Barney Ross first made a living knocking guys around a ring; then he was a hero in the Second World War fighting Nazis and fascists; and then, in the twilight of his life cut too short by pain and addiction, he died. You might more accurately say 'extinguished,' it being a more descriptive term for the abruptness, the incompleteness, of the end of man's life.
Others go the distance, as they say, and leave behind a legacy of deeds and statements and artifacts to organize a memorial around--trails to follow, words to mull, objects imbued with the sacred to turn in your hands.
Last May I held in my grasp a book of poetry by the late Abba Kovner, hero of the Vilna Ghetto, partisan warrior, Zionist fighter, witness against genocide, pioneer, teacher, poet, man. It was given as a gift by Kovner to the father of shul member who had died, and whose memorial I was asked to help convene to remember a father touched by history, by language, by nation and land. The son read from the book of the father at the funeral and I sat listening in awe; and then after, like a kid at a rock show, waited to get a glimpse, to touch the book, to hold it in my hand.
A few months into mourning I found Kovner's Sloan Kettering, his collection of poems from the days he lay in treatment here in New York, facing his last battle--with cancer. I remembered back to May, to the funeral, to his hovering presence in Brooklyn. Not a ghost by any stretch but rather a light, a flame as present and eternal as the lamp above the Scrolls in every synagogue everywhere.
Funerals in the synagogue, with a coffin laid in close proximity to an ark containing a Torah are, for me, perfect Jewish choreography. Like two magnetic forces attracting and repelling one another, it is sight to behold.
S.Y. Agnon wrote in the "Tale of the Scribe," "Likewise, when a man comes to the next world, and the evil angels meet him and ask, 'Who are you and where are you from?' if in his earthly life he had been an upright and blameless man, and left behind him good deeds, or sons busy with Torah and commandments, then these certainly serve as his good advocates. But if he had none of these then he is lost. However, when Jews come to the synagogue to pray and take a Torah scroll out of the Ark and read from it, if the scroll was written as a memorial for the ascent of this man's soul, then it is immediately known on high that he had been So-and-so, a resident of such-and-such a place, and that is his identification. They then say to him, enter and rest in peace."
"The scroll was written." As if something moves the hand. Poets describe this sensation. Scribes know. Sometimes fighters and partisans know it, too.
Today I received a thank-you note in the mail from the son of the man who died. In it he offered words of condolence on my mother's death, which occurred a couple short months after his own dad had died. These many months later his words were a presence in my heart both past and immediate; time collapsed with beauty and grace.
Like a fighter, felled by a punch.
"While cleaning up my dad's apartment, I found the enclosed card from Barney Ross to my dad. I thought you might enjoy it."
It's a Rosh Hashanah card. It shows the Eternal Flame of a Synagogue Lamp steadily burning. In Yiddish it is written, "A year of blessing and success." It's signed by Barney Ross. A champion in three weight classes; a hero at Guadalcanal; gone before he was 58. But the flame burns.
For him. For my friend's dad. For my mother. For their lives lived and written. And for the Book, above which hangs the Flame, burning for them all.