Thursday, December 16, 2010

A tribute to a class lady Phyllis Cohen

We stood at the graveside on top of a layer of snow and ice. It was a balmy 32 degrees on an overcast day in Chicago. Despite the fact that I was officiating at the burial of my dear friend and past comrade at arms in the Jewish community of Sacramento, I could not help but feel that I was going beyond the professional role as officiant this morning in eulogizing Phyllis Cohen.
Phyllis was born in 1947 and because she grew up in Chicago we buried her next to her parents and her brother. All of us who attended the service experienced the surreal sense of loss and being lost at the same time. It was as if a wind whirling around us like the cold winter breezes. I say this because none of us would have expected that she would be diagnosed with a brain tumor and that in a matter of weeks that she would be in the hospital, transferred to the Jewish nursing home in Omaha, Nebraska and then pass away within days. She was too young to die.
My friends of Sacramento who read this blog will remember Phyllis as the beautiful woman whose passion for the Jewish community in Sacramento led her to become the executive director of the Federation. She has left a legacy in Sacramento. We partnered, for example, to initiate the successful and still running youth program Yachad. Phyllis was a doer and she brought all her charm, organizational talent and professional organizational skills to get the job done. She was creative and loved the challenge of organizing the ultimate event no matter what organization she represented. She was a professional in every aspect of her work. I hope that the people in leadership of the Sacramento Jewish community will respect her memory and remember her for all the good she did to improve and enrich Jewish life.
There is something different for me in this situation. It is not only the shock of losing a long time friend. It is not just the sadness of knowing that her husband of 25 years, Michael, is a bereaved man when he should have had her for many more years. It is not even the feeling that I want to express to God which is; “Why?” Maybe it is about facing one’s own mortality. Could it be realization that I will wait in vain for her phone call which will never happen again? There is this empty feeling inside that asks me questions I cannot answer. Maybe she is hiding from me? Could this all be reversed?
We cannot be the philosopher in these moments.  Death is pragmatic and real. Death stares at us in the face as if to say ‘Look at me and deal with it!’ And my initial response feels like, “I hear you angel of Death but I don’t want to listen. Why do I have to listen to you?”
And despite these existential questions our healing balm began when we all went out to dinner tonight. Husband, daughter, dear friends and we talked, laughed and told stories about Phyllis. It helped. It always does. I can see beyond the horizon the hope of healing for us all. I can feel that the relentless winter will not suppress the warmth of Phyllis’ memory from comforting us. It is not now but I have faith that healing will come as sure as I believe in the coming of spring. There is always hope even when the questions that remain unresolved still hover over us. And that is why I turn to Psalm 121 in these moments. “I lift up my eyes to the heavens. From where does my help come? It comes from the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
Saying the mourners’ kaddish was painful but a privilege. Placing the earth over her casket made it final. Eating the meal of condolence opened up a new chapter in our lives. I already miss my dear friend. Yet I have made new friends as well in her family. Her amazing daughter who is the rock of the family planned everything. Phyllis’ oldest friend, the synagogue executive director, whose dedication and spirit to the Jewish people rises to the level of above and beyond every day and their daughter the Jewish educator and her dad all embraced me into their circle of mutual support and love for Phyllis. I am grateful to them all.
Phyllis was tall and slender like a model. I liken her to a beautiful swan. When she walked into the room, you knew it. Her gentle and calm way along with her wit and laughter will remain. I can still hear her now.
Death is not a theory. It is personal and it hits us in the face whether we like it or not.  It bruises us. Can we heal? That answer is as elusive as the question itself. Rest peacefully good friend and be with your family. We, your family in the land of the living, will sing your praises and usher in the warm winds soon.
*I asked the family if I could discuss these emotions and they gave me their approval.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Randomness versus God's plan?

