A few weeks ago, while Larry and I were at our synagogue for Friday night Shabbat services, a congregant asked our rabbi Karen Allen if the MiSheberach prayer was appropriate for a 101-year-old woman who had just been paralyzed by a stroke and wanted to “let go.” The rabbi said there were many forms of healing. Sometimes it is in the form of a complete recovery. And sometimes, what was appropriate was a prayer for spiritual healing and peace. So yes, we said a prayer for the centenarian.
The timing of the question was especially poignant for Larry and me. Earlier that day, we had learned that a dear friend, Mel Toub, had just been put in hospice care. As I write this, Mel and his wife Joyce are surrounded by their children and sharing stories and memories and—as always—their love.
In December 2017, we had said good-bye to a friend who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer five years earlier. Milt and his wife Kathy had moved from St. Louis to our community in Florida as Milt wanted his last years in sunshine and warmth. As the prognosis dimmed, they had moved back to Missouri. Soon after, Milt called me to ask if he and I could work together on writing his story, one that could be read at his memorial. More importantly, he wanted to finish it before he so that he could look back on his life with a sense of completeness.
Hearing that Mel was also approaching the end of his long battle with prostate cancer, I called Joyce and asked if I could do the same for Mel not only from my perspective but also through the voices of his loving family and friends. With Joyce’s blessings, I composed an email and sent it to as many family members and friends as I could. “All of us love Joyce and Mel and wish we could do something to help. The only thing I feel that I can do is to make sure we capture Mel’s life and spirit in story of his wonderful life. I am reaching out to you all to ask you to consider sending me stories and anecdotes about Mel that I can share with Mel as he takes this last journey.”
Within days, my inbox was filled with responses from around the country, all wishing to let Mel know NOW how much they love him.
In email after email, people spoke of Mel’s intellect, his love for Judaism, his musical artistry, his master carpentry skills, his gentle wit, his selflessness, and his quiet generosity. Marty Calderon, who regards his long time friend as the embodiment of a ’Renaissance man,’ said that Mel inspires those around him to “to live a fulfilling life, not to waste any time and to enjoy each day that is given to us.” Toby and Arnie Elman calls him simply—and perfectly— a ‘mensch.’
Mel was born January 6, 1949, in the Bronx, the second child of Joseph and Sonia Toub. Soon after, Joseph, Sonia, Arlene and Mel moved to Roosevelt, Long Island. They were neighbors with Howard Stern; family legend is that Mel even dated the radio personality’s sister. Arlene recalled that their parents forbade their having a cat or a dog, so they had to settle for turtles. As he viewed life in a bowl must be boring, Mel invented games to enliven the two reptiles’ lives. One consisted of transforming their record player turn-table into a turtle merry-go-round and giving each turtle a little spin around, a fairly successful adventure. The second game, Arlene recalled, didn’t end as well. Mel held the turtle by its tail and spun it around. The tail snapped off.
Upon completing Roosevelt High, Mel attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in materials engineering. After a short time in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, he joined GE Silicones (now Momentive Performance Materials) in Waterford.. He spent his illustrative career there, developing several patents and, through a series of promotions, attaining the position of director of Application Development and Product activities prior to his retirement in 2012.
Mel is a brilliant and respected scientist, but it is his personal life that exemplifies his status as a true mensch. In September 1971, his first week in grad school, Mel met Joyce Silverstein. an encounter that can only be described as love at first sight. Only six weeks later, he proposed. They got married in June 1972 soon after they both completed their graduate studies. Their son Josh was born in 1976, followed by Julia (1979) and David (1984) They settled in Clifton Park, and have become an integral part of both the secular and Jewish community. Long time friend Howie Vipler describes Mel’s relationship with his family as his greatest source of pride.
Fern Hayden, immediate past president of Congregation Beth Shalom, recalls forty years of Mel’s contributions to the Jewish community. He and Joyce have served on the board, most prominently as religious/ritual chairs. In the sanctuary, Mel crafted the ark doors, built the book cases that held the prayer books, and most recently, modified the bima to accommodate a congregant whose stroke impacted her ability to climb the step to help lead services.
It is Mel’s beautiful voice, however, that is most heralded by his fellow congregants. Nancy Cury, long-time friends, always angles to sit behind Mel and Joyce at services. “If we snag those seats, we are treated to their wonderful harmonies,” said Nancy. “They sway to the music, in their own little world, not realizing who is listening.”
