The sun was rising in the last photo Nancy Kress Levin posted on Facebook. Shot from her seventh-floor condo, the top bar of her building’s distinctively curved balcony railing was touched by rosy light, with the gold-streaked Atlantic stretching to the glowing horizon beyond.
The following month, Nancy, 76, and her youngest son, Jay, were inside her condo, likely sleeping, when that building collapsed.
Jay, 52, had flown into town from Puerto Rico for a friend’s memorial. Just down the hall was his newlywed older brother, Frankie, along with Frankie’s wife, Anna, and his stepson, Luis. All were lost in the disaster, along with nearly 100 others killed when the 12-story Champlain Towers South building fell June 24 in Surfside.
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A tightly knit family, a bright circle of friends
Light is an apt metaphor for this family’s life together. Not that there wasn’t darkness: divorce, disability, business challenges – but illuminating it all, the glow of a family that held tightly together, surrounded by a bright circle of loving friends.
Nancy was the beaming matriarch. With seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter on the way, she adored her family, which she’d shepherded to Florida from Cuba by way of Puerto Rico when her boys were young.
After splitting with Saul Kleiman, the father of her two sons, she moved the kids to Surfside, to a “then-new building popular with Hispanic Jews who had come mostly from Cuba,” according to the Associated Press.
Many were connected by generational ties said Greg Levine, Jay’s friend since high school, and settled close to each other. “So they may all pick up and move to Miami Beach, but then they all live walking distance from each other, or a two-minute’s drive, maximum.”
Levin’s condo became a social nexus for the boys’ friends and later for her expanding family. Her sabbath dinner were the stuff of legend, as she cooked up a Kosher-Caribbean storm: arroz con pollo, picadillo and chopped liver.
“She was the glue of the family,” her eldest grandson, Jay’s son Josh, told the Miami Herald.
Though physically scattered, family members faithfully checked in to wish each other Shabbat Shalom ever week, he said. “No matter what you were doing, no matter where you were, you always knew it was Shabbat dinners on Friday nights at her apartment in Champlain. And we were always invited.”
Levine still clearly remembers the first time he set foot in her condo.
“When I started going to Jay’s apartment – the condo that fell … I met his mom and I got a big smile and a hug. She kissed me on the cheek, and that was that. She knew I was important to him, so I was important too.”
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Thus began a friendship that included countless high school adventures with a huge but tight group, laughing together in Spanglish, forming their first band, Phormula (“We spelled it with a ‘Ph’ because we were dorks,” laughs bandmate and pal Anthony King, another high school-turned-lifetime friend), and spending a year in Israel.
Even as a teenager, Kleiman was a radiant standout, King said, as charismatic as he was kind – even after King crashed his car. “He’d lent me his car once so I could skip school,” King said. It was a charcoal gray Audi 4000, “a nice car. … Of course, this story will come out and I’ll get in trouble, but I got in an accident with his car..”
It was King’s fault, and he had to return the car to school and face Kleiman. “He came out, and I said, ‘So ….. this happened.’ And he looks at it and he looks at me and he goes ‘Are you OK?’ with that big smile that you’ve probably seen in pictures. He goes, ‘That’s OK, man. That’s OK.’
“He wasn’t mad. He didn’t yell at me. He was the coolest dude. … Jay was the consummate mensch.”
Jay Kleiman loved people with laser focus
With Levine, Kleiman had what his friend describes as a “very, very unique and strong connection, probably because we both came from divorce,” he said. “Once I started spending time with him one on one, I felt like this was the brother I never got, because I’m an only kid.”
Kleiman possessed what Levine calls “an ability to extend himself uniquely to individuals. So you’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Jay was my best friend.’ And there are a lot of women who are devastated from his death because they think he was madly in love with them only, and now he’s dead. There are at least five or six women who are all grieving as though they’re widows.”
But here’s the thing, Levine says: Kleiman really did love with an individual, laser focus.
“It is a truly unique attribute of his personality,” he said, “this ability to be unique and authentic with a lot of different people. It’s a real gift. … I never did claim that Jay was my singular best friend, (though) a lot of people who observed truly thought we were total blood brothers.
“People talk about auras and energy. Well, I’m not mystical and I don’t believe in superstitious stuff, but I will say Jay had an energy, without a doubt. Everybody wanted to know the guy. … He was just all about life.”
As an adult, Kleiman returned to Puerto Rico and went into the textile industry with his dad. But he was back and forth to Florida all the time, as well as other U.S. cities.
“He would come to L.A. (where King, a professional musician, had moved) on buying trips to get raw materials and ideas.” When he was there, the old friends would get together and it was as if no time had passed, King says.
“He still had that beaming smile,” he said, “He was the same joker he always was – quick to laugh, quick to smile, just a bright energy type of person.”
Music remained a huge part of Kleiman’s life. Before he died, he released an album and asked King to contribute. “I played some slide licks on it and did a big solo at the end, he’s like, ‘I want you to just go, man. Just tear it up.’ “
The project has become precious to King: “I’m so glad we’ve got a song now, to live on.”
Amy Bennett Williams is a reporter for the News-Press of Fort Myers. You can reach her at [email protected]