Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

The prophet Jeremiah tried to give voice to a palpable pain when he said: “My grief is incurable, my heart is sick within me…O that my head were water and my eyes a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night…”  At a moment like this, we wonder if there are any words in the universe that can bring us comfort and consolation amidst our disbelief and our pain.  A kind, inclusive, hilarious, down to earth, thoughtful, inspiring, non-judgmental, insightful and all around extraordinary man taken from us- in the prime and vibrancy of his life.  No matter how hard we try to understand and comprehend what has happened- it still feels so surreal.  You know it wouldn’t be outside the realm of Jeff’s personality to appear at any minute now in order to tell us that he is really okay.  But sadly- despite his propensity for performing the greatest and most entertaining of magic tricks- we gather this hour to mourn a profound loss in all of our lives.  Jeff had 206 speaking engagements last year alone- never saying ‘no’ to anyone- which meant traveling from coast to coast, back and forth, doing what he loved to do- being with people- while always coming home safely to his family…until now.

Almighty God, Lord of the living and the dead: the hearts of Your children who mourn are heavy with grief; where can they find comfort?  We are overcome by anguish.  Please help us to remember the triumph and the joy that filled Jeff’s life.  We are overwhelmed by loss, O Lord.  Help us to treasure the cherished memories of great times we shared with Jeff as we recall the blessing of his days.  

As we gather this hour let us choose to do what Jeff did day in and day out in his thousands of columns, his books and in his life as a whole- focusing not on the tragedy of his death but on 53 incredible years of achievement and accomplishment, brilliance and passion, conviction, sensitivity and deep concern for those around him.

Beloved and cherished by his adoring family, friends and community- we turn now for personal words of tribute to Jeff’s adoring and beloved daughters Alex, Eden, Jordan, daughters; Naomi Zaslow, mother; Lisa Selegman, sister; Darrell Zaslow, brother; Randy Margulis, brother in law; John Bussey, Wall Street Journal Editor; Captain CB “Sully” Sullenberger; Gary Morris, literary agent; and Fred Siegel, college friend.

As still another measure of Jeff’s immeasurable kindness, he offered on more than one occasion to help me develop and write my first book- but never in a million years did I imagine that before I wrote even one word of my book what I would be writing and delivering was Jeff’s eulogy.

I am the final speaker this afternoon and I know that Jeff is saying “please Rabbi, no more”.  But if he knew that I was going to talk about Sherry…for sure Jeff would let me continue…

Sherry, you and Jeff were the perfect team but the truth is that when you were originally fixed up by your friends Mitch and Eileen in 1982- Jeff didn’t make the best first impression.  You were invited to a dinner party in Florida with some of Jeff’s fellow print journalists and all night long you perceived Jeff to be sarcastic when it came to his comments regarding the television news.  For good reason you did not click or connect at all… or so you thought!

While initially you couldn’t believe your friends thought you would like this guy it turned out that you were intrigued by Jeff, you loved the printed word and regularly read his columns.  You even put his contact information in your rolodex.  Then, when you heard Jeff left the Orlando Sentinel, it was like a natural reflex for you to update the file card you had on him with the information reflecting his move to the Wall Street Journal. 

Three years later when you saw him again at a dinner the night before Mitch and Eileen’s wedding there was clearly something there after all.  Jeff said something funny, he made you laugh and it was pure love.  You danced all night at the wedding and he went on to visit you in Detroit from Chicago numerous times, saying that the $89 roundtrip plane fare was well worth the cost. 

Jeff proposed marriage when he took you to Chicago for your birthday on July 14, 1986.  You went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant and he seemed a little nervous when the waiter brought over dessert and you opened a fortune cookie that read “say yes!”  At this revelation you remember being confused for a moment but then- it became one of the happiest weeks of your life.  You were floating in the air being engaged to Jeff Zaslow and it only got better and better and better from there!

The fireworks flew from that point forward which became a constant theme in your married life which officially began on July 4, 1987- naturally!  Sherry, Jeff lit up your life not only with brilliant colors but with fun and excitement, unbridled joy and unconditional love, sheer kindness and non-stop laughter for just short of 25 years.  He trusted your opinion more than anyone and you and the girls were his constant source of inspiration and he was yours.  You were each other’s beshert and as you said, you waited your whole life to meet him.  Jeff was your rock, he completed you and as a dynamic couple you built a wonderful life hand in hand, heart in heart.  Sherry, you said it best, “I was the luckiest woman on the face of the earth to have had Jeff as my husband for 24 years and I wouldn’t have traded one day of what I had with Jeff and my daughters for anything in the world.”

Jordan, Alex and Eden- you dad was the greatest and he made everything more exciting, enjoyable, fun and filled with adventure.  When he entered the room, life immediately got better.  He was genuine and as real as it got.  He was extremely honest and never lied- if he didn’t approve, he would say so.  But when he did, it made whatever it was all the more special.  He took interests in your interests, he made every situation funny, and it was actually therapeutic to talk to him.  Your dad thought so highly of you and regularly asked you for advice.  He really appreciated your critiques of his writing and how you would lovingly correct his grammar.  In short, he absolutely loved being your father.

When you would go out of town, you liked to be together as a family so you would stay in one hotel room.  And your dad regularly insisted that he sleep on the floor so you could all have the beds- saying it was no problem and assuring you that the floor was actually good for his back.  The truth is all he needed was a comforter and a newspaper and Jeff was perfectly content.

Your father recently explained that in doing the research for his latest book “The Magic Room” he was struck that his role as a father was not to tell you what dress to wear or what to do.  “My job,” he said, “is to tell my girls I love them. And Sherry, that I love her, too, obviously.  And when I hug my kids, what a gift it is to be able to do that… We’ve got to hug our kids and make the most of each moment, because you never know.

