I miss Wendy Wasserstein

I miss Wendy Wasserstein.

To be honest, I never knew her. But I came of age with her plays in my college/post-college years. The Heidi Chronicles and Sisters Rosensweig ran in New York in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s when I was living in the West Village. I sat in the theatre and took in every word her characters spoke.

I was working and studying, contemplating meaning and future plans, all the while loving life as a 20-something in NYC, taking in as much theatre and blind-dating as I could. And while Wasserstein’s characters seemed old to me with every option open, she showed life decisions about work, friendship and family with good humor and oh-so-perfect dialogue that resonated. Three decades later, I realize I have journeyed with her witty insights and internalized wisdom.

In between, the Wasserstein dialogue slipped from my mind. I lived life: graduate school; a move to the Midwest; a meaningful career with a 6-day work week; marriage; three children; sandwich generation responsibilities. I didn’t lift my head much, trying to be home with my children, line up good childcare, write sermons and eulogies, and make sure I had a clean, unwrinkled black suit. Life threw some curves and I faced some professional gender realities, but I forged through, reaching within, and, when I had time, I speaking to friends. Good friends, travel and fun times were there, but perspective? Witty lines? Not so much.

And then last summer I sat down for dinner and drinks with three childhood friends, all of us the same age — just past the 50-year mark. Over dinner we pondered our second acts, distinct for each of us. Work-place re-entry. Readiness to make a bang in a career whose part-time predictability had allowed for raising children. Wrestling with what to do with an immanently empty nest. And then there was me. I had kept my professional life strong, continued to seek that elusive balance parenting three children, and was now wondering about personal next steps post-divorce.

We spoke with brutal honesty and good humor about our successes and our uncertainties, with a confidence that came along with life – a different confidence than we had in our 20’s in Manhattan when all was bright and shiny. Certainly all of us have good lives and are grateful. Yet, between and among us we have come to understand day-to-day parenting, loss of our own parents, wrestling of family dynamics, and confronting professional decisions. And while more times than we could count we did not have had a clue how to figure out real-life moments, we did what we needed to do, finding our own inner resilience. We were all strong and beautiful, even if we couldn’t always see that either.

I left the restaurant that evening energized – even as the talk reminded me of the vulnerabilities we face. That I knew — in two decades as a rabbi I have seen at every turn that so much of life is unpredictable. How we deal with it, is another story.[i] Here, though, we have choice. We all make our choices as we live our days.

Talking with my friends that night occurred in a protected space, out of time while right smack in it. Reality was front and center, at the same time that we all had enough history from childhood and high school to remind one another of the moments we might have, well, misplaced in the recesses of memory. We challenged one another in strength and we laughed at the brutal honesty of it all.

The conversation was so good, Wendy-worthy, really. No one wanted it to end, and no one wanted to return to the call of what had to get done that night or the next day. I left the restaurant wanting to write it down it was so good. I didn’t, though. Didn’t think I could.

We jumped back into our lives. And then a few months later, real life hit hard. One of us found a sudden lousy diagnosis. Her plans changed. The other three of us “talked” across the country incessantly, endeavoring to support her and, frankly, confront our own terror and helplessness. My rabbinic experience felt tossed out the window, depleted as I was, fearing for my friend, and, to be honest, myself as selfish as that felt.

I had no good script before me. Still don’t. I decided to write to ground myself, somewhere, anywhere, as my friends and I fumble through the conversations. The words aren’t witty in this conversation. Wendy, where are you? I need you to write the dialogue and give the stage instructions. I need it to all work out. I miss you, Wendy.

[i] “…freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Sacred Messenger at a Gravesite

It was the first snow, three years ago. Standing at the grave saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, I looked around. Few of those gathered spoke the ancient words with me. It was one of those rabbinic moments that made me sad. Would this family have a next generation that could say Kaddish? Would these nice people have a next generation that was Jewish? These are the things that rabbis — we who have chosen service to the Jewish people and the teaching of Judaism — wonder, at times questioning the efficacy of our work. Continue reading

Establish the work of our hands!

She was a weaver. Coming to it late in life, her footsteps were no longer steady, but her fingers delicately managed the small loom in her living room, balls of yarn beckoning from the nearby basket. One of her last days, I came to see her. Her daughters handed me a small, soft package, wrapped in tissue — a narrow jewel-toned scarf unrolled, marked by a label with the weaver’s name. Continue reading

A Great Aunt: Garden Slugs & a GED

“It feels like yesterday that I left James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Now, some 65 years later I am here among you celebrating my graduation.” My great aunt, Sylvia Levy, wrote these words in 1994 in what I soon realized was her 1994 high school graduation speech.

