NORMAN GERSHMAN – There is more than meets the eye

I was privileged to meet Norman exactly once, on February 19, 2019. We met in The Palace, an aptly named assisted living facility in Coral Gables. Having made phone contact a few weeks prior to my visit,  I introduced myself as a New York rabbi living in Albania. He became as eager to meet me as I was to meet him.


By Rabbi Yisroel Finman

Norman Gershman passed away recently.  I am very grateful to have met this special person. Norman is probably best known for his photo journal book, Besa. He will probably become even more identified with this book as the story of the Albanian people’s response to the Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution is more well know.

I was privileged to meet Norman exactly once, on February 19, 2019. We met in The Palace, an aptly named assisted living facility in Coral Gables. Having made phone contact a few weeks prior to my visit,  I introduced myself as a New York rabbi living in Albania. He became as eager to meet me as I was to meet him.

We spent three hours together.  The more we talked, the closer we became. Two old souls reconnecting from a past that neither of us were aware of.

Most of the talk was about Albania. He recounted how he became involved. He fondly reminisced about some of the harrows of his early trip, especially mentioning when roads weren’t exactly modernized and his 4 wheel drive jeep could not traverse the terrain, forcing him to schlep equipment uphill for a mile on muddy paths. And he beamed when talking about the joy of all the incredible people he met.  He also told me the stories of the Siberia Jewish Life photos hanging on his walls. And was equally as proud of the photos of The Ladies of The Palace, elderly residents who were posed as the regal jewels that they were, despite their age.   It was at this point when I questioned him about the largest photo in his apartment that greeted all guests when the front door was opened. A larger than life photo of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. For those of you who do not know, Shlomo Carlebach was by far the most predominate influence in my life. It was he who showed me what it means to be a Jew. It was learning deep Jewish spirituality from him that rerouted me from a planned trip to an ashram in the Himalayas to yeshiva in America.

 

Me–“OK, Norman. What’s your connection to Shlomo Carlebach?”

Norman—“What? If you live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan how can you not know Shlomo Carlebach”?

Norman and Shlomo, two iconoclasts respecting and admiring one another.

Norman stressed to me about the importance of having a resident rabbi in Albania and the necessity of building a synagogue there. I told him about my organization Besa&Shalom—Bringing Albanians and Jews Closer Together, and my role as Executive Director of The Office of The Chief Rabbi of Albania.  Also presented a timeline for building the Albania Jewish center beginning with a very modest synagogue and Holocaust Museum. When I asked him for permission to use some of his photos in the museum he was ecstatic.  He insisted that he would do everything possible in helping me to make it happen and referred me to The Eye Contact Foundation.

We departed with a big hug, looking forward to my next trip to Miami and our next meeting.

Sadly, my next trip to Miami was in mid-June a few days after his passing.

Fortunately, the family was arranging a memorial service the following week in Manhattan which is where I was going.  I reconnected with Norman’s grandson Zach whom I had met in Thessaloniki (Salonika) Greece. Zach was the person who connected me with Norman. I also met Norman’s family.

The Memorial was an eye opener. I learned so much about Norman Gershman. How does esteem and respect for a person go from 100% to 10,000%?  By discovering a great person whom you thought was just an acclaimed photo artist.

His family and friends spent hours, speaking of profound memories, reciting Dylan Thomas, playing the music of Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd and Shlomo Carlebach.

Norman had an eclectic love of music, from Opera to Pink Floyd, from Billy Holiday to Robert Johnson. And of course Shlomo Carlebach‘s unique contemporary Chassidic music.

His children spoke of the father they knew. He was first and foremost a devout family man. They spoke of his long work week followed by weekends consisting of six hour drives to the ski slopes of Vermont and six hour return drives home so the week could then begin again.

He encouraged them to take chances in life by being passionate in following their hearts, something he demonstrated by both his financial career and his photographs.

He had a very successful career on Wall Street and walked away from it to pursue his passion for photography. His approach was not taking pictures but capturing stories. His photos, whether of people or inanimate subjects, always revealed the souls of the subjects.

Unfortunately I left the Memorial Service early in order to take a train to Long Island where I was celebrating Shabbat with my family.

Norman, you will be missed. But your life will continue through great memories and monumental photographs

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