Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay
Rabbi Lester Hering
Rabbi Neil Cooper
Memorial Address at Shloshim
Aba’s Hair Blown, Naama Potok
Thirty Days Later, Akiva Potok
Shloshim, Naama Potok
Shemirah, Rena Potok
The Summer You Died, William Holmes
The eulogies presented here are from the funeral service for Rabbi Chaim Potok and the Memorial
Addresses at Shloshim. Adena Potok is to be thanked for making this remarkable material available.
In preparing this material for the website the booklet that was preparred containing the eulogies and addresses were
scanned with an Optical Character Reader and the spellings corrected. Where there were words or phrases in Hebrew
these have been replaced with [Hebrew]. Care has been used in seeing that both the text and pagination are true to the
original publication. If errors are found please contact the webmaster so the corrections can be made.
According to the Talmud, if a king dies any other Israelite cansucceed him, but if a scholar dies, [ Hebrew ] , “we havenobody like him” (b. Horayot 13a). No two scholars are alike be-cause no two represent the same combination of intellectualand spiritual qualities. Chaim possessed an absolutely uniquecombination of gifts that I don’t think is ever likely to berepeated. He was, of course, best known as a novelist, but hewas also a rabbi, a scholar, a philosopher, an educator, a painter,and an editor. He received his scholarly training in Judaica atthe Jewish Theological Seminary and in philosophy at the Uni-versity of Pennsylvania. He served as a military chaplain andthen directed Camp Ramah in California and the Seminary’sLeaders Training Fellowship. He taught writing and philosophyof literature at Penn and other universities. He was the Editorin Chief of the Jewish Publication Society and Secretary of theCommittee that translated the Ketuvim for its Bible translation,serving along with Moshe Greenberg, Jonas Greenfield, andNahum Sarna. It was Chaim, along with Nahum Sarna, whoproposed that the JPS publish a Torah commentary, for whichChaim then served as literary editor. Most recently, he servedas co-editor of Etz Hayim
, the new Torah commentary that theConservative Movement published last year and that is sittingin book racks in your seats. One of the greatest blessings thatlife brought to Chaim was that he was not only endowed withso many gifts, but that he was given the opportunity to use themall.
I first heard of Chaim in the sixties, before he published The
when he wrote a valuable series of pamphlets aboutJewish ethics, dealing with human nature and the ethics of suchareas as business and advertising, language, law, and family. Acouple of years later Chaim was one Of 38 leading rabbis whotook part in a symposium on the state of Jewish belief publishedin Commentary Magazine
. There Chaim explained some of thethemes that would become constant elements in most of hissubsequent writing, both in his novels and in Wanderings
, hisbook about Jewish history that traced Judaism’s exposure to asuccession of other great civilizations.
In the symposium Chaim wrote that “Theology has its ori-gins in the anguish that is felt when one’s commitment to a par-ticular religious model of reality is confronted by new knowl-edge and experiential data that threaten the root assumptionsof the model.” That new knowledge and data were the moder-nity of every age and civilization to which the Jews wereexposed. Chaim knew that anguish personally. His refusal toignore modern thought, coupled with his love of Judaism andthe Jewish people, led to his own crisis of faith, which heresolved by embracing both modernity and observant Judaism.
This included embracing critical scholarship, the very approachthat others regard as a threat to religion. For Chaim, criticalscholarship made Judaism come alive by showing the unusualsophistication that went into the shaping of Jewish sacred texts.
Chaim felt, as one of his characters later put it, “[I]f the Torahcannot go into [the] world of [critical] scholarship and returnstronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in theTorah. I am not afraid of truth” (In the Beginning
). At the sametime, Chaim rejected any attempt to splinter the universe intoseparate domains of religion and science. He decided to forge areligious life out of what he called “provisional absolutes,” mean-ing that he was constantly prepared to alter his basic religiousassumptions should critical thinking make this necessary. Andfinally, he insisted on a commitment to a universe that is intrin-
sically meaningful, and on the unity of theology and behavior,the need for a pattern of behavior that can concretize this com-mitment and infuse it into the everyday activities of man. As heput it: “A theology that is not linked directly to a pattern ofbehavior is a blowing of wind and a macabre game with words.
And a pattern of behavior that is not linked to a system ofthought is an instance of religious robotry.”
For most of his life, Chaim worked out these issues by tellingstories. He was a master storyteller, and his novels expose us toindividuals who struggle to remain true to the forms of Ortho-dox Judaism in which they were raised while being irresistiblydrawn to modern intellectual or artistic paths that challengethose forms of Judaism. The novels are set against the moral,intellectual, spiritual, and artistic currents of the twentieth cen-tury, such as the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, Picasso andGuernica, modern Biblical scholarship, and the scholarly recov-ery of Jewish mysticism. His novels were learned, philosophi-cal, and extraordinarily informative about all of these subjectsand many more like them. For readers they were a rich curricu-lum in liberal arts and Jewish studies, but they were also grip-ping literature, and whenever I finished one I felt a sadness atsaying goodbye to the characters and not knowing what wouldhappen next in their lives.
At a party in honor of Chaim’s 72nd birthday, our friend SaulWachs, observed that Chaim’s books “opened a window to theJewish soul for Jew and non-Jew alike. I think all of us walked alittle more proudly as Chaim’s books appeared. At last we had avoice that combined authorial majesty with a warm Jewishheart.” Another friend, Mort Civan, told of being in France andreading Ha’Aretz
; when a woman looking over his shouldernoticed that he could read Hebrew and learned that he was Jew-ish, the first thing she said was, “Well, then, you must have readChaim Potok.” Mort’s point was that to the world Chaim ISJudaism.
My wife and I got to know the Potoks personally when wecame to Philadelphia and our lives became intertwined througha myriad of connections fostered by our shared seminary back-grounds, synagogue, day schools, our children, and professionalcollaboration. Eventually, I had the privilege of working closelywith Chaim on the JPS Torah commentary when I wrote one ofthe volumes and he served as my literary editor, with all of thementoring and deep friendship that the best of such relation-ships can foster. His skill and tact as an editor were remarkable.
With his deep understanding of the scholarship and his respectfor my colleagues and me as authors, he helped us make ourwriting accessible for non-specialist readers without cost to ourmeaning or to our own style. He did it again when editing thePeshat Commentary of Etz Hayim
, but this time overcomingthe greater challenge of boiling down the five volumes to lessthan half of one. There is no other person I would have trustedto do that except Chaim.
I saw in Chaim a true intellectual, a person who read con-stantly and voraciously about every imaginable subject. Fromour conversations I learned about literature, painting, andmusic. I also learned from him what discipline is. One day Idrove by to drop off a chapter for him and I found him takinghis afternoon walk. He came over to my car to talk and as hedid, he quietly hit the stop key on his stopwatch so as not tomiss a second of the time he had allocated for exercise.
Chaim was a beloved friend, and losing him is a great loss tome and my entire family. We shared so much with Chaim andAdena, and had such similar views of the world, that Heleneonce commented that she sometimes felt in talking with themas one does with a spouse-they could finish any sentence thatwe began. We loved Chaim’s warmth and affection, his smileand his embrace. One of the joys of going to shul was lookingforward to talking with him afterwards.
My children knew Chaim before they had any idea that he
was famous. In thinking about him now they were struck bythe fact that artistic success and fame never altered his priori-ties or commitments. He still pursued his scholarship, attendedthe weekly Talmud class given by Professor Samuel Lachs,[ Hebrew ] and served as a [ Hebrew ] and Torah readerand gave [ Hebrew ] in synagogue. His success didn’t pleasehim half as much as dinner and conversation surrounded by hisfamily. As a father, he was deeply involved in the lives of Renaand Bill, Naama and Akiva, and his grandchildren. One tokenof his deep involvement is the fact that between their academicand professional lives his children all pursued Chaim’s commit-ment to both intellectual and artistic expression, each in a dif-ferent field and medium. His lifelong symbiotic relationshipwith Adena was already a beautiful thing to behold when hewas well. Her devotion and wisdom and sensitivity since his ill-ness have been inexpressibly inspiring.
At the birthday party I mentioned before, a dozen or sofriends and family members spoke movingly about Chaim.