Both Joyce and Mel have sung in the shul’s choir, and Mel has taken an active part in the service. He has chanted Haftorah for Shabbat and the High Holy Days, and his soaring rendition of Kol Nidre has provided the opening moments of almost every Yom Kippur for year after year, for many of his friends the highlight of the entire High Holy Day period.“If I close my eyes, I can hear his beautiful voice in my head right now,” said Nancy. “No matter who chants the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the future, the voice I will be hearing for the rest of my life will be Mel’s.”
Fellow congregant and long time friend Barry Hamerling regards Mel as the shul’s most valuable male member, one who is always there when he is needed. Larry Fox recalled how Mel was there for him when Larry decided to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Larry not only had not read Torah or Haftorah since he was thirteen but also was— errr-vocally challenged; “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” Larry admits. “Whether in sympathy for me or just trying to protect our Jewish traditions, Mel offered to be my tutor.” To help, Mel produced a cassette that enunciated every syllable, a tape that Larry played over and over until he was able to complete what Larry regarded as an acceptable performance. “Mel’s friendship, love of music and his belief in the value of our Jewish life enabled him to bring harmony, although far from perfect, to the melody of my life,” said Larry. “I still can’t thank him enough.”
Along with his vocal talents, Mel is a serious bassoonist who has performed professionally in several orchestras and chamber groups in the Upstate New York area. Arlene recalls that they grew up in a home where music didn’t exist. “My parents never listened to music on the radio, and my only recollection of classical records in the house is that of an ‘Everbody’s-Favorite-Classics’ series that my parents must have felt obligated to buy—one each week—at the local super market.” Four years younger, Mel originally chose to follow Arlene’s choice of the clarinet. In high school, Mel switched to the bassoon, which became his passion and, with his professional musician’s license, his “second profession.”
When Charles Peltz took over as music director of the Glens Falls Symphony in 2000, Mel was already an experienced musician who had contributed much the orchestra. Peltz said that he knows few people who have retained a love for their instrument and who have consistently met the high standards in his performances. “That kind of devotion doesn’t come only from the ability to show off one’s technique skill or in anticipation of reward,” said Peltz. “Rather it comes from a person with a large heart for the deeper meaning of the things they do.”
Every summer, Mel has attended the Glickman Popkin Bassoon Camp in Little Switzerand, North Carolina. Furthermore, Mel’s love for bassoon resulted in many summer tours with an orchestra composed of fellow musicians from across the United States that has brought both him and Joyce much joy. Meris Ruzow, a longtime friend, loved hearing about the places they played and the people they meet in places as diverse as France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy , Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.
In 2016, Mel and Joyce decided to buy a second home in Florida. One of the main considerations was choosing a location in which Mel could continue to perform. Before they had even unpacked their boxes in their Naples villa, Mel had already begun practice with the Gulf Coast Symphony. Karen Gerhardt has fond memories of attending a performance there with Joyce and her husband Les, who died suddenly of pancreatic cancer soon after their visit in 2018.
Twelve years ago, Mel was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Marty Calderon said that Mel told him soon after hearing the news that he felt as if “someone one crapped on his plate of food.” That is the worst he has ever spoken about his cancer diagnosis. He continues to live his life with grace, dignity, and humor.
Mel had been an accomplished tennis and racquetball player in his youth. When he was in his sixties, he mixed those two sports with pickleball, finding the game offered a way to remain active without the physical demands of many other competitive sports. When Howie and Sandie Vipler visited the Toubs in November 2018, Mel played pickleball with them. The impact of his illness has curtailed further play.
In December, Larry and I, along with Bernie and Chris Grossman traveled to Naples to have what had become our annual ‘Jews-eating-Chinese-food-on-Christmas Day’ tradition. When Mel saw a menu description of a dish containing leeks, he wondered out loud whether they were “Wiki Leaks.” Despite his growing weakness and obvious pain, Mel kept us all laughing throughout our visit.
Soon after our December visit, Mel’s health began a precipitous decline. As Lew Morrison commented as the news spread of Mel’s worsening condition, “A cloud hangs over all of us.”
“My father has instilled in his children his menschism and created a legacy that will continue to inspire his friends and family long after his passing,” said his daughter Julia. “Although cancer will cruelly take his body from us far too soon, his spirit and soul will continue to flourish for generations.”