Back in the day when greeting cards were made of paper, I saw one that said, “Coincidence is God’s way of doing miracles anonymously.” That phrase has a contested provenance, but it describes what happened about six years ago when Bob Simon, the veteran CBS newsman who died last week in a car crash here, and his wife became my downstairs neighbors in a five-unit coop. They were guests for Shabbat and holiday meals, then movies, parts of weekends on our roof deck, whole weekends at his Hamptons home and then of late, weekly (his schedule permitting) dinners to take, as we ironically called it, our time to put the world in order.
The obituaries in the press have detailed his life, and to repeat that here would be redundant. A Bronx boy who made good and became “the journalist’s journalist.” Rumor has it that his accent was problematic early on, but I will leave that to the CBS archivists.
He had numerous achievements and was recognized with Emmy and Peabody awards and the like by his peers. He was proud of these but with an “aw, shucks,” attitude, passing credit on to his producers and the subjects of his stories.
My time with Bob revealed a humanity that I had never seen before. He was inquisitive about all things and all ideas, but at the same time he did not suffer fools well. We spent hours talking, and he had an insatiable thirst for just wanting to know things.
He was an adrenaline junky of the highest degree. In 2011 when the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, I remember his frustration at not going to Japan. His pieces at CBS News and “60 Minutes” evolved over time from exclusively front-line war stories to a mix of front-line and more cultural pieces. He had even toyed with the idea of seeing if I could join to join him to work on a piece in Syria several years ago about Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I always sensed a frustration in him that now the younger pups were having all the fun; if left to his own devices he would still be the war correspondent.
He was dramatically affected by his time in an Iraqi prison camp during the Gulf War, as chronicled in his book “40 Days.” He described to me how every morning he was told that he was going to die; but then he laughed, with his typical sardonic humor, when we read the obituary that CBS had prepared.
I was used to his phone calls from overseas. My most memorable ones were: “I am doing a piece on gays in Israel and I need an intro quote from the prophets.” “I was rafting in Uganda and I swallowed Nile water … what to do?” “I’m interviewing Angelina Jolie, what should I ask her?”
In 1987 he was posted to Israel for 20 years. To many Israelis he was a thorn in their sides, but knowing Bob, he was an equal-opportunity thorn and didn’t single out Israel. He said to me shortly before his death that his views about Israel change every year and a half, and perhaps, while being strongly against settlements, given the sordid state of affairs in the Middle East, maybe more territory under Israeli control is better than less.
Bob’s Yiddishkeit was very deep in a cultural way. He adored the old Catskill Borscht Belt comedies, and his Mount Sinai was Zabar’s. My email inbox was full of Jewish jokes from him. In the past few years he would always tell me how he cherished his “Shabbos walks” when he was in the Hamptons. A mezuzah welcomed his guests.
Bob was an utter contradiction, a lot like the yin-yang where opposites coexist, rather than compete. While heralded as the conversationalist and storyteller par excellence, he valued silence and introspection. He relished pieces that had him spend time in monasteries where he could be with himself and other like-minded souls in silence. He enjoyed getting on his motorcycle with his leather jacket and hitting the road, Easy Rider-style, with, as he described, the “open road and wind at his back.”
He deplored the injustice of institutions, whether government or corporate, and, almost like the Prophets, railed against the abuses on the downtrodden. He was looking for the shards of the Divine, although he would roll his eyes at kabbalistic references, and try to bring a story of dignity to those who needed their stories told. One such recent piece was about a symphony orchestra in the Congo that tried to bring dignity to the forsaken. Telling the world of people helping others and mankind’s inherent goodness was Bob’s tikkun olam, and he didn’t even know it.
His God was the God of justice, inherent value and aspirations of all people. He cherished the interactions with the people he met on assignment, and when debriefed about the piece over dinner he had a sparkle in his eye about what he learned, what he saw and how it enriched him.
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In spite of all of his accomplishments, Bob was the Bronx boy who never left the Bronx. Quiet, shy, humble, self-deprecating. As all the obituaries laud Bob Simon the journalist, I am blessed by knowing Bob Simon the man. In his poem “Ulysses,” Tennyson writes, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Bob will be a major shareholder.
Bob wanted to be remembered for his irony. That wish has come true.
Lester Gottesman is a surgeon in New York City.