Everybody present knew of his illness, but that was completelyin the background. Chaim was moved and responded very sim-ply: He said that we live from minute to minute and nobodyknows what’s coming except the One who’s in charge of it all,and then he said [ Hebrew ]
The intense media coverage in the past 24 hours has illus-trated another Talmudic statement, [ Hebrew ],“If a Sage dies, all are his kinsmen , all go into mourning. Thatis surely the case with Chaim, who touched millions of lives.
He was one of the most famous Jews of his generation, one whowill be remembered for a long time. Those who knew and lovedhim personally and those who know him only through his workwill always be grateful that be was part of our lives.
For more than ten years, Chaim, Adena and their extended fam-ily have davened on the High Holidays with a wonderfully inti-mate group of about eighty people at the Merion TributeHouse. In many of those years, Chaim led a portion of the ser-vices with his rich, evocative voice, serving as the perfect Shaii-ach Tzibur, emissary of the community, in its petitions for for-giveness and for a healthy new year.
This past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were painfullypoignant. Chaim had already been ill for over a year. He-andsomehow we-knew that he would likely not live to see thenext High Holidays. During the holidays, rather than arriving, aswas his unfailing practice, at the very beginning of services, hecame somewhat later-although, I hasten to add, not as late asAdena. The palpable closeness of the three generations of thePotok family-sitting together, praying together, and huggingtogether-was even more evident than in past years.
Chaim had been asked to lead Ne’ilah, the final service ofYom Kippur, a service whose persistent message is that, as thegates of judgment are closing, one is called on to make a finaldemonstration of his or her worthiness for redemption. Therequest for Chaim to lead Ne’ilah had been made as much outof love and respect as out of any expectation that, in light ofhis obvious weakness, he would be able to say yes. Yet, as Min-cba closed and the sun began to set, Chaim decided, as he said,to try.”
And summoning energy from the depths of his soul, he ledthe 45-minute Ne’ilah service with a beauty of voice and inten-
sity of kavanah, of meaning, that was extraordinary. No onethere will ever forget Chaim’s chanting the words that had suchmultiple meanings for all of us -and especially for him:
Open for us the gates, even as they are closing, The day is waning, the sun is low, The hour is late. Let us enter the gates at last.
Now the gates have closed for Chaim for a last time. But asthey relentlessly did so, Chaim-with the extraordinary assis-tance and support of his family- fulfilled Ne’ilah’s liturgicalmessage and demonstrated his worthiness with special intensi-ty. For, he and his family provided for all of us a model of howto deal with life’s most difficult moments. In the past fewmonths Chaim and his family, without denying for a minute theinevitability of his fate, focused almost exclusively on being withand enjoying each other. just two months ago, Chaim somehowsummoned the energy to go cross-country to Akiva’s graduation.
just two weeks ago, with Chaim, his voice all but gone, express-ing a desire to be “near the water,” the entire family-all threegenerations -went to the shore for a week just to be together.
And last Friday night, with Chaim too weak to get out of bedand drifting in and out of sleep, the entire family-all threegenerations -gathered near him, so that he could hear, to singKabalat Shabbat, knowing that that would likely be his lastShabbat. Finally, just this past weekend, the entire family-allthree generations -gathered around him so that they could saygoodbye before he died peacefully in his sleep.
In these last months, Chaim and his family have truly facedthe closing of his gates with a grace, elegance, majesty, andsanctity that even surpassed the beauty of Chaim’s last Ne’ilah.
The day is waning, the sun is lowThe hour is late. Chaim has entered the gates at last.
May Chaim Potok’s name be for a blessing.
My father was a man of words. From a very young age, hecrafted tales. During the depression, when there was no moneyfor paper, he wrote stories on the wall of his bedroom. He toldhis mother he wanted to be a writer. She replied, “alright dar-ling, you be a brain surgeon. On the side, you’ll write stories.”He wrote stories-but not on the side.
My father’s life was books. He was an avid reader. Until veryrecently, I never saw him without a book in his hand. He tookevery available opportunity to learn. On a few occasions, we satin on graduate classes in English at the University of Pennsyl-vania together. These experiences enriched our relationshipimmeasurably. We became peers, colleagues, tossing ideas backand forth. We carried our classroom discussions home to theShabbat dinner table, arguing the fine points of Joycean dialec-tic and the magnificently meandering techniques of VirginiaWoolf’s experimental prose. He loved Penn. Two years ago, hewas given the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award. In hisacceptance speech, he expressed great pride in the fact that mybrother Akiva and I had both attended Penn, and that I con-tinue to teach there. He grinned in mock apology and went onto say, with a shrug, “my other daughter went to Harvard.”
A man of words. At the end of his life, words failed him. Helost his grasp, his exacting hold on the precise combinations,nuances, shadings of language. Ever tenacious, he reached forthe words he could find, familiar phrases that grew shorter andshorter with time. He would frequently get as far as he could,
and then end with “And that’s it”-a phrase that became some-thing of a signature for him. Gradually, he lost the ability tocommunicate, to read, to write. This last loss was the hardeston him. But as language slipped away, he became emotionallydemonstrative. He learned to express himself with his eyes andhands. With his Neshamah.
My father was a man of culture. By that I mean not only thathe loved the theater or the symphony-he did. Or that he knewhis way around art museums on three continents-he did. Imean that my father loved human culture. He was somethingof an amateur cultural anthropologist. Of course, he did noth-ing halfway: even as an amateur he was quite proficient. Whenhe traveled, he drank in foreign culture as one drinks water aftera long thirst. When he found interesting people at his dinnertable, he would mine them, asking probing questions about theirhistory, religious and social practices, their world views.
The table was his field. It was the place where he tested histheory of core-to-core culture confrontation again and again.
Peripheral contact did not interest him. He devoted himself tothe core. My mother would carefully lay out the table like apainter’s palette, so he could choose the most vibrant andappealing, and create a canvas of cultural exchange.
My father was an artist, a painter. I remember when we firstmoved to Jerusalem in 1973, and opened the crates from the“lift,” one crate was missing-the one filled with unfinishedcanvases that my father had begun at home, in Wynnefield. Heleaned heavily on the opened crates, looking bereft. I had neverseen my father look so lost. He went out and bought new can-vases, paints, easels. He walked through the streets of Talbiya,collecting the detritus of daily living in Jerusalem: Eshel lids,torn scraps of Maariv
, popsicle sticks, Bisli wrap-pers. Handfuls of sand from the playground at the corner.
Shards of Jerusalem stone from one local construction site, or
another. He pasted them onto canvases and painted them intolandscapes of Jerusalem. He poured the city into the paintingsand made cubist collages. These canvases stood lined up onthe floor of his painter’s studio-cum-writer’s study. They hungon the walls of our apartment. The canvases were emblematicof my father’s approach to life-to pick up the detritus of theworld, determine what was of use to him and make somethingaesthetic out of it, and discard the rest.
My father was a man of spirit, of deep and complex faith.
Descended from a strong line of Hasidim, he had a powerfulsense of the Jewish spirit-not only the spirit of the people, ina collective sense-but of the individual spirit, the Neshamah.
When the world seemed particularly fragile, my father wouldsing a “Tikkun,” a melody intended to repair the world. As helay dying, his family returned this gift to him, and sang hisTikkun-a haunting melody handed down by his mother. Evenwhen words failed him, he was still able to join in the recitationof kiddush, or of “Shalom Aleichem.” This past Erev Shabbat, asmall group of friends joined us for Kabbalat Shabbat at my par-ents’ home. Our voices wafted up the stairs to him, where helay in bed, listening. The spirit of Shabbat entered the house,and gave him peace. The spirit of Shekhinah entered his space,guiding him on the journey he was to begin.
My father and mother raised their children with a deep com-mitment to Jewish practice and ideals. Whether in Wynnefieldor Jerusalem, they taught us that to be an observant Jew, a cul-turally identified Jew, was a privilege, an honor to pass on. Andstill, he raised us to question our tradition. For my father, ask-ing the right kinds of questions was a sign of great intelli-gence-and he valued great intelligence. He did not sufferfools lightly. When you asked a good, and insightful question,you were rewarded with accolades-and with an equally good,and informative answer. His pedagogical training was to land
me in trouble in my Orthodox girls’ school in Jerusalem, whereI applied JPS-style bible criticism to my Tanakh class. I believehe was proud, when I reported to him that my teacher hadscolded me for offering a scholarly view that ran counter to theprevailing approach of the school.
