An Extraordinary Ordinary Man


In the deepest early morning of March 7, on California’s Pacific Coast Highway, a gold Cadillac driven by a drunk ran a red light, hit a bus and then spun around until it smacked into a white rental car driven by a man named Gedaliah Shaffer. Shaffer had flown into California from Brooklyn that evening, and as an inveterate traveler began the journey to a professional conference with a little sightseeing on one of the country’s more scenic drives. But when the Cadillac hit him, Shaffer was instantly killed.

It was a sudden end to the life of Gilbert Shaffer, a man who embodied a synthesis of Jewish learning and worldly knowledge in an almost singular way, at a time when most people seem to prefer living in a bifurcated world where Torah is kosher and everything else is considered treif.

Shaffer spent his 61 years plumbing the vast universes of scientific and Torah scholarship, traveling to countries far from his home, visiting every art museum he could find and always giving a dollar to each beggar who came to the minyan where he prayed each morning.

He lived in Crown Heights but was not of it, gently refusing to get caught up in the Brooklyn neighborhood’s innumerable religious and political spats and squabbles.

Shaffer was not famous, though he was beloved by countless numbers of people. He wasn’t widely influential, though his advice and the example of the way he lived changed the lives of many people who knew him. He certainly wasn’t wealthy, except that his simple home was always filled with his 10 children, his wife, the constant flow of visitors who enriched his life and an endless number of books that fueled what seemed to be an intellect without limits.

His wife, the equally extraordinary Bronya Shaffer, gives classes on what Judaism has to say about personal dignity, modesty and creativity — she held her own in a panel discussion last year with risqué writers Erica Jong and Daphne Merkin. She wonders how she will ever again enjoy life without the man she calls “my soul mate.”

Gedaliah Shaffer was born in Boston and attended Lubavitch-run schools through high school. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated with a 4.97 average out of possible 5.0 — his only B’s were in humanities courses, one in biblical criticism where the professor was irked that Shaffer brought up Rashi’s answers to almost every question. He graduated early by taking on many extra courses, reading texts and passing final exams without actually taking the classes. At a time when there were few Orthodox Jews in academic life, he then went to Princeton and earned two master’s degrees, in mathematics and physics, and was working on a doctorate in particle physics when he was introduced to his future wife. A man who stayed in Shaffer’s room at Princeton one Shabbat, while Shaffer was away, was astonished by the array of books he found: volumes on physics, on classical philosophy, on theology and on Jewish mysticism. A friend of Bronya’s father, he invited the young, quiet scientist to his home, where his wife said, “This man is for Bronya.” And he was. “I was fascinated by Gedaliah,” Bronya said the other day, standing in their simple house in Crown Heights, where the fanciest adornments are gilt bindings on books that line the shelves from floor to ceiling on every available wall. “He was incredibly accomplished intellectually. There wasn’t anything he didn’t know about. And he was so gentle. With all that there was to him there was no arrogance. He was so comfortable to be with,” she says.

Shaffer was a few months away from completing his dissertation when Bronya’s father was killed, also by an out-of-control vehicle.

Bronya had younger, unmarried siblings and the family had no savings. So Shaffer quietly quit his research and went to work, at first as the night watchman in a sweater factory. A friend working in computers soon persuaded his boss to hire Shaffer as a programmer, though he had absolutely no experience. He simply read a text on the subject and showed up at work, conversant in the new technology. He spent the subsequent 36 years working as a systems analyst, never expressing regret about the turn his journey took, and in fact was on his way to a professional conference when he was killed. But “the least of him was his job,” says Bronya. It was the rest of life that he relished most. “He was just curious. He was constantly amazed, but not surprised, by natural phenomenon. That was the scientist part of him. But there was also his complete appreciation of man-made phenomenon, like the arts. He would talk about the infinite capacity for human beings to create, to express,” she says.

He integrated Torah and secular life in a way that very few do, particularly in a place like Crown Heights, where people often deride anything not directly linked to Torah as “goyish pleasures.”

But he knew they were wrong. Shaffer played piano and loved listening to live chamber music. He spent as much time as he could in art museums and made sure that his 10 children had the same opportunity. “When we really had to be very careful about what we spent money on, if the kids wanted a teacher for some kind of lessons, art or music, that was there no question, we’d find the money. You had to spend money on the house, food and lessons. Their education on all levels was very important,” says Bronya.

But he also always had a sefer, a holy text, in his hand. During the few moments it took a page to load on his computer, he would read the better part of a page.

He traveled widely, devouring art, music and folklore at a pace that no one else could keep up with. Rather than waste nights sleeping, he spent them driving between cities and museums. As their children grew — they are now between 16 and 30 years old and include a daughter who is a physician — he would take along one at a time on his adventures.

This summer’s trip was to be to Costa Rica, Peru and Panama, with his youngest daughter. Among the 30 or so books he left by his bedside and would have finished quickly are some on his planned destinations. Others are “The Secret Lives of Presidents,” “The Complete Plays of Gilbert & Sullivan,” a botany textbook and Virginia Woolf’s first novel. A near constant stream of friends and relatives coming to pay condolences to Bronya has replaced the lines of people who used to wait for Shaffer’s counsel and a donation every Sunday. The shiva was so crowded that people were turned away because the house was filled to capacity.

This Passover was the first in their 38 years in Crown Heights that Shaffer wasn’t there to lead a seder full of insight and learning.

“How do I understand this? I don’t. And I don’t feel compelled to have to,” says Bronya. “It doesn’t minimize how much it hurts, but I don’t understand this any more or any less than I understand how we came to be all those nights and days that we were. I am just so grateful to have had 38 years with this man.”