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Friendship Formula

Binyamin Rose

When he was five years old, Clifford Felder’s doctor told his parents he’d never finish school. But the boy-genius hampered by debilitating social handicaps clawed his way through, rising to prominence as a crackerjack chemist and breaking through his invisible barriers to become a well-loved member of a very special community.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

cliffordWhen I made aliyah to Rehovot 20 years ago, the gabbaim in the shul I joined immediately brought me into their rotation of baalei korei to read the Torah on Shabbos mornings.

One of my turns fell on the Shabbos of Parshas Va’eira, which contains seven of the ten plagues.

As I read each new plague, one congregant would interrupt, shouting out “whoa!” Everyone would turn around and chuckle a bit. Except for me. The other congregants at Beit Chatam — a shul founded and frequented by native English-speakers — were already used to this sometimes “disruptive” congregant, Chaim Tzvi (Clifford) Felder, and suffered his interruptions with amusement and tolerance.

I found this to be a bit disconcerting. Any baal korei will tell you that after the hours of preparation it takes to read a parshah properly, any distraction can throw off the concentration of even the best-prepared reader.

The next year, as my mazel would have it, my turn came up again on Parshas Va’eira. This time I agreed to keep my turn only if someone would agree to sit next to Chaim Tzvi and restrain him. Rather than find someone else to read last minute, one congregant picked up the gauntlet. That year, only one “whoa” came from Chaim Tzvi’s direction.

I thought I was doing the right thing by standing up for the shul’s decorum. Until 19 years later, when I heard about the hesped Rabbi Zev Leff delivered at Beit Chatam for Chaim Tzvi, who was niftar this year at age 59.

Rabbi Leff, who lectures regularly at Beit Chatam, recalled a shiur he once gave regarding the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students. Suddenly, a cry of “oy vey” came from the audience. “I looked over and saw it was Chaim Tzvi,” said Rabbi Leff. “I thought, Here I am giving this shiur and I’m not crying, but he’s saying ‘oy vey’ because the deaths of these 24,000 talmidim actually affected him.”

Chaim Tzvi Felder was a man with a sensitive soul, at least partly shaped by his own personal suffering. He had a condition that medical science today might call Asperger’s, but as a child of the ’60s, his symptoms defied diagnosis — with the exception of the doctor who told his parents that their five-year-old son would never finish high school.

Observing social norms was a major challenge for Chaim Tzvi, and his schoolmates taunted and teased him mercilessly.

As an adult, his condition often caused him to act more as a curious child than Dr. Chaim Tzvi Felder, the top research chemist at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute. His handshake lasted a bit too long, he would shuckle even in normal conversation, and ending that conversation often required an act of diplomacy. All this despite the fact that Chaim Tzvi was brilliant and his insights thought-provoking.


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