Twenty-five years later, my father taught me my Torah por-tion, to prepare me for my adult Bat Mitzvah ceremony. I willalways cherish the Friday mornings spent at his left hand,chanting Torah and Haftorah trope with him. Though his legsdefied him, he stood and read Torah on the day of my Bat Mitz-vah last January. Later, I learned that he couldn’t see the wordsin the Torah scroll-the Decadron had obscured his vision-but he remembered them well enough to muddle through byheart.
My father had a deep and abiding respect for religious faithand little tolerance for religious extremism. He struggled withhis Orthodox roots. He remained profoundly connected to hisfaith through the intellect and through community. He valuedthis community and our synagogue community in Jerusalemintensely. He wanted to transmit these values to his children-use your mind, he seemed to insist, at all times. And stayconnected to Jewish communal-and cultural-life. It willshape your existence.
My father was a family man. He was deeply devoted to hiswife, my mother. Theirs is one of the great love stories of alltimes. Watching my mother care for him this past year, andwatching his utter trust in her care is one of the most movingand inspiring things I have witnessed in my life. My father wasintensely proud of his children, of what we have accomplishedin work and in life; he knew that we would continue to accom-plish great things, and more importantly, that we would be men-schen, decent and caring human beings. He was in love with
his grandchildren. He was uncharacteristically animated whenplaying with them, tender when holding them on his lap, kiss-ing them goodnight, reading them books. Even at the end, whenhis eyes were closed most of the time, he opened them to lookat Maia and stroke her face; though his arms were weak, hestrained to lift Erez onto his lap for more kisses.
I asked my children what they would like to say about theirSaba.
If you were alive right now at this moment I would hug youand kiss you. I didn’t know that after you died it was so sad. Youwere a great storyteller. And very very fun to play with. I miss youreading books to me. I love you sooo sooooo much. And you lovedme that much too.
I miss you terribly and I’m terribly sad.
Love, your beautiful granddaughter Maia
I love you. I don’t want you to die. I like to play with you. Thankyou for my cars. I love him and I want to play with him all thetime.
Words, art and culture, faith, and family-these are themeasures of the man. The author, painter, husband, father andgrandfather, brother and uncle, lecturer, teacher. At his 72ndbirthday party last February, I quoted E.M. Forster’s charge,“only connect.” My father connected with the world both pub-licly and privately, drawing intellectual and emotional suste-
nance from the experience. At the end of his life, when he couldno longer speak, his family fed him words. When he could nolonger paint or draw, we described to him the changing colorsof the bay at sunset. When his eyes failed, we painted distantbirds on the horizon, his grandchildren dancing in the surf,skimming the ocean’s surface, flying in their father’s arms. Whenhe could no longer read, his family read to him- contemporaryfiction, New Yorker
cartoons, James Joyce, The New York Times
When his spirit wavered, he wept. When his grandchildrenkissed him, he reached for them. When he withdrew his inter-est from earthly things, we sang to him. We played him pianosonatas recorded by his dear friend Walter Hautzig. The musicplayed. He was at peace.
I told my sister and brother yesterday that we were verylucky, we had two fathers: the private Aba, and the public fig-ure. The one we shared with the world; the other was ours alone.
He struggled valiantly through his illness, with immeasurablegrace and dignity. These qualities of being he maintained to theend. We were blessed with his presence. We will be blessedwith his memory. We will honor him with our lives, and withour love.
The first time I met my future father-in-law was a Sunday after-noon during Pesach (Passover). The clocks had sprung for-wardthat morning, and not having realized it until too late, Rena andI rushed along the slight grade of City Line Avenue that ranfrom the train station to my future in-law’s home, arriving latefor lunch, warmed from an early, Spring humidity, and a littleapprehensive about the meeting. It’s been said that, “All begin-nings are hard,” but surprisingly, that day, the beginning wassweet, the seed for what would become a long-blossoming rela-tionship sown with a gentle hand and kind words.
Aba greeted us in the dining room. As most of you know, hewas an imposing presence, and that day was no exception,except that he was an imposing presence who was past readyfor lunch. Over lunch, he was not particular wordy, in fact, hewas silent for stretches of time -a trait that would only becomefamiliar (and understandable) to me much later, but was worri-some, at that first meeting, for an earnest young man. What wasnot worrisome though was-in-between the quiet-thewarmth that came from his eyes, the increasingly engaging ques-tions that indicated his curiosity, the lengthening of what beganas a light lunch into a long meal, and the spontaneous invitationto return.
In time, that invitation would stretch into weekly, erev Shab-bat dinners, months would stretch into years, years would bringmarriage and children, and now, time ushers, too early, death.
Those who know Rena and me-and Aba and Ima-know that
this brief summary glosses over the rich terrain that has beentraversed since that distant day . terrain not traveled by trains,or alongside humid, trafficked streets, but the not-often trav-eled roads of the mind, the heart, and the soul. These kinds oftravels were the stuff of Aba’s life, and even upon our first meet-ing, this truth was apparent. In his particularly unique way, healways was beckoning fellow travelers to walk with him, and thewarmth and kind words that I heard from him sixteen years agocame from that place of beckoning. In the years that would fol-low, we would share, among other things, a journey that thoughdifferent in its religiocultural transformations, emanated, atheart, from the same spiritual hunger and quest.
Given our divergent backgrounds, this remembrance of ourinitial meeting and the brief description of how our relationshipevolved after it is striking for what it lacked. Aba’s path was oneabsent of xenophobia, or any other type of dominant fear of theother. For one who so thoroughly lived within and operated fromthe core of his religious and cultural inheritance, Aba wasextraordinarily unique in the manner in which he was drawn notonly to those within but those outside this core. Individuals who,at least some of the time, operated on the periphery of their pri-mary cores of influence were particularly fascinating to him,and it was them, he argued, who moved humanity forward,toward rather than away from one another. He spoke relent-lessly about this in what he referred to as “core-to-core cultureconfrontation.”
This wasn’t a meaningless phrase or sound-bite to him. Therewe were, for example, those many years ago, representatives ofdifferent cultural cores experiencing a confrontation and mold-ing it into something beautiful, something that changed my life.
This was by no means unique to his relationship with me, how-ever. He (and Ima) embraced my parents and created a beauti-ful relationship with them as well, a relationship that celebratedthose things that they had in common, and explored and sought
to know better those things that were different. Yet again, thispursuit wasn’t unique to relationships within the family. Thiswas a practiced skill of Aba’s, one that he literally existed towrite about and experience for himself over and over again,whether locally or around the world.
I remember him speaking on this topic one evening a num-ber of years ago at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. He drovehis arm into the air, twisting his hand in that familiar way as hemade his point, gritting his teeth for emphasis, fully embodyinghis passion for this subject and its pursuit. Though challengedby it, into myriads of sleepless, middle- of- the -night hours, hewas driven to work through the contradistinctions of the reli-gious and the secular, along with the other contravening mean-ings of the various religious, spiritual, political, social, and per-sonal confrontations we experience within ourselves andbetween each other, and he sought to engage others in this sameeffort.
Recently, Aba added another type of cultural confrontationto this list of those with which be struggled . that of the body.
A swirling mass of ravenous cells sought to live amongst his cellsof order, memory, words, images, emotions, and thoughts. Trueto his ethic of facing these core-to-core struggles with honestyand focus, he fought this cellular-level cultural confrontationwith the extraordinary grace and practical fortitude he hadbrought to anything else in his life. In many ways, this was theculminating work of his life, one that took what had been writ-ten on the page, or spoken in words, and lived it. I think I speakfor many of us here when I say how extraordinary it was to travelwith him on this final journey on earth.
Aba spoke often about paradigm shifts, how on the fulcrumof an epiphany, the map of life shifts and we find ourselves trav-eling in new directions. Aba, your life has led and will continueto lead to the paradigm shifts of countless lives. Your death willlead to a paradigm shift in our family. And you have begun a
new journey altogether. It is only fitting, at the moment of somany shifts, to read the quote from Keats with which youopened the pages of Old Men at Midnight
Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,And precipices show untrodden green,There is budding morrow in midnight,There is a triple sight in blindness keen.
As you knew so well, in this world, we are all old men andold women at midnight. As we reflect on this truth, may weseek to simultaneously turn toward one other and seek God,remembering both the secular and the divine that pervades theuniverses inside and around us, and travel down new roads,together.
Thank you for being Saba to my children.
Thank you for being Aba to me.
