Former Anshey Sfard President Meyer Bitton dies at 86

Natalie Prolman came home crying one day. When her mother asked what happened, she said, “I didn’t get No. 5. Pepe will be upset.”

“Pepe” was Natalie’s grandfather, who was a soccer champion and raced bicycles in his youth. Whenever any of his 11 grandchildren played on a sports team, they requested No. 5 — the number their grandfather wore.

“He was adored by his grandchildren,” said Natalie’s mother, Raquel Bitton Prolman.

Meyer Bitton, also known as “No. 5,” died at his home in Novato on March 4. He was 86.

Bitton was born in Safi, Morocco, on Aug. 18, 1918, to parents whose roots went back to Spain. They were descendants of Jews who fled to Morocco through the Atlas Mountains to avoid converting to Christianity. They dressed as Arabs by day, but practiced their Judaism at night.

When Bitton was a young boy, his family moved to Marrakesh. As a boy and then a teenager, he played professional soccer and raced bicycles, earning the nickname “Spitfire.”

In 1946, Bitton married Marcelle Gabbay. He later called her the pillar of the family, and their marriage would last 59 years.

In the early years of his career, Bitton worked as a technician on a French Army base. Later, when the French left Morocco, the American Air Force took over the base, and he continued to work for the Americans. While there, he served as a driver for Gen. James Stewart, without knowing how famous he was.

Much later, Raquel Prolman recalled her father recognizing the general on American television and calling him “Monsieur Stewart.”

Having spent so much time with Americans, Bitton was instrumental in founding an American cultural center in Casablanca, the John F. Kennedy Cultural Center.

In 1969, he immigrated with his family to the United States. They chose San Francisco because they already had family here.

“The proudest moment of his life was to become an American,” said his daughter Raquel. “He worked for the American Air Force most of his life, and then he found himself in the country that he so adored from afar.”

Bitton got a job in the shipping department of Fritzi of California, and also became very involved at San Francisco’s Congregation Anshey Sfard, serving for many years as its president.

“He was always at the synagogue,” said Prolman. Her father was gentle and calm, she said, preferring to mostly observe people.

Also, “he was very dashing and handsome; people compared him to [Rudolph] Valentino. I got my love for music and poetry from him.”

She added, “My father loved life. He never saw the downside of anything. He made a lot of sacrifices for us, so we could all have better opportunities.”

Bitton was preceded in death by his son Yashard, who served as a tank commander in Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967.

In addition to his wife, Marcelle, of Novato, and daughter Raquel of Novato, Bitton is survived by sons Robert of Petaluma, Jacques of Novato, Herve of Novato, Vidal of Seattle, and 11 grandchildren.

Contributions in his memory can be made to Congregation Anshey Sfard, 1500 Clement St., S.F. 94118.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."