05 April 2011

Henry Taub: Memory and Blessing

During my first two years at NYU--from 1998-1999, my boss Naomi would invite me to ride along with her and a professor or two from the Judaic Studies Department to go see Henry Taub.  Henry was a graduate of NYU, the founder of ADP, a lucrative payroll company, and very philanthropic, particularly for general civic and Jewish causes, including many related to Israel.  Naomi's plan was to create the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU and my job, as the executive director of the Bronfman Center, was to go along for the ride and, after the academics spoke, explain how scholarship devoted to Israel would positively impact the enterprise of Jewish identity and pro-Israel activism on campus.

I enjoyed the visits to Henry's office.  The drive up the Henry Hudson Parkway toward the George Washington Bridge afforded me often the opportunity to reflect on the scope and scale of my own work in the Jewish community--the city receding behind us; the cliffs of New Jersey looming to the west; traffic coagulating eastward toward the Bronx.  I marveled at how New York City was constructed as I, the least senior person in the car, listened to a skilled and brilliant visionary fundraiser pierced the armor of theoretical academia, my perception of Naomi arguing with the professors as we made our way over the George Washington Bridge and into the parking lot of the Taub Foundation offices in New Jersey.

The office complex itself had an impressive collection of ficus benjamina plants, a particular cultivation I admired, and knowing we were heading upstairs to raise funds (albeit for a good cause) I'd often pause at the plants to admire their humble, green dedication to regeneration.  Bless you, Ficus!

The coffee was always strong; Henry's sons would come forward at some point to say hello; and then a very serious conversation about Israel would take place.  The professors would talk about the value of Israel as subject of academic inquiry and I would often think of the poet Yehuda Amichai's poem "Tourists," in which the poet decries the interloper to Jerusalem noticing, through the eyes of a tour-guide, a common Jerusalemite shopping for groceries for his family.  Eventually, Naomi would volley serve to me to talk about "young Jews on campus" and as I waxed forth about shifting opinions in the current generation, Henry's eyes would sparkle, he'd listen, and then he'd surprise me by telling me about the Jewish communal work he and his wife Marilyn were supporting in New Jersey.  I understood him fundamentally as a man who cared deeply about the Jewish people, their continuity and perseverance, and the importance of investing in their regeneration as a nation--here and in the historic homeland.  Like paycheck data, those allegiances were steady, predictable and fair:  an accounting of what was owed and what were the costs of one's "life work."  These were profound realizations.

The Foundation would eventually fund a chair in Israel Studies at NYU and a Taub Fellows Program at the Bronfman Center, the latter being a way to actively and creatively engage a younger generation of Jews in questions of activism, Israel and Jewishness.  The lion's share of the philanthropy went to the new academic department, as it ought to have; but we had fun with the programmatic work that we did, always with Henry's bright, playful, ocular sparks in mind.

On one particular afternoon, toward the end of the conversation, my own eyes drifted toward a New Jersey Nets team picture and Henry and I traded playful barbs about some ballplayers.  Here's where I really saw another side emerge and frankly, found myself in a happy comfort zone.  Naomi and the professors went one way and Henry and I went on for a while about basketball, the game and its evolution, wondering aloud together about what would be.

I hadn't realized it last night, watching in frustration as Butler launched three-point shot after three-point shot to lose the national championship with an historically abysmal shooting percentage; but when I woke up this morning to read in the Times about Henry Taub's death, I remembered our earlier encounters.  Not so much about Israel and its future but about the steady accumulation of work and hours and wages and statistics, damnit!  statistics!  To be paid on time is to calculate correctly, to plan for what will be and oh, how I mourned a game taken hostage by the klieg lights and the glare of the bomb from three-point-land!

And this morning I saw that twinkle in Henry's eye as his soul ascended to be with God.  It never ceases to amaze me how it is that we learn about someone's death and then measure their known loss up against our prior understanding of reality.  Calculating the fluid value of that shot up against the probability that it would be made.  It reminded me of the theoretical conversations we had about the supposed relative "value" of Jewish outreach work to a perceived indifferent generation of young Jews.  Hard questions.  Hard numbers.  But always with a warm heart and discerning eye.

Henry, you contributed so much to the world and to our people.  Thanks for the privilege of knowing you at one point in time.  May your memory be a blessing.

No comments: