Remembering Alan Mitelman z”l

Remembering Alan Mitelman z”l

Alan Mitelman z”l, father of Sinai and Synapses’ Founding Director Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, passed away on Saturday, April 29, 2023 / 8 Iyyar 5783. These were the words Rabbi Mitelman shared at his father’s funeral on Monday.

Alan was an incredible supporter of Sinai and Synapses, designing its logo and being present either in-person or online at almost every program. If you would like to make a donation in Alan’s memory, you can support Sinai and Synapses, and/or two other organizations close to his heart –  Rethink The Conversation, or Steve’s H.O.P.E. Fund at Woodlands Community Temple.

May Alan’s memory always be for a blessing.

I would talk and text with my dad a lot. In fact, one of the ways I knew Heather would be a huge part of my life was when I decided to put her on top of my dad on my Favorites list. I’d talk to him after the train would pull into Grand Central and I would walk to work. I’d talk to him on my walk home. We’d talk about the Yankees, or how many applications Scientists in Synagogues had gotten, or Matthew’s tae kwon do belt test, or Caroline’s lines in “Annie,” or the people he tutored through English in Action. 

But more than words, my dad lived in visuals. There was artwork, posters, New Yorker cartoons and advertisements surrounding our house. Even last month, he was talking with a doctor about his year in Sweden in the 1960s to get an MFA. He had a keen eye for graphic design, and worked for CBS (helping to put together a companion book for the moon landing), his own design company at Mitelman & Associates, Ltd. with my mom, and then worked in-house at a law firm to help them translate complicated legalese into visuals that would resonate with the jury. He, and especially in partnership with my mom, was masterful at bridging the verbal and the visual.

I remember him having one of the first desktop publishing programs. Back in the 80’s, before Microsoft Word, I would type my homework on one computer that had the black background and green text, copy it, and he would then lay it out so that it would not only look nice, but make sense when you saw it. Thanks to him, I’m always looking to make sure line breaks happen where they make conceptual sense. It would drive him nuts if his printed eulogy went “Alan Mitelman was a graphic designer for forty” (new line) “years.” In fact, if you forget everything else today about his legacy, he’d be really happy if that was your main takeaway – graphic design is less about beauty, and more about having things be clear. That’s why, when Sinai and Synapses – which bridges Judaism and science – needed a logo, I turned to my dad. And he brilliantly found an etz, one of the poles on a Torah scroll, with Hebrew letters flying across to the other side of the synapse. It evoked not only the space of the synaptic cleft, which  is where learning and neural growth happens, but also the mishkan, which was described in Exodus has having held the ark, and had a space in between where the cherubim faced each other. But, of course, his design is much better seen than described – which is exactly his point.

His love of images didn’t stop with things that were static – he loved movies, asking me many times in high school if I’d watch the Japanese film Rashomon with him. He and my mom were in a film club at the Jacob Burns Center, and one of the things that would have helped him accept moving to an assisted living place was that there would be a movie every night. But he didn’t just watch films – he loved making them. Not only was he on the cutting edge of desktop publishing, he was also one the first people to get a camcorder, so when I was about five, we made a video called “Super-Friends and Animals in Space.” He made the edits and added the chyron, and even though he and I were probably the only two people who ever watched it, he spent hours trying to make it as well-put-together as what he saw in his time at CBS. He would also tape our annual family Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl touch-football game, for our whole extended family, but what he really loved was making the “pre-game show” which usually starred Steve. And he took so many recordings and photos of so many of Joanne’s, Steve’s and my concerts, plays, singing group, and life-cycle events. 

He also really enjoyed puzzles. He introduced me to crosswords, and I always knew a good birthday or Hanukkah gift would be the latest collection of Sunday New York Times crosswords. He was incredibly patient when he would sit in his Eames chair and I tried to teach him some of the math I was learning in my summer number theory course in high school, I think it was because he enjoyed the intellectual challenge. Even just a few weeks ago, he would tell me his score on Spelling Bee, and told me that “I almost always get to ‘Great’ and can often get to ‘Amazing.’”

And we loved watching Jeopardy! every night when I was growing up. So when I got an e-mail from the show asking me to audition in Boston in May 2015, I wanted him to go with me for the drive up and back. We debriefed the test on the drive back, and hoped I had gotten enough right to get invited to be on the show. After the call came in, I spent six weeks studying and cramming and reading before tape-day, and he wanted to know every little bit of both what and how I was preparing. 

He was also incredibly supportive of all of my endeavors. When I was working at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, he and my mom would come for a lot of Friday night services, High Holy Days, and adult ed programs, since they were in the next town over and only a five-minute drive. We actually had to have some conversations to ensure there would be a little bit of a professional boundary, since they would both have been perfectly happy to show up for everything. Since I was living in the City at the time, I’d often stay over on Friday night, sleeping in the twin bed I slept in as a kid, and under my name that he had painted. And every Saturday morning, he’d be making eggs and coffee for the three of us, and we had breakfast together before I headed off to Torah study or services. More recently, when Sinai and Synapses launched a weekly live interview series during Covid called “Sacred Science,” he was always, always there. In fact, when I’d have a pre-conversation with the guest, they would ask how many people would be on, and I’d tell them that most people would watch afterwards, we’d likely get at least a handful of people watching on Zoom…”and my dad will be there.” 