It is funny who you will meet in unusual places. There I am coming out of the Chicago Ohare airport. Tomorrow I shall officiate at the funeral of a beloved friend from Sacramento. The family has kindly provided me a cab to take me to the hotel. Phil, the cab driver, is a friendly and articulate man. He knows I am a rabbi and is respectful. We begin a conversation heading through the Dan Ryan on a cold but clear Chicago winter night.
It turns out Phil has been driving cabs for 38 years. He gives me his analysis of the economy assuring me that the economy is doing great. According to Phil the companies are doing great but now they need to start hiring. The second issue is housing and Phil proceeds to give his analysis of the home foreclosure issue.
Now that we have finished those issues Phil, a nice Jewish guy, turns out to be a member of a local reform congregation. Of course I know his Rabbi quite well. We start talking about the congregation and prior clergy who have served his congregation. As we talk the cell phone rings and he is coordinating other cab pick-ups at the airport. This guy is a real entrepreneur wearing a pony tail and a beret.
I said to him, “What are the chances that I should have a reform Jewish cab driver pick me up at O’Hare airport?” Then he explained to me that someone, maybe a friend of the grieving family, asked their friend who works in a local congregation to call a cab driver to pick me up. I could not have asked for a better welcome to Chicago! Such connections we experience each day!
I am sure we could all tell plenty of stories just like this one. Is there something about the randomness of these kinds of encounters that is so intriguing?  We like to think each day that we are in control of our lives. Then so often something happens whither it is a coincidence, a moment of insight or just a fortuitous meeting that practically teases us into thinking that there is a something behind these kinds of events.  Jews will say something like this was an incident of B’shert or God ordained moment of divine intervention.
Trust me I understand that going down this road evokes the negative side of this issue such as when bad things happen to good people. I am not going further in this line of thinking on such a deep and sensitive philosophical issue. But there is something inside many of us that defies the logic of a philosopher. We are emotional and despite our rational mindset, humans tend to speculate about divine providence when peculiar things happen like what I experienced tonight. The things we sense as more than coincidence but cannot explain in a rational way make for the great stories in life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Texture is the key to a religious experience

The Sofer (Torah scribe) left our congregation on Sunday after a wonderful weekend. The question is; what did he leave behind him? It was a weekend that many in our congregation will never forget. Neil Yerman the scribe is a spiritual man and devoted to his calling. He is neither a Hasidic Jew nor Orthodox.  He is a modern person with a passion for the scribal arts. He is a former professional musician (clarinet) worked for Lehman brothers and surprised the audience when he reminisced that he had been to Woodstock music festival. So this is a person who did not fit the mold or the preconceived notion of a scribe like we see in paintings with scribes looking down at the text of a Torah.
I could never have anticipated the reactions and emotions that I witnessed in the hearts and souls of people who interacted with Sofer Neil Yerman. People watched as he stretched out the new torah on top of several tables in the middle of the sanctuary.  On Saturday night Sofer Yerman led us in a workshop where all the participants tried their hand at Hebrew calligraphy. Finally it was truly inspiring on Sunday morning when Sofer Neil Yerman taught the children in the religious school.  The kids today have an attention span that is a like a blink of an eye. Yet the kids stood over the Torah scroll and listened to Neil guide them and instruct them on Hebrew letters and the traditions of writing a Torah scroll. They stood there totally entranced in the text and in the lessons of the sofer. Kids will surprise you every time!
Right now I am thinking about the meaning of the word kasher or kosher which we often think about in regard to dietary laws. Kosher means something which is fit or permissible.  The term also means authentic or genuine. And that word kasher may be the key because seeing the Torah made people feel they were in the presence of something authentic or truly holy.
Words are holy. Prayers are holy. People are holy. A text created on the parchment of lambskin is holy and takes us to a completely different level of spirituality and emotion. As I have said we have a real tension between access to information in a digital world and touching something tangible that has texture. Life must have texture. Skype is great but it will never substitute for sitting across the table with another human being. The same idea could apply to music, performing arts visual arts and so forth.
People want to feel something and touch and see the nuance of life. The Torah scroll is one more example of a world that cries out for authentic religious experiences.