I can see your writing studio from my bedroom window where Iwrite to you now. It is difficult to write about you in any tensebut the present since you are part of my foundation, my soulmate. I cannot reconcile your physical absence. You are every-where inside our home. In your paintings and books, yourlibrary chair, your gait. In the items you and Ima brought backfrom your travels together throughout the world. You are in thelarge chess pieces in a bay window and in the prints and water-colors that have been part of my consciousness since childhood.
They traveled with us throughout several moves until we set-tled into our current home. The home in which you lived forthe longest duration of your life and in which you died yester-day morning. When your body was shifted from its side andonto your back to be taken away for Shemirah, your limbs hadset into a position that gave you an appearance of praying. Inmy mind you are still in your studio, writing.
You were a deeply private, shy, dignified, and compassion-ate man who survived by confronting his demons. You hadspent a lifetime, together with Ima, in preparation for anuntimely death, confronting the news and toll of your illnesswith ferocious discipline and an unyielding resolve to make useof every day you still had to write and to live. Working togetheron “The War Doctor,” we sat in the comfort of your silence asyou struggled with the language still available to you, bending
words to suit your meaning. Several months’ prior, we had par-ticipated in a staged reading of “Davita’s Harp” and together leda group discussion with university students in Milwaukee. Wehad become colleagues. I saw the beginning of a new relation-ship with you, which was cruelly and suddenly terminated asyour illness set in.
Every Friday night in Jerusalem, when I was a girl, I walkedwith you to Shul. If I was running late, I ran to catch up withyou. On occasion my hair was still damp from my shower. I heldyour hand all the way to Shul and back, and sat right next toyou in the men’s section.
This past Friday night, members of the Havurah gathered inour home for Kabbalat Shabbat. I sat next to you as you lay inyour bed. You cried when you heard the “Lechah Dodi
.” Youstroked my face and hair with your good arm. And I heldyour hand.
I am grateful to you, Aba, for your love and support, for chal-lenging me, for your immense tenderness, sweetness, and deter-mined strength. For your charisma, passion for life and laugh-ter, and hunger for knowledge and learning, and for-togetherwith Ima-bringing Akiva and Rena who, with Bill, broughtMaia and Erez into my life. You and Ima shared a love so deepand unbreakable. I hope I may one day be blessed with such alove. Until then and beyond, I vow to honor, love, cherish, andcare for Ima, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
Rest in peace my precious Aba. I hope that by now you areembraced by Savta and Dod Shimon, and by Ima’s parentswhom you so deeply loved, and by your own father. I hope youare all holding each other, as those of us left with your absencewill hold onto one another as we struggle to find ways to keepyou with us, in spite of your departure.
Two and half years ago I had a vivid dream. I dreamt that I wasstanding here before you eulogizing my father. In the dreamthe location of the eulogy was the Nanuet synagogue, fromwhich we buried my uncle, my father’s younger brother, whodied of this same disease six years ago. There, I eulogized myfather, and I wept. I told everybody that I loved my Aba. I toldthem what a beautiful man he was, how proud I was of him. Italked about sitting at the Shabbat dinner table and listening tothe fascinating and never-ending conversations that would takeplace with friends and family. I eulogized him, and I wept; Iwept, and I pointed at the coffin and said things like, “Thisman. what could life possibly be like without him.” and tearswere rolling down my face, and then I woke up. There weretears in my eyes. I had been weeping in my sleep. Tears wererunning down my cheeks. They woke me up! I had eulogizedmy father in my sleep! I sat up in bed and looked around theroom and wondered if I should call home, but decided not to.
About a month later my Aba was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
I was not surprised. Somehow, I do not know why, I had beenwarned.
Cancer is, in its way, a very kind disease. It robs you of aparent slowly. It warns you. You get lead-time. A family canthink, it can gather, make plans, talk about what is happening.
Last Friday, Aba became bed-bound. He simply could notremain awake long enough to be brought down stairs. Not beingable to join us downstairs for Shabbat dinner, we put Shabbat
dinner together and brought it upstairs to his room. And thefamily all sat around his bed and ate dinner and surroundedhim with him with love, attention, and adoration. We said Kid-dush over the Shabbat wine and he joined us, saying what hecould, which was much of it!!! A week earlier he had actuallyled the Kiddush himself, and it was a pleasure to hear his voiceagain. He could barely form new sentences, but he could stilldaven
, pray. On Monday, the afternoon before he passed away,we gathered around him on the bed, and sang zemirot, songssung after Shabbat meals. Beautiful songs, songs about love,about Jerusalem, about the Sea of Galilee, one song about asailing ship filled with sleeping sailors, that drifts off to sea! Wesang to him. We sang to ourselves. We loved him, and we lovedbeing all together, which is how he wanted it.
Aba. I am talking to you. I miss you horribly, and you onlyleft yesterday, and I love you so much. What should I tell peo-ple, Aba? That this is strange? Have I lost my compass and mybedrock? Is life now without authority, and do I suddenly haveno real memory of who I am? You wrote about silence, andmaybe for a time during your life you found it difficult to talk toyour son, but later on both of us worked very hard and we foundour way to each other. I came back after college and lived athome for two years, and some might say that I was a touch afraidof the big blue world, not without truth, but I was adamant thatyou and I would form a friendship and break the quiet that wasdominating our relationship. And so two years later when I wentto California, it was knowing that you were now with me. ThatI could always come home to you and sit there and revel in yourcompany. You told me then that if things didn’t work out in Cal-ifornia I could always come back home. That was only ten yearsago. But I guess it’s just not really true anymore, because thechildhood home I left is no longer really there for me to comeback to.
Aba, how your voice filled me with confidence. How hold-
ing your hand spread dignity throughout my soul and filled mewith the peace of knowing where I belonged. You were myguide. You gave me advice with such wisdom. And how yourjudgments scared me. Why won’t I be able to sit and talk to youanymore? Who will continue to teach me how to write? Merewill I put my arms when I want to hug you? I have lost my ally,I have lost my enemy, I have lost a stranger, I have lost my twin!When I couldn’t figure out my writing, you would make sugges-tions and help. Sometimes you would even take over. We hadto work on that one, too!
In some ways for me this is devastation, but in other waysfor me, this is truly a rebirth. What will my life be like withoutmy father? What kind of journey could this be?! I’m terrified. Iam enraged that he is gone. I think that I am also excited to seewhat comes next!
Soon we will travel from this building. We will carry this box,this coffin to a cemetery, and we will do what I never reallythought would happen to me, we will in fact put my Aba in theground and bury him. What a dignified life. I can’t even beginto fathom it. How many people has he touched. It amazes me.
I guess if I were to tell you about the love between a fatherand a son I would say that it is to be surrounded by your father’slove as if by a bright white light, to be surrounded by it, but tofind it utterly baffling and incomprehensible; and to cherish it.
I was privileged to spend 44 years of marriage with ChaimPotok-to develop a deep friendship of mind and heart, to bringinto the world and help to shape 3 beautiful (now adult) chil-dren, to react critically to his work-upon his regular invita-tion, to swim with him in the various worlds of community, learnfrom him, teach him, argue, shep nachas
, enjoy friendships newand old, and delight in grandchildren.
I miss his presence, his wit, his strength, his gentleness. Imiss the power of his focused will, his sense of order, yes, hisretreating into the kedushah
, the sanctity, of his acts of creation.
I miss laughing with him.
I miss learning from him, studying with him, talking thingsover, discovering new worlds in the physical realm-the travelswe took, the people we met. Mostly the softening of his fea-tures when he looked at someone he loved-at his children, athis grandchildren, at a friend of whatever age, at me.
I miss swimming in the worlds of Jewish tradition and moder-nity, struggling to draw truths, witnessing the birth pangs ofnew ideas, doing much of this with various members of our fam-ily and with other friends, for we are privileged in the friend-ship of our children.
In the past few years, since the reality of inoperable, eventu-ally spreading brain cancer entered his and our lives, Chaimdeveloped a keener than usual zest for life, and a will to com-plete various projects of work. As long as his legs could carryhim-even with the help of equipment-we enjoyed the music
of Tanglewood and the Philadelphia Academy of Music (wenever made it to Verizon Hall), the plays of our two subscrip-tions, an occasional jaunt to the offerings in New York, andmovies, movies, movies. In a nod to his youthful love of comics,the last movie we saw in a theatre was “Spiderman.” In the pastcouple of months, as we spent more and more time at home,he derived much delight from episodes of Sherlock Holmesand Inspector Morse. In fact, the good inspector’s walking-lifting his “drop foot”-became a model for him in strugglingwith the frustration occasioned by a weakened right leg. Itworked for a time; and he seemed to enjoy the literary alliance.
