The last time I saw my father we were sitting together on a South Florida beach. It was the winter of 1982, a few weeks before he died, and perhaps sensing his days were numbered, he said something that seemed out of the blue, as he was not given to such pronouncements.
“The most important thing in life,” he said, “is to put yourself last. When you get married, you put your wife first; when you have kids, you put them first; when you have grandkids, you put them first.”
I was young then, just 25, and didn’t realize until years later how profound his words were, and what a lesson they were to live by. It’s a kind of selflessness my “have it all” baby-boomer generation isn’t much acquainted with.
But I think Helen Gertz, the longtime Jewish Week receptionist who died suddenly last Sunday of an apparent heart attack at 79, knew all about that kind of selflessness and lived her life by that simple rule.
When you approached the paper’s front desk, her home for 18 years and the office’s home plate, so to speak, the talk was never about Helen. It was invariably about her devoted husband, Stanley, their two grown children, Gary and Linda, and their spouses, Randie and Bob, and mostly the four grandkids – Danielle and Allie, Jamie and Jessie. It was about you and your kids, and for some in the office, their grandkids. It all came from that selfless place in her, and so did the generosity and her big heart and her sweetness.
And it all made her the soul of the office, everyone’s mother and grandmother. She took heimische and turned it into soulfulness. She had a kind of Jewish soul that touched everyone around her. Helen’s life was steeped in the Jewish experience. Her father was a kosher butcher with a shop on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. It was where she would meet her husband of 58 years, Stanley Gertz. His mother bought her meat at Mr. Zeiler’s shop, and after they were married the young couple, in time-honored New York fashion, lived above the store. The two lived on Conduit Avenue in Ozone Park for 40 years, and were very active in Temple Sons of Jacob. Stanley eventually became shul president, a post he held for more than two decades.
Helen came to The Jewish Week in 1988 after having worked for a toy company in Manhattan. Somehow, that job seemed to mesh perfectly with her giving personality, and perhaps it set the stage for her role at the paper.
Around the office she was famous for the candy and chocolate she always kept well stocked at the front desk. It was just her sweetness made tangible.
“She was no different at the office than she was with everyone in her life,” her son, Gary, recalled. “She would do everything for everyone.” “She was like everyone’s mother,” said daughter Linda. “And she loved her job. She would have worked there without pay.”
And of course there was the knitting. From that small desk near the front door, in between a barrage of phone calls that she handled with grace and tact, she turned out sweaters and hats and scarves and berets for Jewish Week staffers’ kids and grandkids and kids yet to come — and a smashing light orange poncho for my redheaded daughter. And there was even a piece she was working on for her hairdresser’s niece and the child of a UPS delivery man, according to a story going around the office this week. It was a steady stream of love, one garment at a time.
The knitting, I think, was a rich metaphor. She stitched together strands of wool and cotton, sure. But she bound us together, too, all of us at the office, into something — if not quite a family then some kind of a collective with all our individual selves somehow tied to Helen at the center.
The picture I’ll carry in my head of Helen is the one of her at the front desk, knitting needles softly clicking, stitching us together and selflessly doling out those precious, handmade gifts from that big heart of hers.
Contributions in memory of Helen Gertz may be made to UJA-Federation of New York.
Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this remembrance.