I sent this out to a small list and the reaction was so positive I decided to award this a larger distribution.
He Missed the Ring but Got the Call
A Tribute for the Shloshim of Reb Shlomo Meir Teller z”l
Rest assured that this catchy title shall be vindicated at the end, p”G.
That said: my father, Fred Teller, hk”m – or as he preferred, Shlomo Meir – was unmoved by spiffy sound bites or ornate language. My own vocabulary which was recognized by the SAT College Board and two other august institutions, never impressed him. Whenever he sought a Rav for the shul that he lovingly built (Young Israel of Stamford, Connecticut) he was always looking for “a learner.” Notwithstanding his cum laude in Classics from an Ivy League institution, he was dubious if the speech of the candidate was too polished or overly florid. Over the years his sensitive antennae picked up on those who could talk the talk but were clueless as to the walk; a plainspoken, yeshivish “mistama” or “m’maila” would put him at ease.
Shlomo Meir Teller walked all walks with refinement and dignity, greeting everyone with a winsome smile and an endearing wink. Never would he stoop to behavior beneath himself. In all his life’s endeavors, and in a business world where regard is usually reserved for those who wield power, control assets and know how to dominate (a trifecta for which he was not even in the running) – he was deeply respected, indeed revered.
He prevailed in his endeavors in the right ways, and for the right reasons. Yet another example of this was recounted during the shiva, by his next-door-neighbor in Har Nof. The apartment this man had been renting for years became available for sale, and alas he did not have the means to purchase it. The apartment then went to the general market, and one of my sons made an offer.
I was enthused over this excellent prospect, but my father – who surely could have used a youthful grandchild so close by – felt otherwise. “Nothing doing,” he ruled unequivocally. The neighbor was there first and it wasn’t right to outbid a deserving party. We tried to reason with my father concerning a renter who’d had first dibs but could not deliver, and how our interests in the matter were, in fact, in his best interests.
But in typical fashion, he opted to work behind the scenes and succeeded in bridging the positions of the buyer and seller. The dumbfounded neighbor asked how my father had acquired his golden touch. Reb Shlomo Meir revealed that in all his years in business he never once went to a beis din or court. Disputes arose, but he did not need to call upon the services of an intermediary to solve them. Steadfast reason, wisdom, goodwill, fairness and his likeability, always did the trick. I am sure his sparkling sense of humor also didn’t hurt.
Shlomo Meir Teller managed to escape Vienna after the Anschluss with just his sister. They were two young teenagers – he was barely 13 – in New York City on their own He made it his first priority to learn accent-free English, and got eventually himself admitted to night school at Columbia University. During the day he worked, giving a portion of his wage to cover his sister’s accommodations until he was drafted into the US Army.
This brought him back to his birthplace at the time of its Allied liberation. It is my estimation that he was not a stellar soldier, lacking the moxie and bravado of the typical GI Joe. But as he was highly intelligent and had the requisite language-skills he was recruited into military intelligence (OSS, predecessor of the CIA). He used this position to accord any favor he could to a fellow Jew, until his career ended abruptly – when he brokered for Jewish officers in the Russian army to defect to the American sector of Vienna.
The Russians were eager to abscond but they wanted to bring their families. My father secured an agreement from his superiors acceding to this request, but on the day of the defection the Americans reneged and stipulated “officers only.” Shlomo Meir was so crushed by this dishonesty that he quit working for Uncle Sam.
He then turned his strong passion and skill-set to his next position, working for the Joint Distribution Committee. Here there were no official restrictions on what he could do for fellow Jews. While the realities of postwar Europe made nothing easy, his intimate knowledge of American military workings gave him an insider’s advantage in tracking the vast surplus of army supplies across Europe. What he would do next would require calm nerves and supreme coordination, but he was, after all, trained in clandestine operations.
He borrowed a few small items… like jeeps, trucks and platoon-size tents, and sent them on to a small nation fighting desperately for its independence. In North Africa he worked on smuggling Jews to that same destination.
