Alfred Moldovan, one of my heroes, passed away last night. He was 92 years old.
His motto was “Justify your existence,” which he did time and again by way of whatever venture he involved himself in.
Al, or Zeide (Yiddish for Grandfather) as nearly everyone I know (including myself) called him, was in the 445th Bomb Group in the Second World War and on the front lines of the American Civil Rights Movement. He helped to form the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which was instrumental in connecting doctors with the movement. Before heading South, he organized with the American Communist Party in New York. An ardent champion of those under-served, ignored and/or assaulted by capitalism, Zeide opened a medical practice for low income patients in Spanish Harlem when it was decidedly unfashionable to do so, and he practiced medicine for half of a century. In his later years, he became a prolific collector of Judaica, a respected historian, and outspoken advocate for the Jewish community.
I came to know of Zeide and admire the concept of him years before we finally met. His grandson, my great friend Danny Moldovan, had regaled our friends and me with stories about the old man loudly citing Marx at the dinner table, and about how he was in Selma on Bloody Sunday, tending to the wounded. While down South, he would sit next to Dr. King in the back seats of cars, one of two people set up on either side—grimly, though prophetic in retrospect—to take a bullet in case someone shot at the now-martyred leader.
When I finally met Zeide at a Shabbat dinner, I made the mistake of bringing up the fact that I favored post-modernist schools of Marxist thought. He stopped talking to me for the next several hours. At the end of the evening, he explained, “They’re all thought and no balls, the post-modernists.” We had a short conversation and agreed to go to a movie together the next day. At that point, in his last bout of exceptional health (throughout his 80s), he was seeing six movies in the theater every week. Since then, we stayed in close touch. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to protest outside of one of the houses of a Bank of America Board Member in Washington, D.C. and I sent him a letter explaining that every time I participated in some form of direct action, I thought of him. I told him that he was my inspiration, which he was. His response was warm and appreciative.
For the last several years, I worked with his family to record his stories, personal, professional, and everywhere in between. It has been an honor to maintain such close proximity to my hero, particularly during his final years.
I think that when I was younger, I looked up to Zeide because of his affiliations. I was a young, leftist, working class WASP from small town Maine where rigorous political involvement—particularly radical engagement—isn’t common and here was this real-live communist, rabble rousing bombardier who had actually known Dr. King. He had seen the civil rights movement first hand, and had served in the Second World War. He was a character in not just one, but in many mythical happenings. To a large degree, I maintain this fascination though in what is perhaps a more nuanced way. I maintain an appreciation for what each of his affiliations mean on their own, but also in relationship to the others. He was a communist patriot, illustrating that you could come from various conflicting ideological motivations at once. And Zeide’s overlapping affiliation as a communist, a civil rights activist, and an atheist (which, he says, Dr. King found as funny as he found it absurd) illustrated the intersections between Marx, progressivism and civil rights, the socialist heart of which has largely been overlooked in popular memory of that time.
But in getting to know Zeide, I realize that his affiliations are ultimately much less interesting than the fact that he was simply active. Internist; patriot; co-founder; Marxist; activist; collector; historian; scholar. These are all simply the ways we identify what was most important to Zeide, which was immersion, community, involvement, participation. Through committing to action over mere masturbatory intellectualization, Zeide justified his existence.
I would also later appreciate that he was—as all heroes are, whether or not we acknowledge it—a spectacularly complicated person. Zeide was at once an outspoken advocate for Jewish culture, a regular practitioner of many rituals, and an outspoken atheist. While a committed young communist, he constantly struggled with his appreciation for individualism and autonomy. (He would eventually stop identifying as a communist—though he continued to revere Marx—when it became clear to him how anti-Semitic the existing communist states had become.) He adored his family, particularly his late wife Jean, though he maintained sometimes difficult to navigate, old-school views of women, sex roles family no matter how progressive his overall view seemed on the outside. And he often struggled to articulate what this love meant to him, and how valuable he found it to be, particularly in the moments that mattered most. While his public persona was larger than life—the man was, as we all are—flawed. The young protege, given enough time to observe their hero, is heartened to learn that this life is complicated for everyone, even the towering giants. To truly know and appreciate Zeide, has his grandson Danny reminded me time and again, is to acknowledge that the myth was also a man, who was capable of being as frail, fumbling and complicated as the rest of us.
By the time Zeide had reached his 90s, he was eager to die. Beyond being satisfied with a life of action, and filled with pride for his family—particularly his adoring and impressive grandchildren—he was simply frustrated with feeling confined by his aging body. The man lived for nearly a century, and toward the end he was confined to a comparatively frail shell. While he remained active, particularly in scholarship of Jewish History, he was bored and increasingly lonely. Sickness that once took a day or two to shake could now cripple him for a month or two. Having taken care of an aging father up through his final days, and seeing firsthand the suffering related to enduring the final years of life, I was sad for Zeide’s family when I heard this weekend that he had entered hospice care, but I was happy for Zeide. He is one of the few people I know who not only had a motto, an impressive one at that, and he lived up to it many times over. I am happy to know that Zeide has finally been afforded the opportunity to get the rest that he earned by way of living a handful of impressive lives in just one go.
So I love you, Zeide. Thank you for touching all of us. While you will be missed, I can assure that we will hold you in our hearts and you will continue to inspire us to act. In large part thanks to you, those of us you touched will continue to justify our existences.
PHOTO CREDITS: Steed and Moldovan by Greg Mortimer, Stewart and Moldovan by Matthew Slutsky
VIDEO CREDIT: Knack Factory