Israel medal winner, gunrunner dies at 87

David Ben Gurion awarded Chaim Friend the Jerusalem Defense Medal of Honor for helping to smuggle Holocaust survivors out of Europe and into Palestine.

Later, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Friend smuggled guns into the state of Israel. He gave that up when he heard the British were on to him.

And yet as he aged, those achievements paled in comparison to what Friend considered the true symbols of a life well-lived: his two children, Gil and Julie, and his two grandchildren, Madeleine and Rebecca.

“Being Jewish and having a family were his main hobbies,” said Gil Friend, his son who lives in Berkeley.

Friend died May 16. The 87-year-old had lived in the Bay Area since 1989, leaving New York behind to live closer to his children (and their children).

“He didn’t want to do the zayde thing from 3,000 miles away,” Gil said. When he moved to Walnut Creek, he initiated family Shabbat dinners. The Friends got together just about every Friday night for 18 years.

Chaim Friend was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1919. His Yiddish-speaking parents moved to Brooklyn shortly after he was born.

Friend was the youngest of four brothers. Their Orthodox upbringing inspired two of them to become rabbis. But the youngest boy was never religious in the traditional sense, Gil recalled. For example, he never joined a synagogue, but he sent his son to a yeshiva. And though he thought kashrut was important, he didn’t keep kosher.

“His Jewishness was very important to him, but he did it his own way,” Gil said.

Friend devoured Jewish history and philosophy books. He also studied religious texts. Ken Cohen, a friend, said during his eulogy that he never “spent more than 10 minutes with Chaim before something related to Torah came up.”

The 6-foot-tall man with a slender mustache was a sharp dresser, earning the description of “debonair” from friends and family, Gil said.

Cohen and Gil agreed that his most striking features were his hazel eyes.

“If the eyes are the windows to the soul, Chaim must have used Windex as eyedrops,” Cohen said. “His eyes were amazingly expressive. They changed shape and brightness and size to convey every emotion — bemusement, sincerity, love, anger, frustration, intense thought — and to communicate his total engagement in the moment and person at hand.

“I could often tell when he was going to recount some story about Gil or Julie or her girls from the tender, warm look in his eyes,” Cohen continued. “I knew when tales of being a Zionist gun-runner or World War II soldier were on the way, because his eyes became the steely eyes of a military man on a mission.”

Yet his eyes twinkled most when involved in a rousing debate.

“We always talked politics at table,” Gil said. The topics were sometimes inflammatory. For instance, Friend was a staunch Zionist but also believed in a two-state solution and justice for Palestinians.

“He had really good friends with whom he always disagreed,” Gil said. “It was a way for him to engage with people. It was never a hostile thing.”

Friend’s most lasting contribution — aside from the energy, money and time he poured into a dozen Jewish organizations — will be the life lessons he taught others by being a kind, good-natured and loving person, Gil said.

As he recalled his sister Julie’s eulogy, his voice broke. He paused, then read his sister’s prose: “At the heart of it, here is what I know from my wonderful father: Let things matter to you; Tell the people that you love how you feel about them. Stand by them. Stand by who you are. Stand by what you believe no matter what anyone thinks. Do what you feel is right.”

Friend is survived by son Gil Friend and Jane Byrd; daughter Julie and Philip Dreyfus and their daughters Madeleine and Rebecca; and his significant other, Roz Zittell.

Gifts in his memory should go to Jewish Family and Children Services of the East Bay.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.