Tag: funeral

When Harriet Met Herman

Herman and his granddaughter Stacey

How Harriet and Herman Met
Harriet had nothing to do that evening, when her friends prepared to go out to a dance party. So she agreed to tag along.

It was toward the end of World War II; the dance hall was filled with servicemen of all types, handsome in their dress uniforms. Harriet and her friends danced and rested, then danced some more. As they left the dance floor to rest their tired feet, she noticed that all the chairs were taken.

With a clear sense of purpose but perhaps a twinkle in her eye, Harriet looked over all the servicemen sitting in their seats. She picked out one, the safest looking, who was handsome nonetheless. Approaching him, she asked if she could sit on his lap. Herman said, “Yes.”

They were married 3 months later.

People said it wouldn’t last. That was 46 years ago.

I buried Herman last week, on an overcast day, between drizzling and downpours. Though the day was dreary, the stories about Herman and Harriet were uplifting. Especially this one about how they met.

It is not hard to imagine Harriet approaching Herman or the romance that ensued. Harriet still has that twinkle in her eye, even amidst the sadness of mourning.

More than Just “Old People”
Like Harriet and Herman, in the stories of our own Bubies and Zaydes we are reminded that our current travails, challenges, joys and dreams are simultaneously intensely immediate and timelessly universal. More than just being “old people,” or the deceased being merely names on a page, they point to warm-blooded living, loving, struggling people. Like our Biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, our loved ones sought good times, good fun, comfort in community, and perhaps meaning in a relationship with God.

They Were All Once Young
Sometimes we forget that our older relatives were once young, that those who anchor our families’ histories once laughed and played and were just plain silly. We seemingly ignore the fact that like each of us each of them enjoyed young love, recklessly pursued thrills, and defied the safe for the fun. Our Nanas and Papas, Zaydes and Bubies have seen so much of history and experienced as much and more than any of us have.

Well Herman has returned to the Source of All Life, so his memory carries on in the stories his family tells about him. And his beloved, now 90 years old, still has that same twinkle in her eye and perhaps even the chutzpahdik fire in her belly, that gave her the guts, 46 years ago, to sit down on that serviceman’s lap.

Thinking about Herman and Harriet
Maybe that’s why I keep thinking about Herman and Harriet. Because in the story of these two great grandparents, I see not old people but young vibrant individuals who grew up. May each of us retain those qualities which made us fun when we were young, even as we grow older. And may Herman’s memory be for a blessing, and the memory of their meeting serve as an inspiration.

Don’t Stack the Dirty Dishes, and Other Timeless Wisdom

“Don’t stack the dirty dishes,” Donna taught, “There is no reason to have to clean both sides.”

I looked over to my wife and smiled. This was one of those mini-arguments we’ve been having all our marriage, and now, an 88-year-old woman took my side.

One couldn’t easily ignore the wisdom of Donna. She was a persuasive type of person, who successfully became a court mediator in her 70’s, and entered law school in her 80’s (for the intellectual stimulation). Donna was an impressive woman – energetic, colorful and very intelligent. Oh, and as of late last week, she was very much dead.

We gathered, a few of us, at Eden Cemetery, recounting Donna’s timeless wisdom. My wife sat in the pews; I was officiating as rabbi. Donna, who lay peacefully in a plain pine box, was being eulogized beautifully by her cousin, her rabbi and her granddaughter. They remembered her as one who would do anything for family. They recalled her insistance that problems be addressed head-on instead of being swept under the rug.

More Wisdom from an Older Sage

I was thinking about Donna’s wisdom later that evening as we gathered for Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a late night study session in preparation for the holiday of Shavuot. We were preparing for the day Jewish tradition teaches Moses received the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. We were talking about the values that Torah brings into our lives. And we were talking about the four insights of Ben Zoma, a Jewish sage who died in the second century BCE.

Ben Zoma’s perspectives on wisdom, strength, wealth and honor (Pirkei Avot 4:1) inverted commonly held perceptions.

  • V’eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? Ha-lomeid mikol adam – the one who learns from every person. Wisdom is more than book-smarts; it is found in life experience.
  • V’eizeh hu gibur? Who is mighty? Ha-koveish et yitzro. The one who controls his passions. Strength is more than physical prowess; the ability to control oneself brings forth all kinds of confidence and power.
  • V’eizeh hu asher? Who is rich? Ha-samay-ach b’cheklo. The one who is content with her portion. In a world where there is always “more,” true wealth is held by those who recognize that they really have “enough.”
  • V’eizeh hu mechubad? Who is honored? Ha-m’chabeid et habriot. The one who honors others. Honor comes from within, but is shared with everyone else.

Eventually We are All Gonna Die

If you gotta die – and eventually we all do – it is much more pleasant when you rest with the knowledge that you will be remembered fondly for the person you were, the wisdom you acquired and the love you shared. Some say that is how we attain immortality – by living honorable lives and by teaching our loved ones the lesson we learned.

Well, Ben Zoma is long gone. Now Donna lies at rest beside her beloved Danny. But their wisdom – about strength and contentment, about reconciliation and family – lives on in their names. May their memories be for a blessing (and may we say “Amen”).

Schlepping the Distance to Bury the Dead

I schlepped to the middle of… far away… to attend the funeral of the father of some friends. Traffic was bad both ways. Being on my day off, the funeral cut into the little personal time I would have all week.  Still, I went.

There are no medals for attending someone’s funeral. Like the ritual of shoveling earth on the grave, there are no “thank you’s” for attending a funeral or a shiva minyan. And yet they rank particularly high on the Jewish ritual “must do” list. Accompanying the dead to their final resting place (halvayat hamet) is one of the acts of kindness (Gemilut Chasadim / גמילות חסדים) that the famous Mishnah in Tractate Peah 1:1 lists among the deeds “for which a person receives some reward in this world while the principal reward remains  in the world to come (דברים שאדם אוכל מפירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא).

For this funeral, I didn’t know the deceased. I met him only through the stories his daughter and son told me over the years. A man of few words and fewer expressions of emotion, his being overflowed with artistic talents that bordered on prodigious. A survivor of the Shoah, he struggled with and extended far beyond that darkest of lifetimes. Non-religious, he nonetheless birthed the beginning of a dynasty of significant rabbonim (rabbis). I learned about him and carry on his memory because of their stories and this funeral.

Perhaps that’s why we drop everything to go to funerals:

  • to attend to the communal needs of caring for the bereaved; 
  • to become a vessel of memory for a person we may not have known; 
  • to remind us that the sun does not rise or set based on our particular needs or schedule;
  • to bring the community to the mourners so they will feel valued, cared for, significant; and
  • to goad us into counting our blessings. 

So I schlepped a long distance yesterday to attend my friend’s father’s funeral.

A moment in time. A pause from life’s pressures. A gift to remind me of what is really important.

May Dave’s memory be for a blessing.

May his children and grandchildren find the courage, fortitude, love of family and God’s love to endure the difficult weeks ahead.