I feel that it is appropriate, in the short space allotted me, to share my profound feelings of loss at the passing of my dear friend of 25 years, Cantor Max Wider (R’ Shemaryahu Yaakov Mayer) ob’m, who passed away in Dallas on Thursday, Nov. 16, at the age of 99.
All in Dallas should know that there was a giant among us — who is no longer with us. You might wonder, why would I feel so sad at the loss of someone who lived to such a ripe old age?
The answer to this struck me as I stood next to him the previous night in the hospital and he opened his eyes widely, looking at me, and I told him we would recite the vidui (confession, as one does on Yom Kippur and before passing). He winced upon hearing the suggestion, but I said it with him. And then he perked up when I said we would recite the Shema; his eyes opened widely for nearly the last time.
The profound sense of loss struck me as I stroked his arm and gazed into those eyes. Those were precious eyes which beheld the grandeur of European Jewry before the war. Eyes which saw the giant Chassidic rebbes of a generation long gone. He received his rabbinical ordination from his beloved rebbe, the world-renowned holy man and sage Rav Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar, at the young age of 16. Endowed with a beautiful voice, Max (who went by the name Yankov Mayer) led the rebbe’s prestigious choir on the High Holy Days in Satmar.
He would share with me untold numbers of stories and Torah thoughts of the great Chassidic masters, always with the details of their yichus, where exactly this or that rebbe fit into the Chassidic family tree. He would tell of great rebbes he traveled to see and speak to throughout Europe, often in summer resorts where they would congregate. His thoughts were never far from his own dear rebbe, whose picture adorned the wall of his office.
Those eyes were the same eyes that painfully witnessed the murder of his first wife and children by the accursed Nazis, as well as the demise of hundreds of thousands of his beloved brethren during his years in Auschwitz. The stories he shared abounded and wrench the heart. He once said he learned to be a mohel to fulfill the mitzvah of bris on his own sons, then broke down crying saying they were all taken from him. Max’s unforgettable, heartfelt rendition of Yizkor on Yom Kippur for all those murdered in the war ripped the hearts of all of us and will remain with all who heard it forever.
He told me that he rescued 100 Jews in Auschwitz, and I always wondered what that meant. One morning an older Chassidic Jew with his son were visiting our shul. After shul he and Max saw each other, and began to hug and kiss each other and cry. I asked him who is this Jew? He replied tearfully and full of emotion, “He’s one of my hundred!” I approached this Jew and asked him what Max did for him in Auschwitz, and he replied, “You wouldn’t believe it — he got us everything! We didn’t know how he did it; he smuggled us food, matzo on Pesach, a shofar and so on, you wouldn’t believe it!”
When I looked at those eyes in the hospital, I realized that these are the eyes that had become my eyes, to see a world that is no longer. Those eyes were a window into previous grandeur… to its destruction … and to heroic survival and rebuilding from those ashes. Eyes that had the herculean inner strength to rebuild a beautiful Jewish family with his beloved wife Lily, a family true to his legacy and to a Jewish future.
After the war Max served as a cantor, mohel, teacher and shochet (kosher slaughterer) in Texas. He once told me about a very special day in his life. The renowned sage, Rav Yosef Kahaneman of Ponovizh, who often traveled to America to raise funds for his system of yeshivos, made it his practice to refrain from eating meat in America, not knowing whose shechita (ritual kosher slaughter) he could rely upon. Once, while in Texas, someone told him there is a young shochet he could indeed rely upon — R’ Yankov Mayer Wider. The revered rav tested him on the laws of shechita (“oif the ganzta Simla Chadasha”), checked his chalaf (knife), and, satisfied, partook of his meat. “That was the happiest day of my life!”
Max contributed generously to the institutions of Satmar and many other Torah institutions throughout the world.
When, at the age of 96, Max needed to be in the hospital for Rosh Hashanah due to a heart event and extreme weakness, his son Simon asked me to go to comfort him and talk to him despite his determination to be in shul. After Rosh Hashanah I asked him if he blew shofar in the hospital, to which he replied, “Of course!” I then asked him if, due to his weakened state, he blew the minimum requirement of 30 blasts or the entire 100 blasts. To that he looked at me with complete bewilderment, as if I fell off the moon, “Of course 100 koilos (shofar blasts)!”
The determination to do the right thing — despite enormous difficulty — for someone who had survived what he survived … wasn’t even a question!
May he be a meilitz yosher, pray on high, for his beloved wife and family and for us all. May we all strengthen ourselves in our Torah studies and observance in his merit, and may his memory be a blessing for us all. We will sorely miss him. His loss, in my mind, marks the end of a generation.