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October 10, 2013 - Image 61

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-10-10

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obituaries

A True Visionary

David Sachs

Senior Copy Editor

B

lind since birth, Dr. Abraham
Nemeth was, nevertheless, the
quintessential Renaissance man.
A mathematics professor, a Hebrew
scholar, an inventor, a pianist — he was
an engaging soul with a kind heart and an
endearing wit.
Dr. Nemeth, 94, of Southfield, died Oct.
2, 2013. His life story is one of triumph,
accomplishment and helping others.
"This man was so good, kind and fair
with everybody," said Rabbi Herbert
Yoskowitz of Adat Shalom Synagogue in
Farmington Hills, who spoke at the funeral.
"A person's status had no bearing on how he
treated them. He was a mentsh:'
Lack of sight never held Dr. Nemeth
back. Anything he needed that wasn't
around, he created. A mathematics profes-
sor at the University of Detroit for 30 years,
he devised a multitude of tools so other
blind people could explore the worlds of
math and science.
The internationally used Braille system
for writing math is his creation, aptly
termed the Nemeth Braille Code for
Mathematics and Science Notation. He
invented MathSpeak, an oral method to
communicate complex mathematics. His
circular Braille slide rule now sits in the
Museum of the National Federation for the
Blind.
While teaching himself to play piano, Dr.
Nemeth discovered there was no music dic-
tionary for reading music signs in Braille,
so, in 1954, he wrote one himself.
"I have always found an alternative way
to do what I had to do:' Dr. Nemeth told the
Jewish News in 2005.
But since his retirement from the uni-
versity in 1985, what he has created for the
blind community — and especially for the
Jewish blind — rivals even his remarkable
academic achievements. During that time,
he focused on creating Braille Jewish texts
for JBI International (formerly the Jewish
Braille Institute) in New York.
Growing up in an Orthodox home
on New York City's Lower East Side, Dr.
Nemeth had no formal Jewish education,
but, nonetheless, became most knowledge-
able about Jewish ritual and observance.
"There was no material in Hebrew schools
for the blind:' he said. "So my grandfather
and my father taught me what I needed
to know. I recited my bar mitzvah portion
from memory"
Stanley Bekritsky of Teaneck, N.J., the
husband of Dr. Nemeth's niece Dianne, said
at the funeral, "I was sitting in shul, listen-
ing to him daven, all by heart, never miss-
ing a word in prayers that are said just once
a year, it was all in his head — amazing."
But Dr. Nemeth made the road easier for

Dr. Abraham

Nemeth reads

a Hebrew text

in Braille.

other blind Jews. He translated siddurim
and High Holiday machzorim into Braille
for the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform
movements. "Every siddur that has been
translated into Braille has been done by
Abe said Bekritsky.
"During this process, he would call my
wife, Dianne, and myself and he would ask
us to turn to specific prayers. He would
examine every letter and vowel he wanted
us to check each against the printed text:'
Dr. Nemeth was so meticulous in his
efforts that he once discovered an errant
Hebrew vowel in the most widely used
Orthodox siddur in the English-speaking
world, said Bekritsky.

Mathematics Professor

Dr. Nemeth's childhood was not one of
overprotection. "I had very good parents:'
he told the IN in 2005. "They let me live a
rough-and-tumble life
Always interested in math, Dr. Nemeth
was known to teach it to his friends, even
as a schoolboy. "Mathematical tricks and
puzzles always intrigued me he said.
"But I was advised in college that
mathematics was not a prudent field for
the blind," he said. So he studied psychol-
ogy and received a master's degree from
Columbia University in New York City
while filling his elective requirements with
math courses.
"One day, my wife told me, 'You don't
have a job anyway. Wouldn't you rather be
an unemployed mathematician than an
employed psychologist?"' He went back to
Columbia, this time to study math.

