June 6, 2017
Beth Emet The Free Synagogue – Evanston, IL
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
The truth is, I really didn’t want to speak this morning. I spoke at my Father’s service because I knew it would give my mother joy. And she spoke at her mother’s funeral because she felt compelled to do so - and, I believe, she wanted to model what children are supposed to do for their parents when they die… so here I am - I have no choice.
This is hard. It’s hard because I loved my mother very much. It’s hard because there is so much to say. It’s hard because words, for Sophie, were everything: She lived for and loved words. She chose them very carefully – her grammar was always perfect and precise - God forbid one should dangle a participle or end a sentence with a preposition; or use “me” instead of “I;” or misspell their or there or they’re…. Or, Chas V’Chalila use the phrase “…each and every…” - I shudder to think about it…..
It’s not that she was critical (although she could be, at times….) It was because she savored each letter, syllable, consonant and vowel and hated to see them misused or abused. She labored over her writing. Those of you who were fortunate enough to receive her annual year-end letters, or attend a class she taught, or be present when she stood on this pulpit and eulogized a beloved member of this community who was taken away from her ever-shrinking circle of friends, or if you were ever part of a Torah Study in which she participated, or listened to her speak on Krystallnacht, or heard her book reviews – you know exactly what I’m talking about. (By the way – I can hear her voice telling me that the sentence I just read was too long….)
To this day, I have to hold myself back from correcting the grammar of perfect strangers who might find themselves misappropriating a cardinal grammatical principle in my presence…..some habits are hard to break…but I digress. I am Sophie’s son.
Sophie Black was a force of nature. She meant so much to so many. Her story will be told and retold – not only because of its power, but because of the necessity to learn from and both celebrate her life and dedicate our lives to ensuring that the sequence of events that propelled her parents 1st to leave Soviet Russia, and then Nazi Germany - the forces that are real, ever-present and continue to threaten the values for which she lived and combated every one of her 91 years – will not be tolerated and will be fought everywhere they rear their ugly heads. In many ways, I’m relieved that these last few months of political obscenity were not in the forefront of her consciousness as she suffered the consequences of the stroke that robbed her of so much on the day after her 91st birthday party.
But I am not here to tell her story this morning – I leave that to others. I am here to acknowledge and give thanks for the many gifts she has bequeathed to all of us who knew her and loved her. And, as much as I’d like to selfishly hold on to the idea that her love was reserved only for family: for her beloved Sidney, for Nina and me, and our spouses and our children and grandchildren – I know that it just isn’t true. Each of you here knew and loved my mother in your own way – and all of you have been impacted by her remarkable presence. Her intensity and integrity were both magnetic and irresistible. Her gravitas was more than simply the result of her intellect- it was gravitational: she drew you in. She made you feel special when she came into your orbit – and when you were pulled into hers you had no choice but to hang on and enjoy the ride. So many people have shared stories with Nina and me and our families over the past days, weeks and months of how our mother was such an important part of their lives: how she reached out to you and gave you what you needed when you needed it; how she knew, instinctively when to hold your hand, or give you advice, or just be in your presence – providing comfort, wisdom and stability.
And the most amazing thing of all was that she was always surprised when others shared how much she meant to them. The truth is, my mother was, deep down, an introvert. She had to learn how to be center stage. Hers was not an easy childhood. She was always an outsider: In Germany, as the child of Eastern Europeans, she was looked down upon by German Jews and Anti-semites alike. That experience of not quite fitting in never left her. She and her parents came to America as refugees – dependent on the kindness of others while working hard to rebuild their lives in a foreign land. She was an only child who spent a great deal of time alone and who had to learn how to make friends, while mastering a new language that was both inviting and intimidating. She was a brilliant student, but, as a woman, her options were limited. Her parents had very high expectations of her. She had no choice but to excel in everything she did – and she succeeded – still harboring doubts and anxieties that plagued her until, just recently, on her 91st birthday, she suffered a stroke that wiped away her fears and left her in peace. As painful as her decline was, her liberation from anxiety was an incredible gift for us all.
I do want to take a moment and reflect on how blessed our family was that Sophie and Sidney were given the gift of being able to live out their last days surrounded by Nina, Avery and the entire Black-Hart clan. It wasn’t easy to share a household, provide care and comfort and create a multi-generational home where Judaism was celebrated with a tolerance for diversity and where everyone was welcomed. They made it seem easy. It wasn’t. Nina – I love you and can never thank you enough for the gift you have given to me and all of us.
This week’s parasha, B’ha-alotecha, begins with God telling Moses to light the lamps of the Menorah in a very specific way: each of the seven lights must project outward – in front of the lampstand. The menorah lit the paths upon which the priests performed their sacred service.
In a very real sense, our mother, our Sophie was like the Menorah. Hers was a life that shined brightly – showing all of us the way to live. It burned with the brightness of Torah, compassion, activism, leadership, learning and above all, love.
We are all blessed to have been able to bask in her light.
Zichronah Livracha – may her memory be for a blessing. AMEN