Last month, as we began our daily daf yomi class (the daily study of a page of Talmud) we all looked over to the chair where Tibor Reis usually sat, to my immediate right. On the rare occasion when Tibor did not attend, we assumed he was just too tired. After all, traveling by bus each day to downtown Los Angeles takes a toll on an elderly person. But that day it was different. We all felt that, perhaps, Tibor was the fifth unidentified victim of the horrible June 6 airplane crash at a Fairfax apartment building. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Times identified Tibor as the sole resident of the apartment building to die as a result of the crash.
I had known Tibor for only a short period of time. I met him approximately five years ago when I began attending the daily Talmud class given in Yiddish by my childhood friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Kornwasser. Tibor and four other gentlemen whose ages range from their late 70s to early 90s, attend the Yiddish translation class rather than the numerous English translation classes, because Yiddish is the language they originally studied Talmud of der heime (the old country) in pre-World War II Europe.
Each night when I would walk in, Tibor would ask, "Nu vus hertzach in Yisruel?" (What is happening in Israel?)
I would answer either, "Tziz shtill" (All is quiet) or "Tz vet zayn besser" (It will get better).
Those in the class knew that, prior to coming to daf yomi, I would check the Israeli Web sites for the latest news.
As the class began, Tibor would immediately pepper our rebbe for clarification regarding a difficult passage in the Talmud, or he would clarify for our rebbe an explanation that he would recall from his youth when he studied in Hungary, sighting passages by heart of other pages of the Talmud, the Tanach or the Torah. I would sit there in awe of his encyclopedic knowledge of all portions of the Talmud. Soon, however, Tibor would fall asleep with the Talmud, like a child clutching his teddy bear. Unlike many people his age, he had to continue working long past the age of retirement. I would occasionally peer out of the Talmud to see him asleep. I would never dream of waking him, because I could see he was truly tired, and I did not want to diminish his dignity.
Tibor had fascinating recollections. During our talmudic study of the Sabbath laws, I particularly relished his recollections of how he prepared for the Sabbath in Hungary. When we studied how Jews interacted with the Roman authorities and fellow non-Jews in the Talmud, he would tell us how he and his family interacted with the Hungarian government officials. During the election of 2000, he would regularly express the pride he felt in the nomination of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a fellow Orthodox Jew, for vice president of the United States of America. He would ask me in a rhetorical way "Voyt meir nisht in a gebentchna milyecha?" (Do we not live in a blessed country?)
I have had the good fortune to know many Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives, both personally and materially. Tibor, however, never married or had children, nor did he have great wealth to either assist members of his immediate community or the community at large, as many other Holocaust survivors have had the privilege to do.
I have thought about the unfortunate and untimely death of Tibor on the theological level. Why did he survive the fires of the Holocaust to die in the fires of a plane that crashed into his apartment on a religious holiday (Shavuot), when, at that hour on a normal Monday through Friday, he would still be working in his office repairing watches?
He was killed in such an undignified and tragic way while he was taking his Yom Tov shluf (holiday nap). I can only look to God to find comfort and answers.
However, one comforting thought will never leave me: the knowledge that I routinely had the honor of driving Tibor home to his apartment after the Talmud class. I will miss having Tibor ask his thought-provoking questions and gently falling asleep.
I, Rabbi Kornwasser and all your other friends will miss you in our daf yomi class, Tibor.
Abraham Shafran lives in the Beverlywood area with his wife, Lisa.