death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

cutting for stone

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

Each summer, my family rents a beach house in Atlantic Beach, N.C., and we spend a week together in what is always for me the most relaxing vacation of the year. I’m generally able to read four or five books — and everyone else passes the time the same way, often swapping books. Usually there’s at least one that forms a line: from the past couple of years, it’s been the latest in the Harry Potter series, Little Bee, and Water for Elephants.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone was last year’s beach book, but vacation ended before the book was passed to me. I didn’t pick it up until recently, but apparently I’m on a kick of novels that take place during mid-20th-century upheaval in African countries. However, I think the book would have benefited more in terms of my review if I had read it last summer rather than when I did read it, which was mostly during Passover last week: my husband’s family is a little less used to me buried in a book than my family is. Some of the difficulty I had in concentrating may have spilled over into my opinion of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book — although I don’t think I liked it as much as my family did, or as much as the gushing reviews on the back cover. The story of extraordinary identical twins born under even more extraordinary circumstances, the novel takes the reader from India to Ethiopia, then to the U.S. and back, delving into the lives of a half a dozen medical professionals, most of whom are related.

The title is a play on words that the book unfortunately doesn’t do much to explain. “Stone” is the surname of the twins, given to them in honor of their absent biological father. But it’s also a reference to a portion of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” In this case, “stone[s]” refer to those of the kidney, bladder, and gallbladder, which must be removed via surgery — the distinction between physicians and surgeons an important one in 5th century BCE Greece. More generally, it’s a promise to do what is best for a patient — what is within the doctor’s skills — and not to overreach. It’s a lesson that the book illustrates, if not elucidates, well.

Born in the oddly-named Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Shiva and Marion are the improbable progeny of the hospital’s main surgeon and his surgical assistant, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Their nun mother dies in childbirth, and their father leaves the country in grief, leaving the boys to be raised by two of the hospital’s other doctors. They grow up against the background of (historical) political turmoil in Ethiopia, which eventually forces Marion to flee to the U.S., where he pursues his medical studies, reunites with Thomas Stone, and finally decides to return to the land of his birth.

Verghese is a doctor, but he’s also a talented writer who is able to make compelling the intricacies of surgery (much like one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande, who provided one of the adulatory blurbs). He weaves a beautiful story, told through the voice of Marion, an extremely earnest narrator. Marion is buffeted more than most by forces beyond his control, and my heart broke for him on more than one occasion (I was even in tears at the end of the novel). I was, however, not so sympathetic, when fueled by anger, he forces himself more than once on a vulnerable childhood friend. Verghese even has him use the phrase “took her” in describing one of the encounters, and the thrust of this part of the plot (excuse the terrible pun) is that Marion is justified in his behavior — although he certainly comes to to regret his actions (but for different reasons). It was a disappointing part of a story that otherwise treats relationships, not to mention the importance of humanity in practice of medicine, with sensitivity and wisdom.

first seder

louisville’s historic palace theatre on 4th Street; photo by eric hart

Last week my husband and I went to Louisville, Ky., where his parents live, for Passover. We had four days of absolutely gorgeous weather: sunny, blue skies, and cool. I’ve only visited my in-laws once before, so I still know very little about the city, but what I saw was quite lovely. Plus, my husband’s mother and step-father are really happy there: They never miss an opportunity to vaunt its advantages. After living their entire lives in New York, they’ve certainly found a new home. The pleasantness mirrored the overall visit.

But I was nervous beforehand, because my parents flew in from Houston to join us — and they’ve never celebrated Passover before. I didn’t know what they would think and whether they would have a good time, particularly my father, whose brand of evangelical Christianity makes it difficult for him, to say the least, to appreciate other religions.

Indeed, when I first converted to Judaism, he told me I was going to hell. He was very sad about it but nevertheless convinced of it. Of course, this meant that my mother-in-law’s declaration this weekend that she just couldn’t stand the belief of some Christians that non-Christians were going to hell created a bit of an awkward moment. (Weirdly, she has an employee who holds this very belief.) But I don’t think my dad was around at the time.

All of this is to say that I was pleasantly surprised that my dad agreed to come to seder. (My mom was very enthusiastic, having wanted to attend for a long time.) I’m not sure whether this indicates an a change or evolution in my father’s belief system. He and I don’t have direct conversations about my religion or my planned career in the rabbinate. It’s been painful for me to talk with him about it in the past, so as part of my self-care I’ve stopped trying. It’s now his issue to come to terms with. Plus, as my therapist has said, going back to that well is only trying to convince him of something — which is what I resent that he’s doing to me. So, as I’ve said before, we stick to safe topics. As for example, the fact that former Astro and Philly Brad Lidge now pitches for the Nationals, a fact I mentioned during the first night seder.

I had a great time at both seders. The first night were in attendance former neighbors of my in-laws, an older couple from the Ukraine; he was in a helicopter above Chernobyl when the explosion occurred and is one of the only survivors. My father-in-law’s cousin, his wife, and her son; my husband’s brother and his fiancée, as well as two friends of hers; and my father-in-law’s niece and her step-brother were there both nights. My father-in-law leads a pretty brisk and interactive seder — and is an expert afikomen hider, to boot — and my mother-in-law is a great cook. Add to that a fair amount of wine and great company, and there’s not much that could go wrong.

traditional seder plate with a few non-traditional items

In her typical unfiltered way, my mom pronounced the seders “more fun that I thought they’d be,” which I both laughed at and took as a compliment. As usual, it was hard to read my dad. But he dutifully read his parts of the haggadah and seemed to enjoy talking baseball and other topics with my father-in-law, whose worldview he shares. And in my family, uneventfulness at a gathering can often be considered enormous success. And on Sunday, he who has never met a burger joint he didn’t like got to try a new one, Smashburger, which he corralled all of the men to while the women were at the bridesmaid’s brunch of my husband’s soon-to-be sister-in-law. (By the way, there should be a better term for that relationship.) Obviously, not everyone in my husband’s family eschews chametz during Pesach.

Apparently my father-in-law never does the second half of the seder after the meal, which includes the second two cups of wine and the arrival of Elijah, so on the first night I got to lead it — which means I also got to insist that we sing Eliyahu HaNavi. I’m not a big proponent of the messianic era, but I do love the song. And in case you’re interested, we also sang Dayenu and Chad Gadya. And I got to explain the orange on the seder plate, which my mother-in-law included for me.

It was a lovely, restful weekend — and best of all, I didn’t have to do a thing but enjoy myself (read: did not have to cook). Thank you, Louisville!

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