Music filled our library often -especially Isaac Stern withthe violin and our dear friend Walter Hautzig with piano reper-toires. And Hazzan Pinchik’s rendition of Roza di Shabbos
. Andof course Frank Sinatra, whose LP versions wore out in Koreaafter so much playing during Chaim’s 16 months as a chaplainthere.
As his body and the language -to -speech routes and pathsbecame increasingly compromised, he found being in groups afrustrating struggle, and so enjoyed the company of a fewfriends at a time. Those were nurturing visits, some of them athome, some at others’ homes. And when the most recent MRIdisclosed, in fact, the spread of tumor, at the Shabbat table atRena’s and Bill’s home, he declared his strong desire-a need,I’d say-to spend a week on the water. In this instance we werelooked after from on-high, and we found a large house on thebay at the northern end of Long Beach Island. The realtor, whowas overseeing the adapting of her own sister’s home to wheel-chair accessibility, saw to it that the Island Beach Patrol pro-vided us with a dune buggy. Translated that meant that Kivcould push him a block and a half so he could partake of theocean and her beach and witness children and grandchildrenswimming and building sand villages. Conversations took placethat week in various groups and in whatever settings we found
ourselves. Maia perched herself on a dune buggy tire at thebeach; Erez curled up in Saba’s lap on the deck. Then, at Kab-balat Shabbat on the deck, he mounted an enormous effort tostand and greet the Sabbath bride. “Bo-ee kallah, bo-ee kallah
.”With help he made it.
These past months I was his computer assistant. As such, Iwas charged to read his e-mail and respond. Similar to earlier,hard-copy fan mail, most of the letters came from non-Jewishreaders of all ages, people who found an affinity for and identi-fication with his characters and their struggles. These lettersreminded us of the Navajo lad whom we’d met in SouthernUtah on a lecture tour for the Utah Endowment for the Human-ities. He’d come up to Chaim and thanked him for giving him ahandle to live in two cultures simultaneously and with self-respect. I remember the glow of joy and discovery on that boy’sface, a good twelve years later.
I think it should be said that this creative man used his mindto improve, expand, shape whatever he touched, be it the rawmaterial three young New Age Jews brought him as editor ofJPS, which he helped them shape into the First and SecondJewish Catalogues; the development of a successful literaryfund-raiser for the Free Library of Philadelphia, whose RareBook Committee he chaired; or the gardens in front and in backof the apartment house that was our home in Jerusalem from1973-1977. Mistaking him for a professional gardener, a neigh-bor asked if he had free hours for their gardens.
We, the family, have been blessed with a husband-father-grandfather-brother-uncle of precious qualities; the commu-nity with a teacher-citizen extraordinaire; the world with anhonest thinking storyteller who knows and respects his worldsand their conflicts.
We note with grateful awareness the years of deepest friend-ship that grew with his editor, Robert Gottlieb, with his agent,Owen Laster, and with colleagues in Jewish scholarship. The
family deeply appreciates the expressions of friendship, sup-port, and hesed
by so many of Chaim’s friends and admirers.
The family- including Chaim-were blessed with peoplewhose goodness and soul brought us through these past years,months, and especially days with grace, skill, and extraordinaryintelligence and commitment. They have our eternal gratitude:Drs. David Goldman, Kevin Judy, and Zelig Tochner of TheHospital of the University of Pennsylvania; Peter C. Phillipsand his assistant Gia Soto of The Children’s Hospital ofPhiladelphia. Laura Jacobs; Rehab professionals Joe Shay,Dr.Teri Goldfine, and Seena Elbaum. The angel Anne Pinnockwho gave special meaning to caregiving, and an Irish leprechaunin the person of Sinead from Jefferson Hospice. Joseph Levine;Sloane of Shalom Memorial Park. Our friend and chaplainSheila Segal. We greatly and deeply appreciated the minyan offriends who brought Kabbalat Shabbat to our home and toChaim’s ears when he was no longer leaving his bed. He sangwith Naama some of the t’fillot
. It was an act of hesed
. Our syn-agogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El: Rabbi Neil Cooper, whograciously shared his pulpit today with our brother-in-law RabbiLester Hering; and executive director, Sharon Stumacher, whosensitively directed the many press and media requests, andwho in general eased us into today. Our friends Dan Segal andJeff Tigay, who shared mind and soul with us.
In looking for something a few nights ago I happened upon apoem I’d written to Chaim for his birthday about 40 years ago.
I’d like to read it now.
That day was blessedWhen first you felt theAir,
Then breathed of it,So gaining the first stepUpon life’sStair.
And each new breathAnd every step youTookBrought life anewTo you, who dared toLook.
The you I know,The you that is and willBe,That you, my love,Is always,deeply, loved byMe.
I suspect that no one in this synagogue knew Chaim as long asI did, other than his two sisters, Charlotte and Bella. We firstmet in 1944 at Camp Betar in Bloomingburg, NY where weworked as junior counselors. Chaim was a J. C. with his cousinBella Baer (now known as Bella Bergman, who is married toRabbi Benzion Bergman, Professor of Talmud at the Universityof Judaism in Los Angeles). I was an assistant on the waterfront.
For three years, we had attended the same school but did notknow each other. We were in the same 8th grade at YeshivahIsrael Salanter in the East Bronx on Washington Avenue andgraduated at the same time; and we were in the same class atTalmudical Academy High School-but we did not meet eachother until camp. In those years, Chaim was known as Herman.
To his parents he was Chaim Hersh.
Let me tell you how he developed from Herman to Hy toChaim.
In high school he was Herman. There, he excelled in all hisstudies as an honors student. He loved to sketch, and he drewan original comic strip for our monthly school newspaper. Hisartistic skills were already being developed in the midst of hisself-imposed reading schedule. He won the American journalessay contest on American history, and his name and picture wereplastered all over the school paper.
When he first came to camp, he was known as Hy; this wasthe name he preferred through his rabbinical school days. Incamp, the only sport I remember him playing was baseball. Oth-
erwise he kept to himself, but absorbed all that was beingtaught about Zionism at Camp Betar.
Two years later, in 1946, 1 was in charge of the waterfront atCamp Betar and Hy was a full counselor. And who was now aJunior Counselor in Camp? None other than Hy’s sister Char-lotte. Hy’s cousin Bella Bergman, nee Baer, was the Girl’s HeadCounselor. She had recently married Benzy Bergman, who wasthen a student in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theolog-ical Seminary. Hy started to spend time with Benzy, asking allsorts of questions about JTS and the Conservative movement inJudaism. That summer, Charlotte and I became rather close,and we started to date after the camping season. As a result, Isaw Hy almost every Saturday night and in school on a dailybasis.
As time went on, I continued my studies at CCNY and theTeachers Institute department of JTS, and Hy continued hisstudies at Yeshivah University. Periodically, when I called onCharlotte, Hy would pick my brain about the Seminary. We toobecame rather close to one another during those years. DuringHy’s senior year at YU he decided to go to the Rabbinical Schoolof JTS. I had made my own decision during my junior year atCCNY.
I remember one day, as I was waiting for Charlotte, theirfather, of blessed memory, pulled me aside. He asked me aboutJTS. What type of a school was it? Do they study Talmud? Dothe students wear Yarmulkes? Will Hy become an Apikoires?This was a man who was not a rabbi, but knew all of Shas byheart. The local orthodox rabbis in the community would cometo him to ask where a certain discussion was found in the Tal-mud, and he was able to tell them immediately. When Hy waslater ordained at JTS in 1954, his father walked around proud asa peacock, knowing his son had won the Talmud prize and theHebrew Literature prize.
We roomed together at the seminary for the first three years.
After classes, we went to teach at two different HebrewSchools. Hy liked to prepare his studies into the wee hours ofthe morning, sipping Southern Comfort, which I supplied forhim from my father’s liquor store. I preferred to do my studiesin the early morning hours, and would fade out late at night,while Hy continued working, listening to Frank Sinatra andsleeping as late as possible the next morning. One night, it musthave been about three in the morning, I heard scratching on thewall. I thought it was a mouse and woke up rather startled.
