March 2007

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Living Judaism

She Was

-- Adena Potok

In the aftermath of the 6 Day War a song found its way into the public consciousness in Israel and resonated far and wide. “He Was” referred to those whose lives were snuffed out in that awful time, mostly young men who went off to war and whose attributes were then forever stated in the past. “He was...”

It is not an affront to their memory to apply that heart-wrenching title to other losses. When contemplating the life of a person who left a swatch on the canvas of a community it is altogether appropriate to say - and with a profound sadness - “she was.”

Within the past month a dear friend took her leave of all who loved her after a valiant struggle with cancer that had challenged her strength and ingenuity and finally wasted her ability to persist. She was an artist, a creative person who followed her curiosity to where it took her, and of late it took her to the world of Jewish learning and prayer. Abraham Joshua Heschel became a companion for her intellect and spirit. She haunted the booklists of the publisher Jewish Lights and found intellectual meat for an appetite she had not felt before. She joined a synagogue study group which gave flower to friendships of the mind and soul. She was a creative woman who thought and loved deeply.

The day before she died she lay in her bed, encircled by friends in a ring of love and empathy: words and something beyond words. Friends were there from the synagogue group and from earlier times - from modeling, from days that echoed respective parental connections, from shared artistic interest, from gardening in the neighborhood. There were spontaneous words of love and friendship and they included the words of the traditional confessional, offered her by her rabbi as though they were created for her for that moment. Barely able to move, she nodded her head to bring this into her domain. Here is a request for perfect healing. Yet, if death is the decree, may it expiate all the sins and iniquities committed and grant me a portion in Gan Eden and cause me to merit the life of the World to Come as it is reserved for the righteous...She sounded “Mmm” and gently nodded her head. She looked directly at her rabbi and mouthed - with a willed strength - “Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you for being here.” Then she looked at a friend and smiled with love and deep calm.

Earlier, on the phone, she had answered “A popsicle,” to a question “What can I bring you?” and so a friend brought her frozen juice on a stick, but it was too large for her barely mobile mouth. The nurse caring for her that day took it and converted it into consumable shavings. She took some, her friends took joy in her pleasure and then -tired even for a bit of refreshing ease, she put up a hand in refusal. In snappier times she would have said, “Thanks, but I’ll pass. Maybe tomorrow.” And she would have flashed her charmingly engaging smile. Had she known her, my mother would have called her heinivdik a woman of charm and grace.

Four of her six grandchildren and their parents were with her later that evening. (The two from Tennessee had seen her the previous week.) They knew they were there to say good-bye and they didn’t shy away from Granny, Ganny-Ganny. On the contrary, they took turns climbing onto the big bed in her living room/studio where she had been reposing while the roof over her bedroom was being repaired. “I like it better here,” she said. “There’s more light, and I can prop all of the kids’ art on the window behind my head.” Apparently the art genes had been transmitted: the work was lovely. They hugged her and told her they loved her. And she told them she loved them. Two of her children and their spouses were with her; her son from Tennessee arrived later that night. Friends came over and later sang the melodies of the t’fillot she had come to adore during the two years that she had circled in the synagogue orbit.

When her colleague from the Museum of Art costume department came over the next day their eyes and hands locked. Then she eased into a quietude, where she seemed in another place. Two friends, one a statuesque African American, the other a short elderly Jew, sat at a distance from her bed, remembering moments of friendship. Her sons took turns being with her and planning the necessary next steps. They came back when her breathing changed, and her friends went into the next room. Not long afterward, with a son on either side she breathed her last. Barukh Dayan haEmet.

As if drawn by a powerful magnet, friends began to appear: her next door neighbor, a friend who’d flown in from Florida, the friends from the day and night before...There was weeping and then we went through her address book to make certain that those who would want to know would be told...and we remarked how organized she was and how typically attractive was her book, decorated with one sheer Nile green ribbon and we made the lists and then asked her sons whom they would want to inform. They had already been in touch with the rabbi and the details of the funeral were being set. Her Wednesday nurse wanted to attend. We organized travel and who would inform whom. We held each other. We remarked at the utter aesthetics which surrounded us, how could we ever get used to not seeing her paintings and prints in these rooms and on the stairwells of the building. Unsaid at the time – that would be articulated some days later - was the sweet ache attendant on the joy she’d discovered in the Tradition: its texts and its melodies. What would she have painted given the strength and time?

At her daughter’s home after the funeral and following the healing meal her rabbi conducted the minha service. He then noted that it is traditional to study at this time and to call to mind rememberings of the person we mourn. That is the purpose of the Shiva, the seven days of mourning. One of her friends quoted Pirkei Avot - Teachings of the fathers: “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire a friend...” She had been a friend. She had enriched our lives in myriad ways. She had also been a teacher, not only in her field of fine art but certainly also of the love of learning and its pursuit. And even how to make beauty with the simplest least costly elements...Most of all, her love of life and persons were evidenced by the breadth and variety of the friends who constituted her circle, and who became friends with one another. Absent her physical presence the memory of her led us to one another, and in ways we do not as yet recognize.

Y'hi zikhra barukh. Her memory constitutes a blessing even while we experience the pain of love in her absence. Make for yourself a teacher. Acquire for yourself a friend.

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