke every day, began attending Shul Services every week, and even began putting on Tefillin every day. When asked about his sudden change in attitude, Leon said, that by being in a Jewish environment for the first time in his life, he thought he would check out what Judaism was all about.
One of Leon’s greatest thrills was sharing a shot of vodka and a L’Chaim with others. Whenever he was called up for an Aliyah (Blessing over the Torah) during shul services, he would pledge to donate a bottle of vodka towards the weekly Kiddush after shul. Although the Shul was full of whisky drinkers and no one really liked vodka, none of us had the heart to say no, knowing that he really enjoyed gifting us bottles of vodka. Often I would allow him to pour me a shot of vodka.
I had the honour of officiating at his funeral and even though it seemed unorthodox, I came prepared with a miniature 50ml bottle of vodka in my pocket. Upon completing the Kel Moleh Memorial Prayer, I turned towards the glass case that contained Leon’s casket and wished him one final L’Chaim. I said, “Leon, now that you are finally reunited with your late wife, parents and five siblings, I ask of you to please stand in front of G-d’s heavenly throne and demand answers to all of those questions that you used to ask me. Please use your stubbornness to remain there until you get the answers that you were looking for.”
I then said, L’Chaim and drank the shot of vodka. Although the bottle was quite old and tasted really bad, the meaningful experience sweetened its taste.
Pictured above: Leon Shulkin (left) with his son, Joel, at Gary Smorgon House during Chanukah 2018.