A dinner honouring the memory of the late Rabbi Dr. Myer Schecter, the longtime chaplain at the Jewish General Hospital took place Nov. 27 at Or Hahayim Synagogue in Côte Saint-Luc. Rabbi Schecter had another connection to Côte Saint-Luc, as the spiritual leader of the synagogue at the Manoir Montefiore at the corner of Cavendish and Mackle. In recent weeks I have received a lot of correspondence from one Peter Yonghong Yu, whose daughter Xin Ben was the subject of the highly acclaimed National Film Board of Canada documentary Mr. Mergler’s Gift (2004). It tells the story of a 77 year old man dying from colon cancer who takes on Xin Ben, a newly arrived immigrant from China, as his final student. Mr. Mergler lived in Côte Saint-Luc most of his life. He was my music teacher at the former Wentworth Elementary School on Mackle. Peter says he got to know Rabbi Schecter well as he visited Mr. Mergler in hospital. They remained in frequent touch until the rabbi died a year ago. The rabbi was supportive of the film project, assisted the family plan their travels for Xin Ben’s concerts outside of Montreal and worked with them as they tried to find jobs.
Peter recalls vividly the day he and his daughter met Mr. Mergler. “On Saturdays our family always went to church,” he says. “My daughter liked church music and wanted to learn to play piano. We bought a piano in July 2002. One reason we bought a piano is because we think it is necessary to use music to praise God. Moreover, it is parents’ responsibility to cultivate children’s learning desire. but neither my wife nor I knew how to play. A few weeks later, one beautiful Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I came back from church by bicycle . My wife Anna came back by bus. We didn’t go home on the path we usually took and we came to a park we hadn’t visited before. Xin Ben wanted to play, so I found a bench where an old man was sitting. We said hello and began to talk.
"Are you Japanese?" he asked me.
"No, I am Chinese," I answered.
"I had a Chinese student once. I taught her piano," the old man said.
I told him Xin Ben had begged us to buy a piano, but that we did not know how to find a teacher. He asked her how old she was and which songs she liked. He asked her to sing a song for him. He was friendly, though he didn't tell us much about himself apart from his name: Daniel Mergler. He said to call him after Labour Day.
“My wife took Xin Ben to her first piano lesson on September 15. Mr. Mergler had scheduled a one-hour lesson, but he found my daughter had musical talent and gave her a two-hour lesson. We wanted to pay for the extra hour, but he said it was his pleasure. He lived simply, no big house, no car. But he had a lot of books and two pianos in his small home. He really loved music, the piano and children. He had many gifts from his students on his pianos. They were beautiful and came from all over the world. On the walls were photos of his students, and portraits of many great composers.
“Mr. Mergler not only taught Xin Ben piano, he told her stories about composers like Mozart and Beethoven. He wanted her to be able to play the notes, but also to understand the music. She was never tired, even after two hours of lessons. She looked forward to seeing Mr. Mergler every Sunday. When she learned skills, they sang a couple of new songs in a sight-reading book. He played beautiful pieces for her, just to let her know music is a wonderful world. He taught her Für Elise by Beethoven, Allegro by Mozart, and Ave Maria by Schubert. He opened her eyes and ears to music, and now her heart is blessed with its sweet sound.
“In April 2003, Mr. Mergler called. He was in hospital because of cancer. We wanted to visit him, but he asked us not to bring Xin Ben. He wanted her to remember him playing piano. He was so weak that moving even a little bit was hard for him. When he told us of the seriousness of his illness and how he came to hospital by dialing 911 himself, we could not hold back our tears. He said he loved our daughter but could not teach her anymore because he was dying. He had a gift for her, a statue of Beethoven that he had received when he was nine years old. We took it from a closet in the ward - it was so precious that he had brought it to the hospital with him. We gave him a card made by Xin Ben, and he gave us one for her. On one of my visits, I asked Mr. Mergler what teaching Xin Ben meant to him. He replied that teaching her every Sunday had helped him fight his cancer by allowing him to forget his sickness, that every week he couldn't wait to see Xin Ben, and that she brought a light to his last days. His condition deteriorated fast and the cancer spread, but his mind was always clear. He even arranged an introduction to another wonderful piano teacher, Alexander Solopov of McGill. When he learned that Mr. Solopov had accepted Xin Ben as his pupil, he was so excited . One week latter, Mr. Mergler passed away on May 25,2003 at the age of 77. Mr. Mergler had no relatives and had never married. He had almost no personal possessions. We received one piano and a lot of books as gifts given by his best friend and his landlord.
“The first time I met Rabbi Schecter was in May 2, 2003, a Friday afternoon at the ward of Mr. Mergler in the Jewish General Hospital. Later, when the rabbi left he sasid to me: ‘This rabbi is a very nice person, He has a open mind and is kind to every person. He lent me good books and helps me a lot. The second time I met Rabbi Schecter was one week later at my small apartment with the woman who would direct Mr. Mergler’s Gift, Beverly Shaffer. They asked my daughter some questions like how we met Mr. Mergler. The third time I met Rabbi Schecter was in Sunday morning of May 25, 2003. I went to hospital about 9:50 a.m. Mr. Mergler was sleeping, so I put flowers on the table and waited at the door. After a few minutes, Rabbi Schecter came and told me he had passed away before I arrived. My tears came out. Rabbi Schecter’s sad expression showed that he lost a good friend. Rabbi Schecter had collected a lot of books that he lent to Mr. Mergler.
The fourth time I met Rabbi r Schecter was three days later on at the funeral of Mr. Mergler. About 80 people were at Paperman & Sons in Montreal. In the morning, I woke up early and wrote a letter to Mr. ergler. On the way to the cemetery, we shared the same car with Rabbi Schecter, Beverly Shaffer and Brahms E. Silver who is a social worker. They talked about Mr. Mergler like a friend.
The fifth time I met Rabbi Dr. Schecter was on September 1, 2004 at the Imperial Theatre at the world premiere screening of ‘Mr Mergler’s Gift’ at the Montreal World Film Festival. He was very excited to see the film. We didn’t talk too much because of some interviews. The sixth time I met Rabbi Schecter was three months later at another screening for the film, this time at the Jewish General Hospital. Rabbi Schecter lit the candles and everybody stood up and sang a Hebrew hymn, and then he introduced the film. The last time I met Rabbi Schecter was nine months later at his office. I told him that we needed to apply for a Canadian passport to cross the border because Xin Ben would have a concert following the screening the film at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. He was very happy to assist with our application and signed the papers for us. He said that he had a connection with the Jewish Community in Toronto and he wanted to help organize a concert with screening of the the film there, Two month later my wife brought our resumes and met him in his office. He was happy to introduce my wife to his wife and he went together with Anna to Human Resources and left our resumes there. We are so thankful! He was very sick at that time but still cared for others. Rabbi Schecter died in on December 13, 2005 at the age of 76 after a courageous battle with cancer. In recognition of his outstanding qualities and dedicated service as a chaplain at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital for 25 years he received the first-ever JGH Humanitarian Award just two months before he passed away. He was a champion of compassionate care, and had helped develop the idea behind the NFB documentary about my daughter.