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Through letters, Erwin Zaban is present at his own funeral

By Maria Saporta

It almost felt as though Erwin Zaban was speaking at his own funeral.

The service for the legendary Atlanta businessman and philanthropist Wednesday afternoon at the Temple had an unusual twist.

The two rabbis who officiated during the service —Alvin Sugarman, rabbi emeritus; and Peter Berg, the senior rabbi — actually read from several letters that Zaban had written to his family and friends about his thoughts of life and love as well as his wishes for his own funeral.

Of course, with his customary sense of humor, Zaban said that if his wishes weren’t followed, “I won’t be here to scold you.”

Rabbi Sugarman read Zaban’s letter. “I want my death to be as easy as possible for you.” Then Zaban listed several instructions: “By a simple and inexpensive coffin. I won’t know the difference, and neither will you.”

Zaban requested that the service be held at the Temple and that Sugarman be the only speaker (okay, they didn’t quite fulfill that request, but the only two speakers were Sugarman and Berg).

“It should not be a short service, but a very short service,” Zaban continued, then said it should be a simple one questioning “those who are willing to waste the time” to attend.

Zaban also wrote letters to his wife, Judy; his daughters — Carol Cooper; Laura Dinerman and Sara Franco; as well as to his grand-children and great-grand-children.

In a letter to his grand-children and great-grand-children, Zaban wrote: “Don’t let money be your only goal in life. Caring and sharing is most rewarding.” He also asked them to continue the family traditions and to honor their Jewish faith.

To his wife Judy, Zaban wrote two letters — one in 1983 and one in 1996 — anticipating his passing.

In the letters, he wrote: “Do not mourn my death over any extended period of time. You are a beautiful person. Make a new life for yourself…. Live your remaining years to the fullest. You my love deserve the very best. Even in death I will always be devotedly Erwin.”

To his daughters, he wrote a letter dated 1990: “The material things that you will inherit from me have no permanence…. An important part of your lives must be service to others, to those less fortunate…. Unlike me, never seek perfection in everything.”

Then he went on to write: “I was an ordinary man, one of ordinary hopes and ordinary dreams, and yes, new ordinary fears. Now like others before me, I have found my resting place.”

For the past couple of decades, Zaban had several close calls with death through various illnesses, and it’s not surprising that he often contemplated his passing.

But sitting in the balcony at the Temple Wednesday looking at the coffin (hopefully it wasn’t too expensive) and hearing the rabbis read his letters, I couldn’t help but feel that Zaban was still there — having figured out how to use words to travel in time and live beyond his death.

In closing, Sugarman recited his own letter back to Zaban.

“How dare you call yourself ordinary,” Sugarman said through his tears. “ You were extraordinary to the full degree.”

Another Erwin Zaban tribute:

Stephen Berman, who owns his own accounting firm, wrote the following eulogy. His office gave me permission to run excerpts on SaportaReport. Unfortunately, Steve and his wife, Candy, were unable to attend Zaban’s service because they were out of town, returning to Atlanta one day too late.

Erwin Zaban

Although I mention his last name now, Erwin Zaban did not have a last name. People would often call me and say, “Have you talked to Erwin recently? Is Erwin in town? How does he feel?” In fact, I have been accused of knowing more about Erwin and his whereabouts than Judy and his family.

And that was the special relationship that we shared. I was privileged and blessed to be allowed into his inner circle of business associates and friends. Not a native Atlantan, having no family here, and only five years removed from graduate school, I was taken under his wings in 1977. To be precise, July of 1977.

It is no coincidence that Erwin’s birthday and that of my father fell on the same day, And, Erwin was a true father to me. He taught me “community” and what it means to “give back.” He allowed me to join his buddies, whose names grace many institutions and programs in Atlanta today. He inspired me and even scolded me…and, best of all, he began to do the same for my son. He taught me the value of family. Judy and his daughters Carol, Laura, and Sara, their respective spouses and children serve as role models for our children and for many in this community.

When we opened the new William Breman Jewish Home in 1999, I compared Erwin Zaban to Robert Woodruff. Whereas Robert Woodruff was the architect of 20th century Atlanta, Erwin was the architect of the 20th century Atlanta Jewish community. Nothing got done without his blessing, insight, and business acumen.

We are all time bound. I believe that being a good spouse, a parent, a child, business person, or professional is a given. It is how we spend the remaining time that really counts or as Kafka wrote: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” We can choose to be givers, or we can choose to be takers. And although the leaders of Erwin’s generation and of the 20th century are almost all gone now, I am personally most thankful for the one lesson that Erwin taught me so well . . . it is much better to be a giver than a taker. I can only honor his memory by choosing to be a giver because I cannot bear the thought of spending precious time just taking up space.

Erwin, your job is done now. I am forever grateful for the lessons you taught me. You will be forever missed.


Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


1 Comment

  1. Bill Todd July 9, 2010 7:50 am

    Erwin could frequently be found sitting alone at the counter at the Silver Skillet, reading the paper and enjoying his breakfast. What a simple image of a great man.

    Alvin doesn’t cry often, but how meaningful and appropiate that he did. Thanks for sharing.Report


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