There was Hy writing on the wall in the dark. “Hy, what are youdoing?” I asked. He answered, “I just had a thought and I didn’twant to forget it.” Well, this became rather routine for Hy. Lateron in life, wherever he went, he carried a micro-tape recorder inhis pocket and constantly dictated thoughts into it so that hewouldn’t forget them.
Once Hy was ordained and he met Adena, he becameChaim. She was his only true love. She fully understood Chaimand learned to live with his “mishegassim.” It wasn’t easy’because he continued doing his writing into the wee hours. Hishighs and lows were there as he experienced his frustrations asa writer. But Adena, you were there to encourage him. You hadcomplete faith in his abilities, long before Chaim was recog-nized by the literary world.
When Chaim wrote his first complete novel, he sent a copyof it to me. It was about Korea-he had served as a U.S. armyChaplain there. Men I finished reading it, I wrote to Chaimand said it was a beautiful piece of writing but it would not sell.
No publisher in his right mind would accept it. Then I added,“Chaim, you are a rabbi, you are an excellent teacher, your fieldof expertise is Jewish philosophy, you are rooted in Rabbinics.
Take your skill as a writer and write in your own milieu. Use fic-tion as your means to teach Judaism.” He was rather angry withme and wrote back, “Lester, I am determined to be a writer, andI will succeed.” He added, “Keep this letter and let us see what
happens in the years to come.” I am sorry that letter went astray.
The next thing I knew, he wrote The Chosen
and the rest is his-tory. He rewrote his novel on Korea many years later and it waspublished under the title I Am The Clay
. From my point of view,it is a tapestry in words.
Chaim the father, Chaim the uncle, and Chaim the familyman is not too well known. While we were living in Penn-sauken, New Jersey, all the Potoks would pile into our houseevery Pesach and sometimes on Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah.
We were ii people including his mother, of blessed memory.
Chaim would get down on the floor and play with all the chil-dren. They would laugh and tease one another. Each one wouldget bear hugs from him and he was like a big kid. He loved hisbrother, Simon, of blessed memory, and his sisters, Bella andCharlotte. Stanley, Hindie, and his nieces and nephews-Shulie, Yoninah, Yehudah, Miriam, Tsvi, Aviva, Sheera andAri-were all integral parts of his life. Mishpachah was impor-tant to him. He tried to be at every family gathering. Rarely didhe miss a birthday party or a life cycle event.
We are all going to miss him, but especially Adena, Rena andBill, Naama and Akiva. “Dos eppele falt nisht veit fun boim.”You heard from them all, and not only did each speak beautiful-ly, but we were able to identify a great deal of Chaim throughtheir wonderful presentations. Each of his children is an exten-sion of his life as writer, lover of the arts, and one who reflectedon the human condition. We are all going to miss him. We willmiss his humanity, his wit, his laughter. We will miss him, peri-od. And so I pray:
0 Lord, have mercy upon Thy son, Thou Father of tenderestlove and life. May Chaim’s life be now with his people, immor-tally held in the bond of life. In Gan Eden, in Paradise, liftedfrom earthen grave to bliss, as he now rises to a destined life.
I was inundated by a flood of thoughts and emotions as I stoodthis past Wednesday on this pulpit looking at the simple pinebox before me. During that moving memorial service, so manybeautiful, touching, and insightful comments were made byfamily members and colleagues as they reflected on the life oftheir beloved Chaim Potok As I stood and thought of thevery close relationship and affection which I had for Chaim, asI thought of the towering intellect, the deep thinker, and thementor whom I had the privilege to know, I was struck by thesimplicity of the aron
, the coffin, which was his final restingplace.
In this week’s Torah portion, an aron of a different type isdescribed. In this week’s Parashat Ekev
, Moses describes thearon
, the ark in which the tablets of the law would reside. Laterrabbinic commentaries offer two different possibilities for theconstruction of that aron
. One suggests that the aron
was infact three separate pieces, an outer chest of gold, a wood chestinserted into the outer chest, and a third, inner gold lining. Thesecond opinion envisions a wood chest that was overlayed withgold on the outside and on the inside. Either way, the wood wasnever seen. The aron
was gold outside and inside.
Perhaps the reason that gold was used to construct the arkin which the tablets were kept, was to remind us that thesetablets were of ultimate value and more precious than anyother material object in the world. As I gazed at the aron
beforeme earlier this week, it had no gold or ornamentation of any
sort outside or in. What adorned this plain pine casket, was theman, the life, the deeds and the words of Chaim Potok
As we mourn the loss of Chaim Potok I extend con-dolences to Chaim’s family: Adena, Bill and Rena, Akiva,Naama, Charlotte, Bella, and Hindie. In Chaim’s memory, Iwould like to take this opportunity to add a few words andthoughts to the many very beautiful and eloquent presenta-tions that have already been made. I shall limit my commentsto those inspired by the plain wooden aron
. I limit my com-ments to the idea of “wood” and specifically “trees.” In Hebrew,tree and wood are the same word: etz
The tree is a rich symbol in our tradition. The image of thetree also represented, at least for me, part of the impact thatChaim made upon me. The tree, that image, is one I shall keepin my mind’s eye as one way to remember the life and impact ofChaim Potok
The Torah is often referred to as the Tree of Life, EtzHayim
. Torah was, in fact, the life blood of Chaim PotokChaim was certainly a novelist, a critic, an essayist, an editor, areviewer, an author of numerous works, stories, articles. But,first and foremost, Chaim Potok( Hebrew ) was a scholar and stu-dent of Torah.
As a child, be studied Hebrew, Torah, and Talmud. Thesewere his life-long pursuits and loves. It is significant thatamong the works that culminated his career were two monu-mental projects in which he had a major role as editor: the five-volume JPS Torah Commentary
, in which he edited the worksof other eminent scholars, and Etz Hayim
, “Chaim’s Tree,” theone-volume Torah edition published less than a year ago, to beused in synagogues throughout the world. When that editionwas published, we dedicated its arrival on Simchat Torah
, withChaim bringing the first volume of our new books into ourSanctuary.
For Chaim Potok (Hebrew ) Torah was his Etz Hayim
, the tree
that gave him, his family, and all who knew him, strength andgrounding. That Tree of Life allowed him to grow, just as hebrought new growth and new life to our Torah. He brought usbeauty and richness and holiness through his words of Torah.Etz Hayim
is the first tree that I shall always associate withChaim Potok
One of the most moving addresses I had the privilege ofhearing Chaim deliver was given several years ago, here in oursanctuary, on the occasion of the 5oth anniversary of CampRamah. I had asked Chaim to reminisce about the early yearsof Ramah and his involvement with Ramah during his youth.
He chose to share with us the story of his first Shabbat atCamp Ramah.
He began by describing the world of his youth, the world ofthe Yeshiva, of Talmud, and of serious study. He described theworld in which he grew up as weighty and intense. But Chaimleft that world to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
While at the Seminary, he was encouraged to attend CampRamah during the summer. When he arrived at Camp Ramah,he found knowledgeable, committed, devoted, and spiritualJews, speaking Hebrew and living a Jewish life in the Poconomountains of Pennsylvania.
He described how, on his first Shabbat at camp, the entirecamp assembled under a tree. He painted for to us the pictureof hundreds of young people, dressed in white, singing harmo-niously and praying together. That moment was transforma-tional for him. This image of young contemporaries prayingbeneath a tree as they welcomed Shabbat represented a differ-ent, new, creative Judaism he had never before experienced. Itwas a moment of light. It was liberating and modern. It was, forChaim, as he described to us on that anniversary Shabbat, themost spiritual and moving moment of his life to that point. ThatShabbat changed his life.
As you know, Chaim Potok ( Hebrew ) went on to a career thatincluded many years of service and devotion to Camp Ramah.
It was at Ramah that he met his beloved wife, Adena. Heserved as the Director of Camp Ramah in California and con-tinued to work for Ramah all through the years. But that tree,the symbol of nature and growth, the symbol of a new Judaismof growth and spirituality, of a fresh new approach to ourancient religion, remained with him through the years. Thatimage of gathering to welcome Shabbat in white, with song andpsalm, became a permanent fixture in his mind. That tree,under which he prayed Kabbalat Shabbat
at Camp Ramah, isthe second tree I shall remember.
In 1993, Chaim wrote a book for children entitled The Treeof Here.
