28 August 2013

In Memory of My Friend Red Burns

Red Burns

A diminutive frame but a soul and wit that burned like fire.  A quiet, still, small voice which amplified ideas that changed the way we see the world.  A Sage, whose sharpened tools of incisive reasoning and masterful ability to “re-frame,” as they say, “the conversation,” was like an eagle carrying her young--her students--to ever greater heights until they themselves could figure out how to fly.  

Red’s gone home.  A dubious claim, she’d no doubt say, fixing you in her glance, daring you to argue.  “Do you actually believe in heaven?” she said to me one day over a hamburger at lunch.  Hers was the generation that witnessed the conflagrations and dislocations and endless deaths of a twentieth century which also yielded (in no small measure by her guidance) revolutions in creativity and communication that have connected previously distant and vast, unknowable stretches of the universe.  “Why not cheese?  Why not bacon?  Why are you denying yourself these pleasures?”  

She smiled and picked at her food as we talked theology and history.  Her appetite greater for more sublime constructs like “meaning” and “community.”  

“Are your people in Brooklyn looking for God?” she asked.  “Can you help them do that?  It seems like an impossible task.”  

There was never a time when we sat alone together that Red didn’t remind me of her own ambivalence about the Jewish tradition, her strict upbringing, her desire to escape it.  Nor, of course, did she deny that questions of history and identity would forever shape her.  And so as a teacher for me, as for so many in her life, Red’s experience at living was the well she returned to and from which she served the deepest questions to all those around her.

Questions were far more productive than answers, which to a mind like Red’s, only yielded more questions.  

“Why do you keep saying you want to ‘build a bridge into the synagogue for young people?’  You have it wrong.  You want to build a bridge from the synagogue to young people.  That seems like a more useful direction.”

She bragged about students’ achievements; prodded me to make Judaism relevant for a new generation; rolled her eyes at the ludicrous egos of contemporary life; and somehow, fixed her glance beyond us, to something she saw and tried to reveal through questions, through ellipses, through openings in the vast universe that could, with ingenuity and daring, bring more light to the world. As an artist, a visionary leader at NYU, and through her commitment to goodness, creativity and making the world a better place as a board member at the Revson Foundation, Red always brought more light to the world.

Fearless in her assessment that the mind is limitless but that the body is a deeply flawed vessel, Red maintained her beauty, her dignity, her incendiary wit, her utterly uncontainable and existential need to tell the truth, even as her disease wore her down, slowed her down, sat her down, laid her down, and took her home.

Cathy, Michael and Barbara.  Daisy, Sally and Olive.  You were so good and so loving to Red, providing such warmth and comfort and love, easing her journey into death.  The generation of those born to our ancestors who came to these shores more than one hundred years ago are, without question, unequaled in stature and achievement, never to be seen again.  Their strength, their resolve, their endless striving for what is new, next and original, are the qualities of giants who built worlds and then placed them in our hands.  

I can see Red now, hearing those words, raising her eyebrows a bit mischievously, sowing doubt and egging us on.

ברוך אתה ה אלוהינו מלך העולם שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם

I said upon first meeting Red the blessing of our tradition, to be recited when meeting a person of great worldly learning.  Source of Life, you gave wisdom to one unique in her gifts to both share it and increase it; to enlighten the world; to be a force for good; to raise disciples; to connect one to the other; to make peace.

ברוך אתה ה אלוהינו מלך העולם דין האמת

And upon hearing the inexorable truth, painful as it is, that our bodies give way to death, we utter aloud that this too is true:  the tear in our diminished world without Red seeks its repair in the continued reality of her ever living wisdom.  Of her playful smile.  Of her insistent wit.  Of her pride and love for her family.  Of her devotion to her colleagues, her students and disciples.  And of her undying teaching that there is a greater something out there, waiting to be seen and discovered and celebrated.

We’ll keep looking Red.  And even with you not here here, we also know your truths are close at hand.

המקום ינחם

May the Source of Life give comfort to us all.

And may Red’s soul be bound up in bonds of everlasting life and peace.

27 August 2013

What I Learned This Summer at Camp

The Kotel Stones' smoothed exterior gave away nothing beneath their dense and impossibly hard reality.  The mid-August sun was incandescent.  Herod's stones, like Lerski's mirrors, reflected a blinding silence, capturing faces, framing them into iconographic images of a nation beseeching its God.

I had seen this reel over and over again.  Like a silent movie, captured in the choppy cinematic form, saturated not in black and white but in the washed out, oxidized, pale yellows and ochres of the Judean Hills, with a macabre soundtrack of schlock-rock, yeshivish hymns for the newly penitent and the spiritually arrogant blaring into the militarized echo-chamber of the Western Wall Plaza, its form felt old.  Tired.  Like an idea that had run its course and was imprisoned by words that now do more harm than good:  Messiah.  Temple.

My hands held fast to the stones.  I spoke to God.  I said, "I love you but not like this."

So we broke up.

Like a couple going through their belongings after a life together, I gave him back the Messiah.  And the Third Temple.  And Politicized Rabbis on the government dole telling Jewish men and women how to pray, where to pray and when to pray.  I kindly requested that I wouldn't be needing the Torah scroll, given to the Entire Community of Israel at Mount Sinai, that was locked away for the Rabbis to share among whom they pleased.  "We wrote one in Brooklyn," I said.  "A woman did it.  What do you think of that?" I neatly stacked those belongings in a box marked, "This doesn't work.  I'm trying something else" and turned them in to Customer Service.

I didn't request a receipt.  "That won't be necessary," I said.  And I turned to go home.

I felt afraid right after it happened, briefly, like maybe I'd be struck down.  But with my head held high I turned to walk back the neighborhood.  Past Jews and tourists; Christians and Muslims; birds, cats, dogs and a steady breeze, slowly bringing on evening, where the sun would lay down and rest.

I ate at my favorite restaurant.  I drank a cold beer.  And as I drifted off to sleep that night I said one prayer:  "Hear O Israel.  The Eternal is God.  The Eternal is One."

It was enough to think about.

And when I woke up the next morning, I realized I was still alive.  And that was enough to think about, too.

Why am I alive?  What keeps a man alive?

These days I wrap my Tefilin extra tight.  I bind those words on my body.  And I don't pray for anything except the privilege to think about what it all means.   Identity.  History.  Land.  Language.  People.  Nation. Legend.  Law.  Morality.  Even Self--but I'll admit it is way down the list.

God is in there, I suppose.  But not his supposed Messiah.  And certainly not his Temple with that horrific smell of the burned up blood and guts of those unfortunate beasts whose very lives are the pathetic sublimations of man's avaricious rage for violence.

But Torah.  Learning.  Bound to flesh. This is the Light that doesn't blind but illuminates.  This is the glow of generations.   This light bears witness to the idea that we are a part of something greater than the sum of its parts, greater than us and those who came before us.

Whose words demand, in the silence of their apprehension, that it is we who bear the burden of bringing peace, justice and love to the world.