Zoom and FaceTime helped a lot in the last few years of life, because they were really hard for him. He was what some might call “independent,” others might call “stubborn” and still others might call “defiant.” He didn’t want people telling him what to do, and that sometimes included doctors and nurses. He was still going up and down the stairs, getting his own groceries, and cognitively was completely there (even if he didn’t always make the best decisions, he certainly was able to do so). As I’ve been saying, the way he died was like the line from Hemingway, where a character was asked how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, and then suddenly.” Over the last I-don’t-know how many years, he may not have done all of his swallowing exercises, or physical therapy, or diet in order to keep himself strong. So in January, we decided he needed to get some help. It took some convincing, but he finally applied for Long-Term Nursing Care. We honestly weren’t sure if he would have qualified, and as my mom said, even if he did, and we had put in a claim earlier, he wouldn’t have wanted it. 

While we were waiting for the long-term-care claim to kick in, he fell, which led him to a rehab center. About three weeks ago, our kids went to see him, and he was sitting in a wheelchair, playing dots and ultimate tic-tac-toe. They pushed his chair to the day room, and we could tell that he really didn’t want to be there. And so even though he was still very much himself, afterwards, he sent me a text: “Thank you SO much for coming by. It was wonderful to see everybody. Your kids give me such a boost and just brighten my day! I want to go on record that I hate – capital H – them having to see me in this condition. That’s not how I want them thinking of me.”

But unfortunately, he kept getting weaker physically. The doctor told him he wasn’t getting enough nutrients, so he suggested a PEG tube to try to help him get stronger. He really didn’t want it – “If I do it,” he told me, “I’ll never be able to drink Diet Pepsi again.” He and I talked about it, and with some incredible help and guidance from Joanne’s husband John, we decided to move forward. Right before that, though, he had aspirated pneumonia, and while that wasn’t the first time (he had it in November, and then was at our Thanksgiving table three days later), this time, he was so weak, it took its toll. But we didn’t know that at the time – the PEG tube seemed to help, and last Sunday, my mom and I visited him in the hospital. We talked about an assisted living facility, and he said, “I’m starting to get to a point of accepting that this will be the reality,” and he thanked my mom for pushing so hard to get the long-term nursing care – which he had resisted even paying for in the first place – so that he could potentially have many more years.

On Monday, he was discharged from White Plains Hospital, back to his rehab center. I asked if he was back in the same room, because previously, he didn’t know if it was day or night because of the fluorescent lighting and no real natural light. “Different room. 3 roommates. Gooten show. Have a good trip. I’ll be fine. Focus on yourself.” I asked if his room was in the corner, and he said, “I think so. There’s a window :-).” Because he had gotten so much weaker even in those couple of weeks from our kids’ last visit, I had told him that the kids would see him back at the Enclave. And while he hated every minute of that rehab, his last text was he was going to get fed through the night, and that he had gained 10 pounds. He was willing to endure all the poking and prodding and a feeding tube to be able to get better, primarily so that he could spend more time with Caroline and Matthew.

And in those last few years, the one thing that really seemed to cheer him up during that time was the kids. His whole demeanor would change, and he would have the biggest smile on his face when he saw them. He went to their Little League games (and naturally took a ton of pictures). We’d visit him and our kids would read to him, and he would be so proud of how much they had learned between visits. He and my mom would FaceTime to hear Caroline’s violin practices or Matthew’s piano, and I could see his joy in his face.

And so on Tuesday, after we discovered just how sick he was physically, we left the hospital, and I went to Caroline’s Little League game. We had lost our first two games of the season, but on Tuesday, we held on 9-8, with Caroline getting an out at home plate, the best hit of her life so far, and 3 RBIs. And even though I knew he couldn’t respond, my first reaction was to reach for my phone, and send my dad a text, since I knew that would make him smile. 

So Caroline and Matthew, Grandpa Alan loved you so, so much. He loved making cards for you. He loved getting wind-up toys and plastic paddle balls for you. He simply loved seeing and talking with you. I hope you carry the best of him into the future and have loving memories of him.

Lexa, when my dad went to Weill Cornell for a procedure last year, the first thing he told the medical team was to proudly say that’s where you were in medical school. Zander, I think my dad would have been so happy to still be playing the Monopoly game with you that started 10 years ago. Joanne, I’m so glad you shared the vignette of his painting the kids’ and grandkids’ walls, and that he took and then digitized all those photos and videos of you and Steve growing up so that we all have them now. John, thank you for all of your insight and guidance over these last few weeks, and especially in these last few days.

Heather, when we first started dating, I showed my dad Sewing Stories’ website, and he immediately saw what an incredible artist you are, and it was so special to me that the two of you could bond over that. And even more than my mom, and even more than me, I think he listened to you and your push to help him understand and accept how much help he would have needed going forward.  

Mom, it was really special to spend these last few days with you and reflecting on Dad’s life and all the good things he brought and the worlds that he opened up for all of us. I’m so happy that the last time you really saw him just over a week ago, he thanked you, because you really tried to make sure he was taken care of. I know it wasn’t easy – believe me, I know – but I was happy that when the three of us got together, it seemed to bring you and him back to better times.

Finally, Dad, I feel so blessed to have spent so much time with you – from the beginning of my life to the end of yours. From taking me to my first Yankee game, to listening to multiple drafts of sermons, to making PowerPoint cards for Caroline and Matthew, there are so many ways your life will impact me and our family forever. And you would have loved to have known that up until the last six weeks of your life, as much as you could, you were doing things in your own way, and as you wanted it done. May you rest in peace. I love you.

3 Comments

  1. Ruth Shaver

    This is a beautiful way of remembering your father, Geoff. Thank you for sharing him with us. Indeed, may his memory be a blessing.

  2. Matthew Fieldman

    Geoff, so sorry for your loss. Sending good wishes to you and your family. Love you buddy.

  3. Darla Strouse

    What a beautiful eulogy of love. Your words brought me to tears. I never met your dad, but I felt, through your words, that I knew him very well. May his memory be forever a blessing to you and your family.

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