The book is about saying goodbye. It is the story of aboy, Jason, whose family is moving. Jason needs to say goodbyeand the book explores how difficult it is to say goodbye.
In the book, there is a flowering dogwood tree that repre-sents the roots and permanence which Jason associates withthe home he is leaving. Although that dogwood tree wouldremain, although his old house would remain in the old neigh-borhood, Jason and his family would move and establish a newhome elsewhere.
Jason is sad. He cannot take with him his friends, the peo-ple in his neighborhood, or Mr. Healy, the gardener. But hetakes with him a sapling, a small flowering dogwood tree,which he will plant when he arrives at his new home. And thatnew tree will grow tall. Its roots will grow deep and new flow-ers will bloom. And in that new sapling, Jason finds comfort.
As I said goodbye to Chaim Potok ( Hebrew ), as I looked at thatsimple wooden aron
in which he rested, I thought of Etz Hayim
and the Torah that Chaim Potok( Hebrew ) taught to us. I thought ofthat tree at Camp Ramah, which represented the new life andspirit of Judaism that Chaim embraced and articulated through
his work and through his life. And I thought of The Tree ofHere
, the tree we thought would always be there for us, tall andstrong.
But it occurred to me, as well, that through the works andideas and friendship of Chaim Potok( Hebrew ) , he had given ussaplings, trees, shoots, ideas, memories, and inspiration tocherish and to plant for ourselves. And in that which grows andblossoms in the future from those new trees, we will rememberthe life, the work, the friendship, and warmth of our teacher,mentor, husband, parent, grandfather, and sibling, our EtzHayim
, Chaim Potok (Hebrew). May his memory always remainforus a blessing.
I would speak of your illness as a cruel irony. I’d identify yourrelationship with language as “A man for whom words bowed insubmission.” But I now understand that throughout your lifeyou have struggled and wrestled to bend words and shapethem-you are a man by whom words were bent and this strug-gle shaped your walk, your gaze, your state of mind and tone ofvoice. You did battle with the beginning of every novel, and Iremember how fatigued you looked about two and a half yearsago, right before we knew of your diagnosis, when you steppedout of the passenger seat and I embraced you before entering30th Street Station to return to New York. Ima had driven us. Iasked if you were okay. You looked haggard; your hair was blownin various directions by the wind, your eyes looked strained. Youlooked thin and pale.
“It’s the novel,” you said to me. “I’m battling with this one.”
And I think you clenched your teeth on the “t’s” in “battle”and your fist shook in the air. It was the first time I saw thephysical, emotional, and mental toll that writing took, and theonly time I sensed that it was beginning to wear you down. Isaw it as a beast that was gaining an upper hand and you werebeginning to weaken. The physical toll I looked at that after-noon became evident to us with the news of your brain tumor.
And you never stopped struggling with language. You still fightto shape it. You are still alive. You continue to battle and you donot give up.
And Aba, you never did. You took in everything and neverlet go of words and your faith in their link between your soli-tude and the world.
It’s been thirty days. It feels like it’s been a year already; on theother hand, thirty days is not that much time, and it seems toosoon for a commemoration. Many of us here are still in a bit ofshock. And 1, of course, have only begun to absorb what hasjust happened. He’s gone. I am angry at his absence.
There is also the vaguely comical sense that we have madesome minor mistake somewhere. If we could only erase a little,re-write a little, if we could hit the red re-do button that hidessomewhere on the side of the house, then voila! He’s back!“What?!! No, no, no! They were just confused! Dead; yes, veryfunny. Ha, Ha!” as he walks with his quick trot up the staircaseto his office.
Personally, I am forgetting. The image of his face, that glow-ing vision of love, that fascinating face that welcomed me backto Philadelphia with such love every time I returned from LosAngeles, that face is utterly escaping me. I cannot see it. I can-not experience his face from my memories.
I certainly have memories. I could tell you stories about histeaching me to read English on the porch of our Jerusalem apart-ment. It had a view of the Dead Sea on a clear day. I could tellyou, among the lessons he taught me, that more hands makehard work go faster. Also, that at the time he told my eight year-old self, “Don’t waste a second. Every second you waste, is asecond you will never have again, is second closer to death.”And that, years later, when I ran that by him he wondered whatin God’s name he might have been thinking. “Did I really say
that?” That locution went the same way as, “Never Force any-thing in this world!!” said to me after I broke the brand-new icecube bin, in the brand-new refrigerator, while trying to forceice out of the new ice tray. And also, “Do it right, or just don’tdo it,” which he obviously believed in, but which perhaps hadan intended nuance that was lost on an adolescent. And evenon a thirty year old. But in all of this, I remember facts and notfaces. And my emotions do not resound from these memories.
Immediately after he passed away, memories flooded mymind. Visions. They came easily, vividly. The house was chargedwith beauty and memory. It was as if something wonderful, andincredible had happened.
The night before he passed away, we had him sleep on hisside. It helped him with the difficulty of breathing that is partof the reversed birthing process, shall we say, of passing away,the hard breathing of reversed labor pains. The next morningmy mother knocked on my door, and she told me he was gone.
When I went into the room, there he was still resting on hisside, and my sisters and my brother-in-law were already there. Iapproached him, and I tell you all this because it is truly diffi-cult to communicate to you how peaceful and rested my Abalooked! He was truly peaceful! He was rested. He never lookedthat rested in his life. And we sat there holding his hand, sayinggoodbye, and just sitting there with him. And Slowly, as I satthere, I was touched by a sense of such simple ease. It was as ifI was back in high school, I was still a teenager, being cared forby my Ima and Aba, and it was just a lovely summer day withnowhere to go and nothing to do. and I was at rest there nextto my father. I walked about the house that morning. It wascool, very cool throughout the house. Incredibly pleasant. I laterlearned that it was actually very hot and muggy that day, butthe house
was cool and pleasant, and perhaps it was being kissedgoodbye, as were we. In our discussions later that day, the fam-ily noticed that we were all remembering not the past two
years-with their sadness, pain, and stress, and with hopestraining plausibility-but that memories of the life before thattime were now flooding our minds. But discussing, unfortu-nately for me, made it not so. And my mind shut down, and allI have now, are the past two years.
Perhaps what I can do is tell you where he will most vividlybe absent. Perhaps I might trace the absence and find his pres-ence there!!
Shabbat. Shabbat is what I will miss. The Jewish conversa-tion around a Shabbat table is the pulse and joy of life. Politicsand philosophy, stories of travels, and of Jewish history. Israeland Eastern Europe, Literature and Science. Thought and relax-ation. Shabbat dinner at my house was watching my father andmy community in fonts of knowledge, flowing forth with excite-ment, wisdom, cleverness, and sober mindedness. And itseemed at that Shabbat table that my father knew it all. Or, cer-tainly most of it. Well, that was definitely true when I was achild: at five-my Aba simply knew everything; and it even con-tinued when I was nine and couldn’t come up with a questionthat he couldn’t answer; then past my thirteenth year, and theninto my twenties, through college, and some of graduate schoolWhat a pain! I remember one Shabbat in Shul when I found aprinting style in the Torah-reading of that week that did notmake sense to me. So I asked my Aba, “What is this?”. and hedid not know. I asked Sam Lachs, “What is this?” and he didnot know. And so then I asked Jeff Tigay, and HE didn’t know.
What a great and unforgettable day!!! What more could I possi-bly ask for!? I had found a question that they could not answer!!!And of course I have no memory whatsoever of what that ques-tion was, but I do remember that several months later, BenziBergman answered the question.
If it was a quiet Shabbat table, there was always his hand tohold, or his keppe, his bald head, to stroke, and these are tactilememories that thankfully, I hold very vividly. Beyond any of
this, there is Ritual Shabbat. Kiddush, Ha-Motze, with my Abasitting at the head of the table-and no matter if it was just meat the table with my folks, or a table packed so full that therewere barely enough chairs in the household-his presencemade it a household, made it a family. And that is what onemisses, I guess, about a father. Now the family scatters aboutre-conceiving itself. Trying to understand what this means, thisword, “Family,” if there is no father to ground it, to trouble it, toanswer all its questions, to give it physical and financial secu-rity.
After my Aba passed, I was even excited to see how the worldmight look from the new front lines, as its were. Now, I’m notso sure.
My father didn’t much like being on the front lines either.