The liberties the ex-soldier took may have been assisted by the fact that the woman he was courting – my mother, Edna Lichtenstein – was a lieutenant in the army (as were all WAC nurses, but I was showing off).
My awareness of this came by accident, from a man who preferred at all costs not to talk about himself. The first time that we traveled together to Jerusalem, I began explaining why the road at Bab el Wad is littered with the detritus of ill-fated convoys trying to transport supplies to the capital during the War of Independence.
My father looked at me and commented atypically: “You’re trying to explain this to me? I brought these vehicles here.” On this subject – like any other in which he had assisted others – he would speak no more.
My father surely did not have a monopoly on letting his actions speak louder than his words, but he excelled in not only refraining from discussing what he did for others, but promptly forgetting about it. He never kept an accounting, neither in the literal nor the figurative sense.
A talmid from the Stamford yeshiva related to me that he could only afford to fly in one rosh yeshiva for his out-of-town wedding, so my father flew in the other. I asked my father about this and not only did he not recall it – he did not ask any questions or wish to clarify any details. He was about as interested in hearing about favors that he had performed as he was about Idaho’s state bird.
However, notwithstanding his quiet and refined nature, if the honor of the Almighty or of others was at stake, he knew how to voice opposition. About 45 years ago, a Jewish community center in a nearby town was conducting its annual carnival on a Sunday that fell on Tisha B’av. Sam Shoshan z”l (of early JDL fame) declared that this must be protested and my father bought in.
So did many others, but when it came to actually protesting, the scene was reminiscent of the zekanim approaching Pharaoh; by the time the promised caravan of cars arrived at the JCC, it was no longer a caravan; one guy had to get gas, another guy’s dog needed an emergency appendectomy, Berel wished to look if he had a dog, Shmerel had to check the tire-pressure of his spare, twelve other guys got lost, and only Teller was left to protest.
He held his poster aloft and picketed every ride and attraction, ruining everyone’s party. (I was the kid hiding in the corner, pretending I wasn’t related.)
He had no problem phoning up perfect strangers and informing them that they must join the minyan. These individuals, many of them affluent CEOs not accustomed to being instructed ‑ especially regarding religious matters ‑ demanded indignantly: “And who are you?”
He had a response that disarmed them and assured their attendance: “The candy man.”
A watershed event in his life was when the Bais Binyamin yeshivah moved to Stamford in 1976. On that very day he set about selling the family home and bought an apartment adjacent to the yeshivah. And it was to the Stamford Yeshivah that he devoted hours upon hours, weekly – making up, he believed, for lost time. He also put himself totally at the disposal of the yeshivah’s administration.
Virtually overnight he became the right hand of HaRav Dovid Hirsh Mayer zt”l. Assisting a strapped yeshivah naturally entails disappointments. Reb Dovid Hirsh explained to my father that the yeshivah’s students come from the best homes: God-fearing, learned, and… penniless.
But whatever my father did on behalf of the yeshivah – or anything in life – he did with all of his heart, energy, concentration, and resources. And, if after a significant expenditure of time and all of the above the project failed, he pivoted and never looked back. He had done all that he could do; God runs the world. Veiter.
He also had the rare talent of being modeh al ha’emmes. Not only would he admit that he was mistaken, but he would laud an opponent who proved him wrong. One day his car broke down outside Har Nof and service was summoned. The mechanic gave him a jump and told him that his battery needed to be replaced. My father followed him to his shop where he purchased a new battery. The mechanic then tried to sell my father a pair of jumper cables.
“Why would I need these with a new battery?” Shlomo Meir inquired.
“You can use them to assist someone else.”
The fellow’s reasoning was so appealing that my father found it irresistible and bought two jumper cables. I got to keep the second one, but it came with a directive and sense of mission.
The Stamford roshei yeshiva loved him, as did the bachurim, who would often come for nourishment and nurturing to my parents’ apartment. And when my father was privileged to make his first siyum, it was a simcha for the entire yeshiva. The yeshiva hired a band, adorned several tables with carbohydrates and erupted into dancing that was so lively that my (non-teenage) father fell several times.
