I’ve always wondered what factors determine whether one gets a z”l suffix (zichrono leverachah) or a zt”l (zecher tzaddik leverachah) after he’s passed on. I know of no objective standard, or of any official sanctioning board that makes these decisions. In my understanding, the term zt”l is exclusively reserved for luminaries who have benefited their generation with their exemplary deeds and accomplishments.
The term “tzaddik” translates as “righteous,” but in truth it is much more. There are many righteous people among us, but only a very select few are afforded the title of tzaddik. A tzaddik is a person who not only behaves righteously but whose mere presence among us sheds light, setting an example for those in his wake. When a tzaddik departs from us, a void is created that cannot be filled, leaving a generation in mourning.
By this definition, Chaim Kaminetzky, who passed away last week, was surely a tzaddik.
I met Chaim about 24 years ago. At the time I was a graduate student, singing in bands to make some extra money. One afternoon I was singing at a bas mitzvah, and Chaim, who was there to pick up his daughter, approached me and said, “My name is Chaim Kaminetzky. I’m chairing this year’s Ohel dinner, and I’d like for you to perform.”
He took my number and the next day we were sitting at my table in my small apartment in Queens. “I think you have a gift, and I would like to get you out there,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
And get me out there he did. By the end of that year I was performing in prestigious venues across the country and around the world. I kept asking Chaim about our financial arrangement, as surely I owed him his agent’s fees. He put me off time and again until I finally realized he never intended to take anything. Not only that, whenever we traveled together he always reached into his own pocket to pay his way in order not to cut into my fees.
But there was much more. At some point I realized I had to be careful about what I said around Chaim, because if I were to let on about anything I needed or even wanted, he would be at my door with it the next day. At first I was puzzled; I didn’t think such people existed. Was I missing something? Actually, I missed nothing, and there was still more.
He was a master at doing things for people quietly, but once in a while I would catch him. I would say, “Chaim’l [my nickname for him], did you do [so and so] or pay for [such and such]?” When he knew I had him cornered the reply was always the same: “Yeah, … so?”
He would never even accept a “thank you” – but after some time I came to understand that for Chaim the reward was already collected when the deed was accomplished, and thus a “thank you” was simply superfluous.
After a while, I began to understand. For the ordinary person, even a very righteous and kind one, his primary concerns are naturally his own and those of his family. For Chaim, however, the concerns of others were his primary concerns, and he had no peace so long as anyone for whom he cared (and there were many) had some unfulfilled need, large or small.
In truth, I had never met anyone like him before, have never met anyone like him since, and, frankly, have no realistic expectation that I will ever meet someone like him again.
* * * * *
When someone had a complicated problem, Chaim was the address. Once an issue, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, was brought to Chaim’s attention, he would find a way to get it resolved. As long as people around him were hurting, there was no rest for Chaim – literally so, as his wife, Barbara, can attest. Chaim was not a good “rester”; most of his nights were largely sleepless. But Barbara was his pillar of strength and she looked after Chaim while he was busy looking after everyone else. And Chaim never missed an opportunity to shower praise on Barbara and credit her for anything he was privileged to accomplish.