Jeff’s love of family extended naturally to his beloved nieces and nephews and he treated all of them like his very own children.  He put you on his back, you sang his catchy “Uncle Jeff” song, for your birthdays he took you to the store to pick out anything you wanted and he even signed books for your school teachers.  Jeff once cancelled a speaking engagement to be at his niece’s baby naming.  When the host got angry with Jeff for backing out- he was rebuked and told that cancellations should only happen in matters of life or death.  Jeff simply responded, “well, this is a matter of life.

Jeff had an intrinsic ability to bring out the details that riveted a reader- his words literally jumped off the page and came to life in front of your very eyes.  Jeff once wrote a piece about a competition to replace Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun-Times. He entered to get an angle for the story, and won the job over 12,000 applicants.  Jeff was only 28 at the time yet had the ability to advise people about life.  When asked how he was able to do this Jeff responded that at 28… he had the wisdom of a 29 year old.  Jeff wanted to help people but he also wanted people to be in love because Jeff loved being in love.  To this end, for 12 years he hosted an annual singles party for charity, Zazz Bash in downtown Chicago which drew 7000 readers a year and resulted in 78 marriages and millions of dollars raised for children’s charities.  There is no question that Jeff’s ability to give such great advice, to do such good in the world and to e intimately connected with people was rooted in the example set by his parents who were continually supportive of his dreams.

The reality is that Jeff’s writing changed countless lives for the better- not only the literally millions inspired by how he spoke to our hearts.  Jeff spent time with his interviewees and didn’t only care about getting the story- just ask the Ames girls so many of whom are here today- about how he showed concern for them and for all the people he met.  Or ask Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly- because when Jeff was competing against other writers to tell their story he was the only one to compassionately ask Mark how she was doing.  While with every book Jeff wrote he didn’t know the people when he started the project- that quickly changed as he got to know them.  You see, Jeff could ask the most intimate of questions and people would answer them because he made the feel safe and at ease.

Stories abound of Jeff’s care.  For instance, when he was in high school and took a job in the kitchen of a nursing home because his grandma was there.  Jeff regularly showed concern even for the stranger- like the time he was coming home from a movie with his daughters and saw an old lady who seemed to be struggling as she slowly made her way down the street.  At that moment Jeff decided to follow her home until he knew that she was safe.  Jeff did not know her at all- but wanted to make certain that she was going to be okay.  Another time Jeff inaugurated a Secret Santa program where he matched readers with needy families; he also organized a backpack program, adopted homeless shelters, and gave out winter coats and the list goes on. 

Then on June 17, 2000, Jeff received the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award for using his column to help 47,000 disadvantaged children.  Jeff received his share of awards going back all the way to early childhood when as a baby dressed in a diaper as “Hercules Untrained” Jeff was named the 1960 cutest baby on the boardwalk as part of the Ventnor City, New Jersey James Harvey Post Baby Parade.

Jeff was a good runner although he often joked about it.  In a 1982 8×10 photo from the T-bowl half marathon in Orlando, there is a picture of Jeff in what appears to be him being the first to cross the finish line.  But if you take a closer look- you can see how Jeff craftily took a piece of dental floss and draped it across the photo making it fully and authentically look like Jeff had indeed finished first.

As you know and have heard Jeff was absolutely passionate about Bruce Springsteen’s music, lyrics, and poetry.  When a conversation turned to music and Jeff learned that you might not know much about the Boss, he would instantly light up and was off to the races- became completely engaged in explaining the nuances of Springsteen.  And Sherry, you and Jeff were so looking forward to celebrating your 25th wedding anniversary in Paris this coming July 4 at a Springsteen concert.

My friends, Jeff liked music of all types and kinds and he diligently researched it, knowing the artist and year it was produced.  It is in this spirit of music that I take note of one symphony that is quite different from all the rest.  The conventional symphony has three, four, or perhaps five movements, but there is a symphony that has only one movement.  The reason is that the composer Franz Schubert never finished it.  Schubert wrote the first movement, put it away in his drawer, and before he could finish it, he died.  Hence its name: The Unfinished Symphony.

Through Franz Schubert did not have the privilege of finishing his symphony, the entire world is the richer, in that it processes this wonderful piece of music for despite the fact that it breaks off before it is complete, it is nonetheless, a masterwork.  An unfinished life is, in many ways, like an unfinished symphony.  There is a feeling of deep regret, hurt, anger, and sadness that we are not privileged to have seen that life lived to the fullest.  At the same time, we feel that it is far better to have had the years we did, than to have had nothing at all.  Jeff’s passing leaves us broken-hearted and torn apart at the thought of his unfinished years, but we are also extremely grateful for so many wonderful and enduring memories of a life that was without a doubt- a masterpiece! 

Yes, Jeff made an indelible difference in the lives of those who knew him and those countless followers who did not have the honor of knowing him personally but were transformed by his wisdom.  Jeff made us strong and we will never forget him and his kind, giving spirit.  Thankfully, Jeff knew he had a great life and he often reflected on how he accomplished everything he wanted.  There is no question that Jeff packed a lot of living into 53 years, he made the most of it, and in every way, he personified the word “mentsch”.  And so amid our immense sadness we pray, may the beautiful soul of our beloved Chanan ben Hertz Helevi rest in peace and may his memory be an abundant blessing from heaven as he will continue to be in our hearts forever.  Kein Yehi Ratzon.  So may it be God’s will.  And let us say: Amen.

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