As the work became
more advanced, I
devised a system of
Braille in my head that
would work with all
different levels and
branches of mathemat-
ics:"
Dr. Nemeth had been
a Detroiter since he and
his late wife, Florence,
relocated to Michigan
in 1955, when he was
offered a job teaching
math at the University
of Detroit, now U-D
Mercy. Later, he also
founded and headed its
Graduate Department
of Computer Science.
During his early years
in Detroit, he received
a doctorate in applied
mathematics from
Wayne State University.
An Adat Shalom
member since 1955, Dr.
Nemeth was a frequent
haftorah chanter and
read from a Braille Tanach, an event then-
Adat Shalom Rabbi Daniel Nevins called
"an extraordinary experience:'
Dr. Nemeth's Jewish study partner was
Abe Pasternak of Southfield, whom he met
when Pasternak was assisting him as a
volunteer from the Jewish Family Service of
Metropolitan Detroit. Pasternak also aided
Dr. Nemeth as he worked on the translation
of the Orthodox Artscroll siddur.

A Point Of Light

Among Dr. Nemeth's many honors is
being named by former President George
H.W. Bush as one of his Thousand Points
of Light, in the program recognizing out-
standing individuals.
In 1991, Dr. Nemeth was appointed as
chair of the Michigan Commission for the
Blind by former Gov. John Engler.
"In that capacity I negotiated with leg-
islators to pass a bill that would require
teachers to teach Braille to blind children:'
Dr. Nemeth said in 2005. "More than half
of our states — so far — have accepted the
bill, including Michigan:'
Having had no children of his own,
Dr. Nemeth, who was widowed twice,
remained close with his nieces and neph-
ews and the children of his second wife, the
late Edna.
He enjoyed travel and had vacationed
in London and Israel and continued
a longtime speaking tour. In 2005, he
spent a weekend in Louisville, Ky., being
inducted into the Hall of Fame for Leaders
and Legends of the Blindness Field by the
American Printing House for the Blind.

Stanley Bekritsky relates that in
Louisville, Dr. Nemeth was doted over by a
group of attractive young coeds, all special
education majors. "We called them Abe's
groupies:' Bekritsky said.
When another relative, a psychologist,
later asked the students, "What do you
want with this 90-year-old man?" one
responded by asking, "What would you do
if you saw Sigmund Freud walking into a
hotel lobby? He is our Sigmund Freud:'

A Mystical Moment

At Dr. Nemeth's funeral at Adat Shalom
Memorial Park in Livonia, Rabbi Yoskowitz
had placed a note on the lectern to use in
the eulogy he would deliver.
At the end of his life, it was hard for Dr.
Nemeth to talk. The note was a transcrip-
tion of the last words that he had said to
his study partner, Abe Pasternak. The note
contained the opening Hebrew words of the
silent Amidah prayer, "0 Lord, open my
lips, so that my mouth may declare Your
praise'
Before Rabbi Yoskowitz spoke, a wind
picked up and blew the scrap of the paper
into the grave, before the casket was low-
ered down.
"The note floated in the air like a but-
terfly:' said Rabbi Yoskowitz. "In my 40
years and 1,000 funerals, I have never seen
anything like this.
"The Hebrew letters flew into the grave
as a symbol of Dr. Nemeth's spiritual con-
tributions — in addition to his tangible
contributions to the academic world. It was
a mystical moment:"
Niece Dianne Bekritsky agreed. "It was
an out-of-this-world thine she said.
"Abe was very special:' she added. "He
lived his life by his grandfather's philoso-
phy, 'Better to light a candle than curse the
darkness — and in the process, it not only
creates light for you but for everyone else
around you:"
Dr. Abraham Nemeth is survived by his
nieces and nephews, Dianne and Stanley
Bekritsky, Alan and Dorene Nemeth, and
Lee and Martha Nemeth; stepchildren,
Richard Lazar, Janis and Robert Colton,
and Joyce Alpiner; sister-in-law and broth-
er-in-law, Micki and Erwin Baumander.
He was the beloved husband of the late
Florence Nemeth and the late Edna Nemeth.
Interment was at Adat Shalom Memorial
Park. Contributions may be made to Jewish
Braille Institute of America, 110 E. 30th St.,
New York, NY 10016, www.jbilibrary.org ;
or National Federation of the Blind, 200 E.
Wells Street, Baltimore, MD 21230, www.
nfb.org. Arrangements by Ira Kaufman
Chapel.



Contributing Writer Shelli Liebman Dorfman

wrote the profile of Dr. Nemeth in the Oct. 20,

2005, Detroit Jewish News.

Obituaries on page 62

Obituaries

October 10 • 2013

61

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