This was an auspicious launch of an avocation that would become a full-time pursuit. Until then his learning had been more-or-less relegated to his daily commute to Manhattan, his nightly visit to the yeshivah and whenever he could squeeze in a few minutes at the office.
It was at that point, for the first time in his life, that Shlomo Meir Teller missed the ring.
Back in 1980s, the telephone was the fulcrum of the wholesale garment industry. One met with the buyers in the showroom (and my father was one of the few to wear a yarmulke in those days in the garment center), but the bulk of business was conducted over the phone.
If a phone rang, it was never ignored. It represented an order, instructions from the bank concerning the line of credit, a UPS delivery update, details about an upcoming trade show, and any number of issues crucial to keeping the wheels of commerce and industry turning.
One notable day my father was seated at his desk with an open gemara when the phone rang. In those days there were no flashing lights on the console, but this particular telephone would clang with that strange European urgency: RING-RING, RING-RING, RING-RING!
Yet my father, utterly immersed in the words of the Sages, did not hear the contraption pealing, just two feet away. An office-worker asked him why he was not answering the call. And it was only then… that he heard the ring. It was a transmogrification in silk, the point of metamorphosis, or in colloquial parlance: the moment he flipped into becoming a septuagenarian-yeshiva-bachur. Surely, an apotheosis.
Rebbitzen Tzippora Heller used to speak of what she dubbed “a celestial phone call.” When you get an urge to do a mitzvah, it is coming from on high. If you do not pick up the receiver... they stop dialing.
This was the call my father heard, loud and clear.
The very next day my father began the process of closing – not selling – his business. He had what would turn out to be two decades ahead for full-time learning... and there was not a moment to delay.
Everyone commented upon how Reb Shlomo Meir was perennially dignified, refined... and happy. He conducted and concluded a glorious life doing precisely what he wanted to do with no regrets and certainly no sense of entitlement. I distinctly recall how one summer day he was sitting on his porch eating some cottage cheese (plain, ungarnished cottage cheese – straight from the tub to the plate) and remarked: “I don’t deserve this!” The man had experienced untold hardships, building his life brick-by-brick, with none of the parental support or advantages to which many are accustomed.
Yet for him, eating simple cottage cheese as a free man was more than he felt he deserved. He echoed the same sentiment at every family simcha. He did not expect, he never demanded; but he was always truly grateful and appreciative. Therefore, he was constantly in a state of happiness, irredeemably optimistic.
Chazal teach that a man does not die with even half his desires fulfilled. And yet, and yet, my father and dignified example, hk”m, left this world with everything that he ever sought: in Eretz Yisrael, surrounded by adoring grandchildren, and soaring on the wings of Torah learning.
 When he came to Palestine in conjunction with this transfer, he was packing significant heat; he departed cold (unpacked).
 He was so devoted (and effective) in collecting money for Tomchei Shabbos of Har Nof that for the last few Purims he refused to come to us (in a different Jerusalem neighborhood) for the seudah as he felt that doing so would be neglectful abandonment of his post at a time that was very profitable for the zeddakah. There was no Plan B. His insistence meant eating the seudah by himself (since he had become a widower) rather than prioritizing his personal preferences over the betterment of the neighborhood.
 In his final eight days in the hospital he was sapped of strength and unable to speak. Nonetheless, he thanked every nurse that poked and pricked him. “Shlomo, how are you?” they would ask. “Excellent,” he replied, weakly.
The last Friday afternoon of his life, as I was leaving the hospital I wished my father, “Good Shabbos.” He then opened his eyes and delivered for his final time ‑ with his trademark flourish of excellence ‑ his good ‘ol wink and a smile, acknowledging my greeting.
A cardiac ward is a cacophony of sonar-like beeping, rhythmic swooshing and muffled alerts. But at that moment to my ears, hills and mesas and Andes of silence arose from an ocean of noise. To say that I felt like a million bucks would be criminal levels of understatement. I shall cherish his goodbye the rest of my life.