Dear Dad

Dear Dad:

Remember that afternoon you and I took Noa to the field where the Northwestern marching band practices? It was just after Rosh Hashanah and you and Mom were in town. Noa was three, I think. She was mesmerized by the instruments and even stopped to talk to a kind trombone player who was sitting on the grass. She was so happy, and you and I were content on a sunny afternoon to watch this unfold.

I was thinking about it recently, sitting at Noa’s band concert as she played tuba. You see, years after that band visit, she began playing trombone. I can’t help but think that that kind encounter with an NU band member laid the seeds for her choice of instrument. And later that choice morphed into the addition of tuba. You’d get a kick out of her with that big tuba and its deep sound. She’s still the gentle sweet girl you watched grow for five years, only know she’s taller than me and strong inside and out, and, oh, can she write!

The other day at temple there was a conversation in the office about Goldenrod copy paper, something about which color that was. I called from my desk, happy to add the clarification that I never would have known if it weren’t your favorite color for notes, song sheets and the like.

So often I stop David as he says something – especially when he asks about proper attire for an event or speaks with cautionary word. As I start to talk, he replies, “I know, I am so much like Grandpa Barry.” And, yes, my blue-blazer-loving boy is just that. You would love taking him to Brooks Brothers, and talking about his improv and public speaking, and laughing at his political commentary.

A few weeks ago, Talia came into my office after school and before Hebrew school. She announced that she had to write about someone who had died and she wanted to talk to me about you. Know that other students were writing about pets, so, you were truly a step up – or maybe a choice because she has had no pets, thanks to your surprise pet Ferdinand who bit the diaper man when I was small.

Of course it was an unending work day and I told her I could talk later that evening. By the time we spoke, right before bedtime, she had reflected on what she knew, read the words Jackie and I wrote and spoke after you died, and she wrote:

“Grandpa Barry was, and still is a person in which people trust, love, listen to, and care for. Because I was so young when he passed in 2008, I know him from the lessons he taught and stories he was talked about in. I have learned from him, to express gratitude, be an example of high standards, have leadership, think big, and let other people take the credit. He is also known for a quote which he told his congregation, and now my mom tells hers for summer break — ‘take a long walk, read a good book, and make a new friend.’ He is highly thought of by so many people on top of his family. Every year on his birthday, we eat coffee ice cream, to remember his love for it. We also visit his grave when we can, and tell stories about him frequently.”

And then she wrote you a letter:

Dear Grandpa Barry,

This is your granddaughter, Talia. I just wanted to tell you how things are, with life and family. Right now, I am in fifth grade and am 10 years old. I like school, and I’m doing well in it. I am taking care of grandma and mom. David and Noa are also doing good, Noa now in eighth grade. Our president is Donald J. Trump, and he is doing very bad things to the USA. Mom still talks about you a lot, and shares a lot of lessons and stories from and about you. I really wish I could spend time with you while I’m growing up.

Miss you and love you, Talia Rose Polish

And then I wrote you this letter to say: You’re still here, nine years later, in an assemblage such as this, of the big things and the small things, the explicit, the happenstance and the unexpected. I really wish these children could spend time with you while they are growing up. They miss you and love you. Me too.

Love, Me/Lis/LSG



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.