Friday, January 17, 2014

From the Valley of the Shadow of Death

On Leadership, Gentile In-Laws & Recovery from Loss
For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ January 17, 2014

A shadowed road. Hampstead, London. Photo: IEK
It's good to be home I think. Although I am suffering from performance anxiety tonight, wondering how to even form words at this moment. Because I am freshly back from shiva, having dusted and vacuumed and locking the door behind me on the house I grew up in, a house only ever lived in by Kellers, standing now without occupant for the first time since 1958. A house that, like me, has undergone a great loss but doesn't yet feel that way.

After the cascade of events of these past 8 weeks, I ought to have something of value to say, or so I suppose people to think. But my head is aswim, and it's not clear to me that I have gained insight. I expect that insight, if it arrives at all, will come only in the long haul.

And besides anxiety about content, I have anxiety about topic. Because I have already delivered two drashot and a eulogy about my mother. Who really wants to hear more? Her death is painful  to me, but it doesn't objectively constitute tragedy. She lived a long life full of love, including the love of many people here. She affected people for the good. She died at a reasonably ripe age, even if her youthfulness made it seem oddly premature. No, not tragic. Whereas our community here and my own circle of friends have in fact seen tragic deaths in the past weeks. People dying young, leaving behind spouses, children and parents too. Deaths happening in an order that they should not happen; in a way that I suspect is not strictly necessary in the divine scheme of things, unless it's to teach some lesson about noticing the preciousness of life. But if so, it's an awfully high pricetag for mindfulness.

So instead, I imagine, what I should do is get on with business. The sermon business. And do what is done universally in the Jewish world when at a loss and talk about this week's Torah portion. And it's a good one, culminating in the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But it begins with a visit to Moshe by his father-in-law, Yitro, the High Priest of Midyan. Yitro tracks down Moshe and the Children of Israel in the wilderness, where they have just escaped the slavery of Egypt. Yitro praises God by name, a name and worship which some scholars speculate we got from the Midyanites to begin with. Yitro offers gratitude for God's benevolence. And then there follows much hugging, feasting and weeping.

Then the next day dawns and, surprise, it turns out to be "Take Your Father-in-Law to Work" Day. Yitro watches as Moshe spends every waking hour sitting and adjudicating the disputes of the Israelites, and there are many, considering that they are all displaced and disorganized and facing unprecedented difficulties. Moshe sits from dawn till dark and Yitro, his father-in-law, is appalled. He appeals to Moshe, explaining that this locating of leadership within a single individual is not sustainable. Moshe seems to know this but doesn't know how to break the cycle. Yitro presents him with a new system in which there are judges over the tens and appellate judges over the hundreds and then the thousands, with Moshe as the court of last resort, never again to listen to a small claims matter.

Yitro's idea was one that perhaps Moshe could hear because it came from outside. It was new,  not an inherited idea. It didn't come from Moshe's parents or his priestly brother or prophetic sister. It came from his father-in-law. His non-Jewish father-in-law. And perhaps that's the function of the gentile in-law in the Hebrew mythos. They are a source of newness, of freshness. Yitro, like the famed Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, is not of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob line. Instead, Yitro and Ruth represent the new idea. And they are beloved - their contributions lead to greatness. Yitro's advice to Moshe immediately precedes the moment of revelation at Sinai; it seems to ignite our people's ability to give (or receive) a system of law, that very Torah that has formed our identity and worldview for millennia. And Ruth, for her part, is depicted as the great-grandmother of King David and is, according to tradition, to be the ancestor of the Messiah. Naomi's gentle, gentile daughter-in-law, with her unexpected fount of kindness, becomes our people's source of future redemption.

In any event, Yitro's teaching to Moshe is about the sharing of leadership. And that, I can guarantee you, is a hot topic on the world's bimahs tonight. And, after all, it's New Member Shabbat here. How could anyone resist making a pitch for new leadership? Because as you might perceive, this community is growing - we have twice as many households as we did five years ago. But our leadership has not doubled. Instead, we largely see the same small group struggling to keep up.

And there are so many things we could be doing! Not just services. Not just classes or religious events. We could be streaming. We could be making a CD of our music. We could be visiting sick community members, fitted with songs and casseroles. We could be doing nice, easy stuff - bike rides or bagel brunches or bowling nights. Chances to just hang out as Jews, or mostly Jews, together.

So let me tell you about how this conversation then goes at our Kavanah Committee, which is our spiritual life planning committee. It is this synagogue's most active and successful committee, because it meets monthly over breakfast, and breakfast makes all the difference. So at the table someone has or relates an idea for something we can do. Something brilliant; and sometimes super easy. Something we really think people would respond to. Then the question arises who can put this together? And we all look at each other, knowing that everyone at the table is spread too thin with their Ner Shalom leadership commitments. Most at the table are already on the Board or on the bimah.

