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Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Humorist of Jewishness dies at 47

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David Rakoff

WASHINGTON — David Rakoff, a humorist who often wrote about American Jewish culture, has died.

Rakoff, 47, died in Manhattan of cancer on Aug. 9, a disease he has battled since he was 22, according to media reports.

A frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s This American Life, Rakoff, a Montreal native, embraced his misfortunes with a cheerful negativity.

A book of his essays was named Half Empty.

“Optimism is not for everybody,” he told Tablet magazine in a 2010 podcast. “There are a lot of people who are simply going to feel anxious no matter what – it predates consciousness almost, it’s pre-verbal, it’s the way you are and ultimately it’s as value neutral as having brown eyes.”

At a public memorial service held at Congregation Habonim in Toronto recently, storyteller Eli Rubinstein, the congregation’s religious leader, who is also the national director of the March of the Living, spoke about the late artist, saying that not only was he a great artist but also a true “mensch and a virtuous person.”

“It is not uncommon for us to hear of individuals who were great artists, but when it came to friendships or personal acts of kindness, we’re more than a little deficient. We often, then, try to make excuses for them, as if their genius in one field, gave them a free pass in all other areas of life.

“But that was not the case with Davey I was told – with all the brilliance he had – whether in writing, speaking or painting – he was still a mensch, a virtuous person, a wonderful and caring son, brother, uncle, friend,” Rubinstein said.

“As the family told me, ‘For the people he loved he would do absolutely anything…’

“And this kindness extended to many others as well:  a restaurant waiter, a taxi driver, or to be more specific, the doorman at his new building, who he was the first to give a meal to on Thanksgiving, or the little boy who was supposed to join him on the set of [The Daily Show with Jon Stewart]. When, at the last minute, the boy was not allowed to attend, David made sure to purposely tug on his ear during the show, which was a pre-arranged signal, a shout-out to one little boy during a show watched by millions, or those in his circle who were suffering from terminal illnesses.”

His older sister, Ruth, also spoke lovingly about her brother’s love of people.

“My Davey’s true talent, the most remarkable of his gifts, was his commitment to being a devoted friend. I believe he worked harder and more consistently at his copious friendships and social encounters than he did at anything else in his life. No passing kindness to Davey went unrewarded,” she said.

“If you were lucky enough to be among the scores of people who he considered friends and you needed anything from him… he would drop everything and be available and reliable and competent. And if you were lucky enough to be a child in his life, and there are many beyond his beloved nephews and niece, you would be the recipient of handmade gifts and birthdays always remembered and an interest in what you were doing.”

Eulogies were also given by his older brother, Simon; Dr. Mark Greenberg, a senior staff oncologist at the Hospital for Sick Children and a close family friend; and David’s father, prominent Toronto psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff, who addressed the gathering without prepared notes, concluding his eulogy by saying that it was as if Davey was a stage director and his instructions to the cast were “Exit Dancing.”

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