In the final years of his long, fulfilling life, Sam Sharpe had a catchphrase. “Zei gezunt,” he would say. “Be healthy.” He said it to everyone, regardless of whether the person knew Yiddish. Jews, non-Jews, family, strangers, even babies. And all of them couldn’t help but listen, because Sam’s kindness, his defining feature, disarmed anyone lucky enough to inhabit his orbit.
Sam Sharpe, born Sept. 15, 1929, died in Goodyear, Ariz., on Sept. 25, 2019, surrounded by family, including his wife of 66 years, Joan. They met in New York and raised their children there until they moved in 1972 to Cleveland, where they would settle for 32 years.
Along the way came five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all of whom relished Sam for his quick smile, hearty laugh and abundance of mediocre jokes. His family believed, with fairly good reason, that Sam invented the dad joke.
It was far from the only thing with which Sam distinguished himself. He ran retail stores across Cleveland with aplomb and could sell salt to a slug. He worked wonders with a deck of cards, much to the discontent of anyone playing him, and solved crossword puzzles with pens. Sam’s eagerness in games of Trivial Pursuit – reflexively shouting the answer, even when it wasn’t his turn – led to a roll of duct tape being placed on the table as a threat. Which was funny, of course, because of the clearly flawed premise that even the strongest adhesive could stop Sam from talking.
Only age and a wretched disease managed to do that, though every so often Sam would get that old glint in his eye and grin. Never was anyone quite sure what he was thinking about. Maybe it was the eraser fight he got into in high school with his classmate, the singer Vic Damone, or the Brooklyn gangland chicanery that pervaded his neighborhood as a child, or the “air gliding” – his term – when his car subtly shifted out of its lane and perilously close to others on the highway. Those were all stories Sam savored telling.
He loved to tell them because he knew his family loved to hear them, even if they’d heard them a hundred times. His family loved to hear them because Sam loved to tell them. He fostered that sort of symbiosis, that kind of love, magical and heartfelt and so real. It came from the same place as “zei gezunt,” a phrase he would utter as someone was leaving. It’s only right, then, that Sam also is left with a two-word phrase upon his departure.
He is survived by Joan; children, Debra (Richard) Passan and Eric (Pam) Sharpe; grandchildren, Jeff (Sara) Passan, Nicole (Aaron) Atlas, Jeremy, Aaron and Zachary Sharpe; and great-grandchildren, Jack and Luke Passan, and Leo Atlas.
Contributions in his honor can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.