So up comes the idea of calling the membership and asking who would be willing to take the lead on this idea. After all, we have "new member forms" for everyone - we know your interests and skills. Plus everyone knows when they join, that this community will need a little of their time. So we all smile at the certainty and relief that just the right person (or almost the right person) exists in our midst already. Then someone asks, "Who can make the calls to find someone?" And we all stare at each other, knowing we're all spread too thin to sit and make those calls. The panic slowly rises. A clock somewhere in the restaurant begins to tick loudly, until someone says, "This is why we need a Volunteer Coordinator. To make these kinds of calls." And again we're elated as we all agree that somewhere at Ner Shalom is a Volunteer Coordinator waiting to be plucked like ripe fruit from the tree. Then someone asks who can make the calls to recruit a Volunteer Coordinator. And we stare at each other some more, keenly aware of the spiral of self-pity now in motion, our tears dripping into the remnants of our French toast. Until the Kavanah meeting begins to look like Moshe's reunion with his father-in-law, characterized by hugging, feasting and weeping too.

So on this week of the Yitro visit, this week of the breath of fresh air that says, "Others can lead too," how can I not make a pitch, and say, "Please, share the leadership here with us?" Don't stand on ceremony. Don't wait to be called, because we might just still be stuck at a breakfast table trying to figure out who, if anyone, has time to pick up the phone. Just step up. We need you. Newcomers and old-timers alike. Not hard labor. Just gentle leadership. A single event. A single project. A single idea. Honor us with your wisdom and your sparkling skills. And if you notice it being hard for us to accept your help, forgive us and gently remind us of this night and of Moshe.

So there. A pitch for your leadership was just the right thing to do tonight. Both legitimate and timely. And it got me out of my sermon-writing bind. So that I wouldn't really have to report back on the way that my life is now different, and not different at the same time.

Because it is different and not-different. Surreal. As if I accidentally got sucked into an alternate universe, where everything is the same but my mother does not exist.

You know, over my life I've had thousands of opportunities to recite Psalm 23, the calming psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd, that one. Still waters, green pastures. I recite it almost daily, and I continued to do so at each shiva minyan at my mother's house. But I think I am now understanding in a way I never have, the bit about walking through Gey Tzalmavet, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmavet lo ira ra. "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil," says the psalm. I used to think this passage was about the fear of dying or the fear of death. When I'm afraid for my life, God is with me. That's what I was sure the psalmist was aiming for.

But now I'm no longer certain. Because it is now, after my mother's death, not in anticipation of it, that I feel like I am walking in Gey Tzalmavet. I am shadowed by death. Death's shadow obscures the road ahead. It is not an evil road that I'm on. Just a shadowed one. And a strange one, because it makes the routine things seem out of place. If I sent a postcard from Gey Tzalmavet, it would say something like, "Everything here is just like at home, but the people are so perky."

Tzalmavet, the odd Hebrew compound word that means "shadow of death" could also reasonably be voweled and read as tzalmut - and it would then mean something more like "self-image" or "identity". From the root tzelem, that we use when we say that we are made in God's image. Walking the path, after losing parents, as many people in this room know, is a challenge of tzalmut, of identity. Who am I now? What does it mean for me to be me, now that none of being me can be about pleasing my mother or rebelling against her for that matter? Who am I now that I am on the front edge of the generations? Who will I become? How will I change? When I look at my reflection in the mirror, will I see more of her now, or less?

Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmut, lo ira ra. But as I walk through the valley of this precarious new identity, I will not fear. Because it is not an evil road. Just a shadowed one, hard to see around the next bend.

So that's the report. When people ask, "How are you," I've begun to simply say, "The jury's out." I'm sad, I'm bewildered, I'm busy. But, lo ira ra. I'm not afraid.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Best Friends

My sister Lynn's eulogy for my mother yesterday.

I never expected to be here doing this. I thought of my mom aging and somehow always pushed the thoughts away. A couple of months ago Mom and I had a discussion about dying and she said to me that she wasn’t ready, she didn’t want to die. Mom had a way of being that made me feel that she would always be here, that dying was not a possibility and that comforted me. 

After my dad passed away 13 years ago, it seemed Mom and I got close and closer. We truly became best friends. I could and did tell her everything. I have many dear friends that I confide in but ultimately pouring my heart out to my mom always felt like a healing, no matter what it was I had going on in my life. Mom knew me better than anyone. I’d usually apologize for whining and she’d apologize back for whining too. So, we mutually whined and it was okay. We each trusted we could be honest. Last year when I played my show downtown, for 3 weeks she’d wait up for me nightly when I’d return near midnight. We’d talk, eat, drink wine, laugh, hold hands while sitting in the side by side recliners and watch TV till the wee hours….. One night I decided to bring home White Castle sliders since neither one of us had ever had that delight before. We had an absolute blast.

I have been thinking of what I wanted to share here. Truthfully, It’s really simple; just to say how much I love Mom and how greatly I will miss her. In reflecting on my feelings, I decided to go to Facebook (who doesn’t?!) and look at my year in review. I had numerous posts about my Mom but the most poignant one says everything I need to say:

May 12, 2013

My Mom and my best friend. I thank you Mom for always being there for your still little girl. I love you.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jewish Goodbye

One of six eulogies delivered today to say farewell to my mother, Marilyn Keller.

