Saturday, November 7, 2009

Jake Heifetz: A Real Mensch

Jake was one of my father's closest friends from the old days of the Greenbush area. Both met after World War II when Madison's Triangle Area became their home after long years of wanderings and displacements. The men knew each other for close to a quarter of a century before my father's declining health forced him to abandon the bitter Wisconsin winters in the late 70s for the warmer weather of southern California. My father never made it back to Madison.

Both men could talk the hind leg of a donkey and neither refugee ever grew tired of swapping stories about the good old days in the Shtetl which I always thought sounded pretty rotten and bleak for them and their families. They spoke to each other in Yiddish, prayed in Hebrew, and talked to the world in broken English.

Jake was the neighborhood handy-man. He could always be counted upon for his strong back and a steady carpentry eye. On most good days after work, he tended his garden, a lavish little backyard farm that supplied his family and friends with all the necessary vegetables for any dinner time meal.

In the early 1980s I came back to Madison for a wedding. In the last hours before the flight back to Los Angeles, I decided to visit the old neighborhood for the first time in many years. Walking past Jake's house I saw him tending that very special plot of land of his. He recognized me immediately and said how sorry he was to hear of my father's death. He offered me some tomatoes, corn and rhubarb for the trip home. I told him Madison's finest would be too bulky to take on the plane. No problem, he said. By the time I turned around his wife was walking towards me with cut tomatoes, steaming corn and whatever one does to make rhubarb edible. I had a great meal, missed my connector to Chicago and spent several extra hours at the Madison airport waiting for the next flight out.

I never saw Jake after that, but I'm certain that garden grown rhubarb from a lovingly cared for back yard plot on Chandler Street still clings somewhere near my spleen.


Jake Heifetz was born on April 17, 1917, in Lachwa, Poland and died Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009. Jake was a special man. He was a father of five, grandfather of six, and was soon to be blessed with the birth of his first great-grandchild. Jake himself was the second youngest of seven children born to Arieh and Leah Heifetz. All but two of these children were later killed by the Nazis (with a third older child already residing in the Unites States). In September 1942, Jake and his brother Zelig escaped the mass destruction of their town by the Nazis and their collaborators, and fled to the woods. There Jake and his brother lived for the duration of the war, homeless in their own homeland; fighting to survive against desperate odds. Jake not only fought against the Nazis, but he even managed to meet and marry his wife, Fania in the woods. The story of how Jake was able to obtain a ring for their wedding is emblematic of the way Jake lived his life. As the Nazi soldiers were fleeing from the Eastern front, one soldier begged for bread. Jake, who was armed could have killed this man to avenge all that he himself had been through, but he said that option did not seem right to him; instead he traded the man a loaf of bread for his ring. That ring served as Fania's wedding ring for over 50 years. Jake remained a person who believed in the kindness of others, and who brought joy to all around him. Jake carried candies in his pocket and all the children who knew him, knew to go to "Uncle Jake" for their sweet dose. With a candy in his pocket, and a joke up his sleeve, Jake was always ready to be part of any social gathering. Since arriving in Madison, Jake worked as a carpenter. His strong hands have helped build houses and cabinets, have held aloft the torah like nobody can, and have handed out countless candies and toasted many occasions with his ubiquitous shots of whisky. After his retirement, in 1974, Jake took on the role of caretaker at Beth Israel Center, a role which he has held for many years. In this role, many people would say, Jake was the synagogue. His recitation of the blessings were reminiscent of the world of the heder in which he spent his early years studying the Hebrew prayers. Jake was extremely well read, and perhaps under different life circumstances would have chosen to study or teach the Jewish texts. His humor and his great love of life, will be sorely missed by all his family and extended "family." May his memory be for a blessing. Jake is survived by his five children, Leah, Ethel (Tom), Pauline, Lawrence and Steven (Judy); and by his grandchildren, Tommy, Shayna, Bria, Allie, Jordan and Josh. Funeral Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009, at BETH ISRAEL CENTER, 1406 Mound St., Madison with Rabbi Joshua Ben Gideon officiating. Burial will follow at Forest Hill Cemetery. The family would suggest memorials be made to the Morris Heifetz Welfare Fund at the Beth Israel Center.
Cress Funeral and Cremation Service 3610 Speedway Road (608) 238-3434


  1. What a charming story. I wonder if anyone these days remembers what a REAL person is like? (Man I'm bitter for only being 31. I should be shaking my fist and cursing this new thing called the internet.)

  2. nice idea.. thanks for sharing.