Epitaph for 2017
December 29, 2017
By any standard, this has been a tumultuous year. There are many reasons for this, one quite obvious which will go unmentioned tonight. My sermon this Erev Shabbat will not deal with the pressing issues which are on all our minds, but rather will take a cue from this week’s Torah portion, V’yechi, the last Torah reading in the Book of Genesis. Our patriarch Yaakov, before he dies, looks back on the lives of his sons and predicts their futures. Of course, this is a retrojection from much later history in which their future has already determined. For example, his two sons, Shimon and Levi, are condemned for murdering all the men of Shechem. Their father predicts an ill future for the tribes of Shimon and Levi, saying (Genesis 49:7) “I will disperse them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” The tribe of Judah, on the other hand, will rule. “The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his legs.” Yaakov’s predictions came true because they were written after the fact.
So, in keeping with the theme of the Torah reading, I will do a retrospective of three prominent Jews who died in 2017. They all come from Eastern European Jewish backgrounds and are first or second-generation Americans. They each started with very little and became successful and influential people. You may not have known two of them, but they were each quite significant in their societal spheres. I begin with Vera Katz, a three-term mayor of Portland, Oregon, and, prior to that, the first female speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. It was under her leadership that Portland became the “hip” and “cool” city that it is today.
Her parents fled the Soviet Union for Germany which they escaped as the Nazis seized power in 1933. They found refuge in Paris and then, when she was just seven years old, the family ran from the advancing Germans and crossed the Pyrenees on foot into Spain. She sailed to the United States as an impoverished immigrant and grew up as a refugee in New York City. She went to Brooklyn College and earned a Master’s degree in Urban Planning. She and her husband decided to move to Portland in 1964. She volunteered for Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign which initiated her into political life. Five years later, she ran for the state legislature and advanced to the role of Speaker of the House, a job she kept for three terms. She then served as Portland’s mayor from 1993-2005, “a critical period for a city that was on the cusp of evolution.”[i] A political visionary, she espoused gay rights, championed education, the arts, gun control, and the rights of labor. Her background in urban planning helped her to envision the transformation of Portland’s Pearl District and Willamette River waterfront. She also oversaw construction of an intricate Chinese garden in the heart of the city’s old town which is an international tourist attraction. She did all of this while battling breast cancer and then uterine cancer. At the beginning of this month, she was diagnosed with acute Leukemia, which took her life within two weeks. In 2004, Mayor Katz asked to be remembered with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw: “My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”
Rabbi Neil Gillman died just five weeks ago. He was one of the great teachers and theologians of the late twentieth and twenty first centuries. A Conservative rabbi, he was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical seminary, for forty-six years and dean of its rabbinical school for ten years. He had a profound impact upon two generations of rabbis and Jews of all denominations. A student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he urged us to “rediscover that innocent sense of awe and wonder of God”[ii] and to have a personal relationship with God. Rabbi Gillman helped convey religious meaning to his students, which included all of us. His award-winning books, “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew” and the “Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought,” had an immense influence on modern Jewish thought. He was known as a kind man, a gentle teacher who argued for the ordination of women as well as gays and lesbians. It seemed he always had a smile on his face.
Rabbi Gillman was born in 1933 in Quebec City to an immigrant family. He later said his Jewish neshamah came from his grandmother. He attended McGill University and then the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was taught by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University and began his teaching career at JTS. He was a Conservative rabbi whose influence was trans-denominational. He wrote, “This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that, at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth…it is this concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time.”[iii] Rabbi Gillman believed that God is the Mechayei Hatim, the Resurrector of the Dead. Along with Rabbi Gillman, I believe in that promise as well.
The third prominent Jew is Don Rickles, who died at the age of 90, in April of this year. Don Rickles built a career as an equal opportunity insulter. He insulted everyone, from Frank Sinatra to mob bosses to Johnny Carson to every living president. Nicknamed, “Mr. Warmth,” he was the master of the comic insult. Never working from a script, he voraciously attacked members of his audience. “One night, on learning that some members of his audience were German, he said, “Forty million Jews in this country and I got four Nazis sitting here in front waiting for the rally to start.” He said “that America needed Italians to keep the cops busy, blacks so that we can have cotton in drugstores and that Asians are nice people but they burn a lot of shirts.”[iv] Jews were not immune from his attacks nor were members of his family. He said his wife “likes to lie in bed, signaling ships with her jewelry.” He referred to his mother, Etta, as “the Jewish Patton.” Despite his aggressive demeanor, Don Rickles was in truth a warm and kind man.
He was born in Queens in 1926. His father, Max, sold insurance. His mother was his biggest supporter. He married Barbara Sklar when he was almost forty and then bought his mother the apartment next door. The two women had faith that he would someday make it big.
He served in the Navy during WW II where he honed his comedic skills. He was the class clown of the ship. After the war, he tried selling insurance but decided to go into acting, using the GI Bill to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He had a tough time getting acting roles so decided to do stand up comedy. He had parts in such films as “Run Silent, Run Deep” as well as the “Beach Blanket” movies with Annette Funicello. He did those because his agent was married to the former mouseketeer. His appearances insulting celebrities on the Dean Martin roasts and his sparring with Johnny Carson made him a celebrity. He went on to do lots of television, several movies, including Casino with Robert de Niro and Toy Story as the voice of Mr. Potato Head. His best work was stand up comedy which he was still doing seventy-five nights a year into his eighties.
His rabbi, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, wrote in his eulogy (April 7, 2017) “On meeting the most famous insulter in the world, one was struck by his essential sweetness. He got away with the jocular savagery because you knew- you really knew- that deep down he was kind and intended no harm. So, the cannon blasts- and his sheer relentlessness- came as a shock, and once the laughter started, there was not stopping…Rickles grew up in a Jewish home that was not particularly pious but was deeply Jewish. Yiddish was his mother tongue and he knew the synagogue service very well. During the hakafah, when we came around with the Torah, I could count on some variation of the following: “Keep it short Rabbi- just keep it short.” “Cut the sermon. I don’t want to be here anyway.” “Don’t give us a long shpiel, ok? I’m due at the track.” …To call Don Rickles politically incorrect is intellectually incorrect. He was in a certain way the epitome of political correctness. He did not discriminate, everyone was fair game. The only people he would not insult were the vulnerable, those who would be wounded by his words. Rickles’ humor was the great leveler, whether you were a president or Frank Sinatra. As David ben Morechai is laid to rest, the world has not only lost someone who made us laugh; it will have lost someone who saw people the way we aspire to be seen: flawed but resilient, and all, ultimately, the same.”
May Vera Katz, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Don Rickles rest in peace and let us say-
[ii] NY Times, 11/28/17
[iii] Gillman, The Death of Death, page 271.
[iv] NY Times, 4/6/17