He would often wake at four or five in the morning, and juststare at the ceiling, as the questions would bang around in hishead. All the worries, and concerns, and fears. Abas are fun. Ina way they keep your very worst fears from ever needing to beconsidered because they do it for you. Now that I am beginningto wake up at four or five in the morning with my ownlittle stress attacks, now that I am having this sleep-devouringexperience, I’m not so sure about these front lines. They couldget messy.
Even if my memories are presently without a face, even ifthey are not vivid these days and do not reach beyond these pasttwo years, I still know that my Aba faced what we all face: theday-to-day struggle of creating and managing life. And he did itstrongly, with vision, intention, devoted to his goals and objec-tives, set upon his intentions, deviating somewhat-though farless than most-but sticking to the path until one task wasdone, and then another, and then another. He had faith in me,so I will have faith in myself. He was determined to fulfill hisvision of himself; I must emulate that determination in a man-ner true to my character and ability.
Perhaps, one day, when I am less nervous about my lot inlife, less uncertain about my ability or about my station, per-haps in an unsuspecting moment the memories will come pour -ing forth again, and then in his company, I might turn to himand the two of us will share for the moment the joyfulness thatwe felt merely at each other’s presence. And I will rememberthat he knew how proud I was of him, and I will fully enjoy thememory of his pride in me.
I was reading the translation of the Kaddish, the way theadjectives precede the subject (God) in Aramaic, and I wantedto talk to you about the language. I miss you and still see thesing song shape of your frozen prayer dance as they rolled youover from your side, atrophied, and onto a sheet where you werewrapped, a white one-a white sheet-and your prayer brokethrough the soft fibers and etched out your form, extendingitself to all of us. To Ima and Rena, Akiva and Bill, Maia andErez; you were with us-still, unmoving and reaching out andwe were right there with you. My beloved precious Aba. Thereare no words to articulate this third week since they took yourbody away, since God took you from us in language andnuances-in the shape of your smile and the gravitational pullof your eyes. And you remain, forever, emblazoned in my heart,my soul, my thoughts, my movements. In the things I havelearned from you, the things I studied with you, the things wetaught each other-in a drawing I brought home from schooland shared with you. Your pride. Your pride in me. The momentsI would see you after some time away. You and Ima both, wait-ing for me outside by the fountain at Lincoln Center. Yourembracing love, from both of you-it was palpable and I feel itnow. Its memory is present.
The night you read a section from “Moon” upon receiving
the 0. Henry Prize. I met you and Ima before the ceremonyand the three of us embraced-all in love with one another-the power and magnitude and fire and light of our love, pullingus into a fold of three in which there was room for us all. Threepeople hosting the ceremony stood next to us and glanced atone another.
“That’s nice,” one of them said.
May God help me to retain this embrace, this threefold holdof Ima, Aba, and Naama and give me the strength, in momentsof despair and temporary blindness from hope, to see clearlyhow deeply you loved all of us. How keenly you loved your chil-dren, your son-in-law, your grandchildren and Ima. May weretain the tenacity of your love and dignity and dig into it, dipinto its well during moments of rage and recognition that weare helpless in the face of terminal illness and impending death.
May you remain with us always, in ways we have yet to dis-cover, and may you bring us, together with God’s help, into aseven-fold embrace that with nurturing and care will grow innumbers. May our times of anger be resolved into comfort, andmay we make peace with the helplessness we have keenlytasted. May it enforce upon us all the life, the precious gift ofliving, that we are privileged to hold in our hands, and may yourloss be a constant reminder of the gifts that are available to usevery day.
Your gentle, deeply compassionate and dignified soul, cou-pled with the gifts of your voracious and creative mind are ineach of us. I thank you and Ima for nurturing the union of yourbrilliant minds and compassionate souls in your now adult chil-dren. May God remind us of the strength within each of us andassist us when we cannot reach it, or lack it, to reach and growand become increasingly resilient in kindness, compassion,
comfort and dignity; so that in praising your memory we prizeyour offspring, their loved ones and offspring, and your spouseand remember that loving one another is a gift we are not help-less to unwrap.
They took you from us gently,rolled you,wrapped you in white,gathered you up in careful armsand carried you down,past self-portraits, paintings of Jerusalem,your “Brooklyn Crucifixion.”Pausing silently at the door,we followed you outsaw you safely tuckedwatched as wheels crunched driveway,rolling you away away away.
And as my children tucked into their beds,learning loss in language all their own,two sat-watching over you -old friends who’ve walked this path before,who sat with you in life, in prayer,held your hand at death’s doorstep.
One, whose silently weeping face I glimpsedamid the prayers of Friday nightthat rose up to your bedand made you weepthe week before you died.
As we wrote deep into the night,of you and love and longing,two sat-detoured from late-night poker game,whose proceeds help the needy.
While wives and children laysnugly wrapped in sleeping quilts,curly-haired heads resting on softdowny fluff of stuffed pillows -they watched over you.
And two, and two-artist, friend, scholar, and one more.
You said to him, “I plan to be aroundto dance at your wedding,”and you did- a little Hassidic twirlin your wheelchairturning turning, your lifemate movingwheels on parquet floor to wail of clarinetand drumming of enraptured palms pressedto one another.
As we floated into the abyss,the hollowed-out spaces carvedby early, disbelieving grief,two sat-mother and son,their bond as strong as hemp.
They have raised each other,are kindred spirits,soul mates soon partedby the bittersweet start of his lifewithout her steadfast by his side.
As we slept a little,or not at all,two sat-your companion in words,who captured your last most eloquent days,giving us the gift of your thoughtson death, on living, of God.
And her life’s mate, no stranger to loss,whose summer of tearsis but one year past.
He has passed the mantle of mourningto me.
And two-longtime friends whose brother sharedmy year abroadand a flat on a Jerusalem street,by turns sun-drenched and spring-rain chilled,and once, ground to a haltby three inches of soft, powdery snow.
As we rose from our bedsand donned garments to be rentby my uncle’s borrowed blade,one sat-death’s handmaiden,a midwife to your journey,who taught us how to set your spirit free,and held our wounded souls in her healing hands.
Whose voice washed over you in prayerful song.
Guiding you in death’s final intimacy.
companions all in penitence and play-these guardians at death’s gateprayed with you in life,broke bread and learned with you.
In death, recited psalmist’s chantsor sat in hushed silencebeside your quiet body.
Wrapped in prayer shawland pure white robe,you lay tranquil, still.
The summer you died the grass curled to a delicateCrisp as drought lumbered in like a slow-movingAnimal and rolled up whole sections of aquamarine,Leaving powdered silt-what the mind’s eye paintsIn sienna brown, but what is really a buttery gold,A color that almost chokes your eyes.
The summer you died the skies pulsed with water,But not the kind that slakes a soil’s mortal thirst.
It rained down in layers, flooding the air until itStopped just above the ground, slivering into shoes,Then clothes, then hair, and feeling like a moistWeight inside of me even at night. Mostly at night.
The summer you died people came to us gently, someNot at all; and others called from behind friendly doors,Mindful of the heat. But people, present or absent,Can’t bear up a private weight; it stays right here, heavyAnd taunting as the water in air, wet as a turning clay massCrumpling inward between intractable Creator’s fingers.
The summer you died the remembrance of wars youFought over the soul were reflections in water-aboutYou, but not you-words that had to be spoken, butWhen spoken, remained like hydrogen and oxygenAligned in twos and ones but not alighting on tonguesOf grass to rouse them to lazy, late August life.
The summer you died the present and future burnedLike Colorado wildfires. It couldn’t happen on this day,In this month. This must be the past, back when we walkedOn wooden feet, like we do now, limbs slanting at impossibleAngles and bodies held to earth by a weight as heavy asWet air on butter-gold grass lying over you so quietly.
The summer you died we waited for soaking rains thatNever came. We waited for you, for you to stop byAnd see the children, to ask what we’d been up to lately.
And while we waited, where the hot earth, forever hopeful,Has opened itself always to a treacherous sky, pools of saltyWater darkened our shirts in circles just above the heart.
LES ETATS GENERAUX POUR UNE MARTINIQUE PERFORMANTE Richard SAMUEL, Préfet, Coordonnateur national des États généraux de l'Outre-mer Bertrand de SAINT GERMAIN, Administrateur civil hors classe, Coordonnateur des États généraux de la Martinique Victor-Emmanuel VAUGIRARD, Professeur des Universités en Finances à l'Université de Strasbourg, Rapporteur général des États
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