Thank you all for coming.

Now this is where one would, under other circumstances, say, “I’m pleased to be here,” but I am not pleased to be here. I am not ready for this. I am unprepared. Because for a long time I did the math in my head. I looked at Mom’s genetic profile and her obvious vitality and I was willing to lay odds on another ten years.

Yes, she was slowing down this year in ways that were worrisome. But I figured that we were at last, belatedly, entering old age. Mom’s capacity would diminish and there would be life changes, difficult but doable. A move. Or more help. Manageable steps.

But for this I was not prepared. Because she was too full of life and love to go from there to not-there in 5 weeks. And I know all the blessings; I feel them, honestly I do. That she was with me in California when the stroke happened. That Lynn and I and my family and friends were able to take good care of her. That we had time to share a mountain of love. These are all undeniable and I feel immense gratitude.

And still, I am not ready. I cannot prepare for shiva without asking her where she keeps the filter basket for the fucking percolator. I cannot talk to cousins about the family photos in her house this week without having her there to identify who is in them. I cannot go through this experience without calling her to tell her about it. I cannot absorb her absence. Nor can I conceive of it. Nor do I even yet perceive it.

Because five weeks of emergency is a long time together. She is still in my system the way you step off a boat and still feel it rocking.

It was a beautiful end to our life together, these weeks, and I am not yet ready to let it go. They were intense and immense days. We became accustomed to each other in a way we hadn’t since my sister’s and my childhood, as all the unnecessary shmutz fell away.

And we became reacquainted with each other in surprising, thrilling ways. I got to see Mom’s magic. I saw how with a smile and a look and fewer than five reliable words, she was able to melt the hearts of jaded doctors and overworked nurses, until they were fawning, vying for her attention.

What magic was this? Because honestly, I didn’t always see it. When did she become this way? When did she start being everyone’s favorite relative? Mother to all? She has adopted scores of children and they have adopted her. PFLAG kids. Strays. Children and grandchildren of her friends. Her local great nieces and their husbands. My shul friends in California. The Kinsey Sicks. They all think of her as mom, or the mom they wish they had.

And she comes alive with it. Like she was born for this role, and she only needed to wait to be old enough for the garment to fit her properly. And now, for the last ten or fifteen years it has fit her like a glove.

Mom was always naturally proud of us, of Lynn and me, I think. But in the 1970s and 1980s we tested her pride in lots of ways, at least I did. I came out of the closet. I became not just a gay person but a really loud gay person. I went on to make a huge and unexpected career choice: lawyer. Oren and I created a family in a most unorthodox way, with unconventional rules that would require her to have to explain things over and over to everyone she cared about, which she did without complaint and with complete devotion. And then there was another career change. And yes, that other one too.

And in each instance, her love for us, her pride in us, prevailed. And just became stronger in the process. Like a muscle she kept exercising.

This readily flexed parental pride is what made her such a good advocate for LGBTQI rights. She was effective because she loved her kids and she was not going to let bullies mess with them. And we were all her kids.

And her parental pride is what made her such a good friend to young and old alike. She could absorb anything you’d tell her, and she would respond with such confidence in you. “I know you’ll do the right thing.” “This is going to work out.” “I love you no matter what.” So matter-of-factly, that you had to do the right thing, you had to make it work out, because who would want to let her down?

I know I should tell you things about her. Things you don’t know. Her childhood. Her musicianship. How she took over for her mother as the hub of the family, the person whom all the cousins report to. How she loved working so much more than cooking. How she challenged herself to chant Torah for the first time at age 79. How she created rituals like a weekly Friday-morning Shabbat Shalom email sent to my sister and my family and my Israeli in-laws and even a cousin so distant that we don’t know how she’s related but Mom fell in love with her anyway. Or how at age 21 or so she saw a young sax player at a dance and went home and told her parents that she’d met the fellow she was going to marry and then she actually made it happen.

There’s so much to tell. A lifetime well lived, full of moment piled upon moment. Not all happy. Not all sweet. But in the aggregate beautifully done. So much to tell. And still I don’t want to be here doing it.

It’s hard to know how consciously people choose their time to go. But we know how fiercely independent Mom was. She had even just passed her driver’s test and gotten her license renewed the day before she came to visit, two days before her stroke. Afterwards she improved, but so very slowly.  Ahead of her lay years of a life unlike anything she'd ever wanted for herself. But she stuck it out for five weeks. Why? Well, there is an old joke that gentiles leave a party without saying goodbye, and Jews say goodbye without leaving. Mom stuck it out in order to give us – all of us – a nice long, loving Jewish goodbye. And then, satisfied that everyone was taken care of, she waited until no one was looking and slipped out the back way.

Very classy, Mom. And no surprise.