She explained, “I left high school with less than a year to finish and always regretted it. This was the time of the great depression and during the intervening years I had to work to support myself and my family. In 1941 I got married and shortly thereafter my husband was drafted into the Army. After the war we raised two sons. However, I didn’t neglect my education – music, literature and art became subjects of great interest to me. The depression, WWII and the tasks of daily life kept me from going back to complete my education. Nonetheless it was in my always in my thoughts that one day I would finish high school.”

I found these words the other day, just before what would have been Sylvia’s 105th birthday. I knew she earned her high school degree deep in her senior years, but had not thought about that ‘til I discovered the folded papers of her speech. Reading the edited cursive, I heard her voice, giving her opinion and history to a group of likely much younger students – the perfect scene for a woman who spoke her mind and loved history!

Aunt Sue as we called Sylvia was my grandmother’s next younger sister – the second of four girls — and my mom’s favorite aunt. She spent lots of time with Mom and her brother, my Uncle Fred, when they were young. A truly interesting person, Aunt Sue once had a store in the West Village, shared her love of jazz with my uncle, loved to sing, followed politics, and told a story well, replete with dramatic flourishes and her own brand of certainty. She was never shy about speaking her mind!

Chop Suey — as my sister and I called her for some reason I no longer remember — loved plants and flowers. For as long as I can remember she made terrariums, pressed flowers and made beautiful cards and pictures with those pressed flowers, cards and pictures which were then sent to family and friends across the country.

When she and Uncle Len retired, they knew what they wanted. Uncle Len wanted to fish. Aunt Sue wanted nature. So they left their Bronx apartment and moved to Fishkill, New York. They moved to a small place surrounded by grass and near a stream. He fished every day. She planted a garden outside their door.

When I was 15 or so, my mom brought my friend Lynn and me on a road trip. We visited Vassar College, went to the Rhinebeck craft fair, and spent the night with Sylvia and Leonard. It’s the garden that I remember most from that visit, specifically, the slugs. Sure, we talked and laughed, and Lynn and I slept in cozy sleeping bags on their floor, But it was the slugs, and the small jar lids filled with beer that intrigued me. Beer? Slugs? Apparently the beer attracted the slugs, and then the slugs slithered in and died – and didn’t eat Aunt Sue’s plants. That was cool!

Over the years, Uncle Len died and Aunt Sue and I talked more and more. We visited and corresponded. We sat up late nights on the phone and discussed books, friends and family history. She always wanted to know more about the immigration of her mother, my great grandmother Ida Schul. I tried to help her research. She told stories and I took furious notes. Finally I even visited Kolboszowa, Poland, where Ida was born and lived until she left for America at 16. Together we wanted to solve the mystery of my Grandma Rose’s birth father whom Grandma never met. We were family detectives energized by the search. At the same time, Aunt Sue did her darnedest to keep the family connected and cheer us all on. She and Leonard – not religiously observant Jews in any way – even came to my first High Holy Day pulpit, dripping with sweat and beaming with pride in an un-air-conditioned community club house on a hot, hot night as I delivered one of my first sermons. 

I never heard Chop Suey deliver her graduation speech. But I could hear her the other day as I looked at the picture of her smiling broadly under her mortar board: “If there is a message to be gleaned from this, it is — Don’t give up — Stay in school — Further your education, no matter what the cost. Make the most of your lives!! You are the future of our country and can help make this world a better place!”

At that moment, all I wanted was to time travel back to Aunt Sue’s garden, speech in hand, watch for slugs, and ask her how many questions about how she made the most of her life.

Silent Lips?

 

We sit comfortably at the table tonight,

years since Emma Lazarus penned,

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Years since we, our parents, grandparents and the greats before them

reached “the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame”

and arrived at the golden door

 

We who sit at the seder table —

we know that the homeless, tempest-tost are not wretched refuse.

We have been there —

we ourselves or those who arrived before us.

We know our story, our journey to freedom.

We hear Torah’s reminder: you were slaves in Egypt

 

Yet we see so many immigrants and refugees

treated as trash dumped on our shores,

not welcomed by Mother of Exiles with her beacon-hand welcoming,

but with a raised hand turning them away,

 

Tonight we celebrate redemption.

We celebrate the freedom to journey,

We celebrate the freedom to enter,

We celebrate the freedom to act in the world.

 

We lift the cup tonight, not one time, but four,

each a promise of redemption,

a commitment to freedom and safety for those who came before us.

 

Tonight we see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Tonight as we hear women’s voices,

Lady Liberty’s silent lips cry out:

Where is your beacon-hand that welcomes?

How will you redeem?

 

Quoted sections, title & other direct references cite Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus.