Saturday, March 22, 2014

I Asked for Wonder: Two Lives and a Funeral

 The notices came across my email 15 minutes apart.

The first notice, Eddie, the father of a college-aged son, beloved husband, and professor at Temple law, had died. Most didn’t know he was ill.  His synagogue community, who thought of him as much a constant as the amidah, was shocked. He had just led Shacharit two weeks before, how was this possible?

I can see Eddie, one of those rare people who stay in vivid memory, even when you haven’t seen him for a while, standing on the left side of the sanctuary with his large black and white tallit draped over his small frame. His tallit moved with his steps to the bimah, with the rhythm of his davenning, and with his right and left  turn greeting every adult or child who Eddie knew and those he didn’t know --yet. His tzeet tzeet rose and fell with his reaching out with a hardy “yasher koach,” to each person who entered this-his prayer space.

Baruch t’hi yeh, is what you say to someone who has said  yasher koach to you,” Eddie had explained to 50 children and parents. For years, Eddie led Shabbat family services. The other day, a dad emailed me a poem their family had written to thank Eddie for inviting them in with joy to  a world of prayer. 

An excerpt: “You teach us how to put on a tallit. Then Rishon leads Ma tovu and builds tents, what a feat. You lead us in song with your beautiful voice. Hallelujah, kol Hanishama, done in rounds is our first choice. Then its Shema, sung like our friend from Uganada. The melody was strange at first, but of it we’ve grown fonder. Then we say Yotzer Or with all those motions with our hands. Sometimes minyan seems like aerobics sit and stand, sit and stand!”

Last Sunday, the sanctuary of Eddie’s synagogue was filled with people who remembered his movement, his joy and his wonder.

Fifteen minutes after the notice of Eddie’s passing came the notice of the death of one of my dearest friend’s father. Mr. P. as he was affectionately called had died at the age of 97. Shelly, my friend, said her father had davened mincha maariv, found the right battery for the clock in the basement, changed the battery, changed his clothes, said Shema and went to bed. His wife, his angel, as he called her, heard a sound and stood over him as he took his final breath.

Last Sunday, since you can’t be at two funerals at once, I drove to Baltimore for Mr. P’s funeral.  Finding a seat in the funeral home’s sanctuary was difficult. Many people stood to hear the story of the man who regularly walked to synagogue into his 90’s. We listened to the rabbi describe how Shelly’s father had led services two weeks before his death.

“He was a little slow, maybe because of his age. And you know, sometimes when people lead services slowly, people get antsy and leave. But no one moved.” They knew whom they were standing with in prayer.

Purim was coming and it is the custom, I learned, not to give an extended eulogy, the rabbi said, and “Louis would have wanted us to follow this halacha.” But the rabbi couldn’t help sharing the breath and depth of a man who was loved by family and friends, was dedicated to Jewish community, and was respected by all in business and in friendship.  This man with a small frame, who lived humbly, was a man of integrity, grounded in the Judaism that survived his days in Germany.

The pallbearers lifted Mr. P's casket. Each man holding the plain pine box had the responsibility to lower it into the ground with only the help of black canvas straps. Each person standing on the muddy grass had the responsibility to shovel some dirt until the casket was fully covered.

Two lives, and a funeral that remind “To pray means to bring God back into the world, to establish God’s sovereignty for a second at least." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder