Death makes life matter: Thoughts on my brother’s passing


Last February, I joined a club. It wasn’t my choice. It’s one of the worst clubs around, and if you’re not already in it, I hope you don’t become a member. If I could quit, I would. But the bylaws forbid it.

Like all clubs, this one has its benefits, too. It provides a community and helps clarify relationships with friends and relatives. It also force-feeds wisdom — and lots of it.

This is the club of people who have lost a loved one at a painfully early age. Within the clubhouse, I’m in the room with people who have lost a sibling. And in that room, I’m at the table of people who have lost a brother. 

My older brother, Aaron, died on Feb. 3. He was 34 and had been diagnosed in March 2014 with metastatic bladder cancer. It’s a freak diagnosis for a young, otherwise healthy American male. There are a few hundred such diagnoses per year. 

Aaron was an observant, intensely curious Jew and had a brilliant mind with seemingly endless interests (philosophy, politics, physics, the list goes on). In his final months, he never acted bitterly toward the world or toward God. He actually became sweeter, kinder and more grateful than he already was.  

A crisis, the saying goes, doesn’t build character — it reveals it. And cancer, with its intense, painful and exhausting regular infusions of chemotherapy, plus – in my brother’s case – regular trips of hundreds of miles between hospitals, is an indescribably horrible crisis. It steals both your energy and your time. You have to feed yourself and the cancer, or the cancer will simply eat you. It forces you to rely on others when you’re accustomed to relying on yourself. It makes the simplest tasks — going to the bathroom, getting a cup of water — Herculean challenges. It makes every normal activity hurt and sets your default mood to depressed. Being happy takes a lot more work. Cancer is pure destruction. It’s the ISIS of the biological world.

Amid all that, Aaron’s character revealed itself as fundamentally decent. If he was in particular pain at any given moment, he would ask those who he knew would particularly worry (like my parents) to leave the room for a bit. My family and Aaron’s friends weren’t the only ones to lose a lot when he passed. The whole world lost a gift. And although I believe he’s in a better place, we’re certainly not. 

This experience has confirmed for me that someone needs to write a short guide to avoiding well-meaning but inane words of comfort, such as “It’s all part of a plan” (How do you know that?), or “God wanted him” (Why can’t God want Kim Jong-un?), or “I know exactly how you feel” (That’s impossible, even if you’re in the club), or — and this is my (least) favorite — “At least he’s not suffering anymore” (I assure you, he preferred pain to death).

But death also has a built-in silver lining. It’s what gives time meaning. Death limits time. Economics 101: The less of something there is, the more valuable it is. Aaron’s struggle with death didn’t only force him to think about the Big Questions. It forced me, and, I presume, all those who loved Aaron, to ask themselves the Big Questions. The most important one: If I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret about my life?

Aaron’s passing taught that this is the most important question to living a meaningful life. Knowing that my defining fear in life is to have regrets before I go has influenced my long-term plans for career and family, and, in the short term, how I spend my time every day. I more clearly understand that every second really does matter, and it takes flirtation with death to make that obvious. 

Aaron was a private person. I know that he re-examined his own life. But I don’t know what he concluded or what he would’ve done differently. I do know, though, that he wanted his life to have a lasting impact. I don’t buy the saying, “He’s not dead as long as we remember him.” Let’s change that saying to, “He’s not dead as long as he continues to impact.” 

To that end, my family is working with UCLA, where Aaron spent his final weeks, to create a kosher helping us raise money for the Shabbat closet, are creating this sacred space to commemorate Aaron’s life and death. Keeping alive Aaron’s positive impact in the physical world is not just about allowing us to remember him — it’s about creating something in his name that lives on. It’s about performing good deeds in his name. It’s about giving to the world what he would have wanted to give, but no longer can.

Death forces us who are here to re-examine our own lives and complete the unfinished tasks of those who died. And at Yom Kippur, we can take time to become more focused and to get moving, so that when our own time is up, most or all of our tasks will be completed.

For more information on the Shabbat closet at UCLA, please email jareds@jewishjournal.com

Obituaries


Eliezer Benjamini died Feb. 14 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Leslie; son, Ethan; daughter, Lori; stepdaughter, Carrie Bullock; stepson Jeff Bressler; grandsons, Joshua and Matthew; stepgranchildren; brother Eddi (Dorit); and brother-in-law, Bruce Hackel. Hillside

Lawrence Howard Beylen died Dec. 30 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Joan; daughters, Karen Rice, Andrea (Nathan) Gardner and Margo; and two grandchildren. Groman

Ann Gertrude Blaine died Dec. 24 at 87. She is survived by her nephew, Robert James. Malinow and Silverman

Beatrice Budnick died Jan. 4 at 89. She is survived by her spouse, Frank; daughter Heidi Goldberg; and two grandchildren.

Arnold Burton Cane died Jan. 30 at 84. He is survived by his wife, Ann Carter; three daughters; one son; two sisters; three grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Russell Chase died Jan. 22 at 83. He is survived by his sons, Philip and Douglas; daughters, Susan Levine and Marjorie; eight grandchildren; and friends. Pierce Brothers

Ann Davis died Dec. 26 at 81. She is survived by her sons, Steven, Joseph and Samuel; daughters, Diana, Rhonda and Miriam; 13 grandchildren; and one great- grandchild. Groman

Barry Herbert Gertler died Feb. 15 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Hope; daughters, Nan and Robin; son, Gary; son-in-law Michael; daughter-in-law, Robin; five grandchildren; sister, Illa; and siblings-in-law, Stanleyand Bert. Hillside

Lawrence Merrill Greener died Feb. 22 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Rosemary; son, Gary (Mallory); daughter, Lynn (Marvin); four grandchildren; sister, Faith Pearlman; nephew, Charles Pearlman; and niece, Penny Pearlman. Hillside

Morton Grossman died Jan. 5 at 84. He is survived by his wife, Zelda; daughter, Rachel; and two grandchildren. Groman

Anne Kanner died Feb. 16 at 93. She is survived by her sisters, Helen Samples and Iris; and nephew, Mel (Stella) Samples. Mount Sinai

Asir Kharitonov died Feb. 16 at 68. He is survived by his wife, Maya; son, Alex (Mariana); daughter, Natalia (Yahouda) Zarrabi; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Catherine Leon died Jan. 28 at 95. She is survived by her daughter, Roberta; and sister, Rosa (David) Amato. Malinow and Silverman

Evelyn Maletz died Jan. 6 at 80. She is survived by her husband, Harold; son, Lloyd; daughter, Sherri; and five grandchildren. Groman

Constance Corinne Martel died Jan. 31 at 93. She is survived by her friends, Susan Connelli and Sylvia Lecher. Mount Sinai

Helen Montrose died Jan. 31 at 79. She is survived by her brother, Rabbi Lawrence; and nephew, Rabbi David. Malinow and Silverman

Nejatollah Nejat died Dec. 31 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Parvaneh; son, Albert; daughters, Rosette Younesi and Mahnaz Kohanchi; and five grandchildren. Groman

Dr. Peter B. Neubauer died Feb. 15 at 94. He is survived by his sons, Joshua and Alexander; and grandchildren.

Marjorie Oberman died Feb. 17 at 87. She is survived by her daughters, Lynn (Richard) Kravitz and Judy (Barry) Wechsler; son, Dennis (Deedy); eight grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and sister, Joan Waldman. Mount Sinai

Ethel Reader died Feb. 15 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Judi Chauncey; four grandchildren; and friend, Arne Wynner. Hillside

Cecile Rivkind died Feb. 1 at 85. She is survived by her daughter, Diane (Bill) Brinson; son, Steven; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and brother, Morton Newman. Malinow and Silverman

Mildred Schiller died Feb. 14 at 90. She is survived by her daughter, Adrienne; and four grandchildren. Groman

Freda Schlesinger died Dec. 26 at 89. She is survived by her friends. Groman

Ralph Segalman died Jan. 12 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Anita; sons, Robert and Daniel; daughter, Ruth Ancheta; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Groman

Samuel Sideman died Feb. 12 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Naomi. Sholom Chapels

Joseph Simpson died Dec. 22 at 88. He is survived by his son, Myles (Gail); daughter, Joyce (Andrew) Edelson; and three grandchildren. Groman

Dr. Jacob Somerman died Feb. 3 at 90. He is survived by his son, Marnin. Sholom Chapels

Goldie Cooper Sonkin died Dec. 25 at 92. She is survived by her son, Julian (Pamela) Bieber; brother, Melvin Cooper; and two grandchildren. Groman

Roselle Helena Stein died Feb. 15 at 81. She is survived by her children, Bill, Gary (Ricki) and Hal (Joan); four grandchildren; sisters, Edith Zimbler and Judith; and brothers, Hyman and Jack Seiden. Mount Sinai

Kate Stone died Jan. 27 at 99. She is survived by her sons, Jerry (Donna) and Frank Stone; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Arlene Tarr died Feb. 14 at 81. She is survived by her daughter, Stephanie (Steve) Slater; grandchildren, Jessica Rembert and Scott Slater; and sister, Debbie Radwin. Mount Sinai

Mina Tsukerman died Jan. 31 at 88. She is survived by her sons, Isaac (Sofia) and Ilya (Zina) Zukerman; and five grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Fredrick Yamron died Feb. 18 at 76. He is survived by his sons, Bernard (Jennifer) and Todd; sister-in-law, Roberta Giller; and two granddaughters. Malinow and Silverman

Michael Zeitlin died Jan. 6 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Martha; son, David; nine grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and sisters, Ruth Resnick and Ethel David. Groman

Obituaries


Genelle Altman died Feb. 21 at 84. She is survived by her son, Jeff. Malinow and Silverman

Ben Berk died Feb. 21 at 99. He is survived by his daughters, Harriet (Arthur) Kohn and Marlene Safer; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Eugene Merrill Brown died Feb. 20 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Andrea Harris-Brown; sons, Brian (Yumiko) and Lance (Masako); and four grandchildren.Leana Kate Burkardt died Feb. 8 at 16. She is survived by her parents, Randy and Juergen; brother, Harrison; and grandmother, Ruthe Hirschfeld. Groman

Jay Barry Edelman died Feb. 20 at 54. He is survived by his father, Norman. Malinow and Silverman

David Flushman died Feb. 19 at 91. He is survived by his children, Bruce (Bette), Nancy (Bob) Eagleton and Phyllis (Ira) Klein; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Hillside

Marilyn Jussim died Feb. 20 at 71. She is survived by her husband, Jared; sons, Noah (Andrea) and Roderick (Tova); grandchildren, Eva and Solomon; stepmother, Hilda Blumberg; and cousin, Barbara Haar. Mount Sinai

Murray Kimmel died Feb. 21 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Gloria; and sons, David (Dina) and Joshua. Malinow and Silverman

Karen Anne La Casse died Feb. 18 at 52. She is survived by her husband, Bryan; sons, Adam and Michael; daughters, Tina Gonzalez, and Nicki Volkmar; six grandchildren; parents, Eliot and Rae Kontoff; sisters, Linda Birnbaum and Michelle Rindler; brother, Rob Kontoff. Groman

Henry Solomon Lager died Feb. 17 at 85. He is survived by his wife, S. Bernice; daughter, Eve (Joe) Schleich; sister, Thelma Heubsch; and three granddaughters. Malinow and Silverman

Arnold Laykoff died Feb. 11 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Celia; son, Richard; and two grandchildren. Groman

William Lerner died Feb. 17 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Florence; son, Jeffrey; daughter, Linda Oppenheim; sister, Doris Leibers; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Groman

Evelyn Henrietta Mayer died Feb. 18 at 89. She is survived by her son, Joel; six grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and sister, Sylvia Setless. Groman

Victoria Moin-Amini died Feb. 16 at 85. She is survived by her sons, Sambiz (Vicky) and Kambiz (Jacqline); daughters, Shirin (Bijan) Kohan, Rana (Youseph) Sakhai, Mina (Shahim) Elihu and Ziba (Parviz) Amini; and 18 grandchildren. Groman

Jeanette Rosen died Feb. 21 at 90. She is survived by her son,Philip; daughter, Wilma Maxine Linsk; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Groman

Marshall Siff died Feb. 11 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Helen; son, Matthew; daughters, Susan Caldwell, Karen Ehrenberg, Victoria Russell and Jeny; and six grandchildren. Groman

Rose Sino died Feb. 13 at 89 She is survived by her son, David Swartz; and two grandchildren. Groman

Sylvia Slade died Feb. 20 at 87. She is survived by her son, David; daughters, Gayle Chamberlain and Shelly; and seven grandchildren. Groman

Madeleine Thompson died Feb. 21 at 65. She is survived by her husband, James; daughters, Victoria Ginsburg, Debbie (Robert) Miles and Jacqueline Godfrey; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Hymen (Michael) Winn died Feb. 21 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Margaret; children, Shana (Marshall) Mintz, Sheree (Michael) Marx and Ross (Betty); stepchildren, Tony and JoAnna (Doug Levin) Price; nine grandchildren; and sister, Doris Cheston. Hillside

The Jewish Journal publishes obituary notices free of charge.Please send an e-mail in the above format with the name, age and survivors of the deceased toobits@jewishjournal.com or fax it to (213) 368-1684 — Attn: Obituaries.Deadline for publication is Monday at 9 a.m. Longer notices will be edited. Thank you for your understanding.

A date for three


I’m always hearing about a surplus of widows and divorced women, but recently I realized that I have been meeting widowers.

I got a call from my photographer
who asked if he could fix me up with one of his actor clients, “Moe,” who had spotted my photo and wanted to contact me. The last time I’d seen him was several years ago, and he was married then. Now he was a widower. I spotted his picture in the photographer’s sample book and kept flipping the pages. The photographer was pleased — he thought he was making a shidduch (match) and was surprised when I told him I’ve known Moe for years.

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Moe, acting like he didn’t know me, sent me an e-mail, containing a few silly one-liners — and he asked me to call him. I told myself I have nothing to lose — if nothing else I’d get a lunch out of it. I played it straight. I wrote back and asked him to tell me about himself and what it was about my headshot that caught his eye. He responded that it was the sparkle in my eyes, and he asked for my phone number.

He called and we arranged to have lunch on a Tuesday. At lunch I saw a totally different Moe. He was a little more serious. He talked about himself, and about his late wife, which brought tears to his eyes. She had died of a brain tumor, and he was her caretaker. He has grown children from a previous marriage. And, of course, we talked about our careers and how we keep busy between auditions.

Although we are both in a good age category, neither of us gets many auditions, but we keep plugging. We parted with “let’s stay in touch.” I called him about a week later, and we had a friendly chat and left it at that.

In 2003, I got a call from a friend in Chicago telling me that a mutual friend in Maryland had died of a brain tumor. I sent her husband “Joe” a condolence card. In 2004, as I usually do, I sent a Rosh Hashanah card. Then I get a phone call from Joe. A weekly call turned into a daily call. We reminisced about the old days and caught up with the present. He was still hurting after his wife’s death (it was a 45-year happy marriage). Our phone conversations cheered him up. Joe decided he wanted to visit Los Angeles. He had been stationed at Camp Pendleton in the Marines in the 1950s and had not been here since. I had not seen him since I left Maryland 30 years ago.

When I met him at the airport he looked the same — a few wrinkles, a little gray hair. Then I noticed a shaky hand (an uncontrollable tremor), and he had problems with his dentures. The two weeks in January that he stayed in my guestroom were the rainiest in Los Angeles. In between the raindrops, I tried to show him the sites. We did see a lot of movies, and ate out.

He hated to leave: He was having a good time and it was cold and snowy back East. Joe beamed when his flight was delayed by two days. Before he left, he accepted a wedding invite in May in San Francisco and invited me to go. His unmarried adult daughter was also invited.

When they came in May he rented a car, and was planning to do some of the driving. But once was enough for him, and L.A. traffic was not his thing. His daughter was no help, so he handed me the keys and I drove the entire trip up the coast. We stopped at all the famous sites. Having lived in the Bay Area for many years, I was familiar with the area.

During one of our phone conversations we had talked about what I would do if I had lots of money — my response was to travel. Well, he asked me if I wanted to go to Israel (the rabbi from his temple was going to lead a mission at the end of June 2005) — something I wasn’t expecting. Of course, I said yes.

He paid for the entire trip including separate rooms. Jerusalem was our home base and we were kept busy from morning till night. We took lots of day trips from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea — including what seemed like every Israeli museum. I had a wonderful time and made 30 new friends instantly. As much as we both enjoyed the trip, it felt like his late wife was with him in spirit the entire time. Bottom line: we still talk twice a week. I’ve seen Joe a few times when I’ve gone to Washington, D.C. to visit my kids.

I feel sorry for both Moe and Joe. Although they say they are healing, I don’t think either one will get over the loss of their wives. The jury is still out. And, yes, I do feel somewhat cheated — maybe the next time I meet a widower I should give him a questionnaire asking “how far along are you in the grieving process?” before I date him.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

Obituaries


Joanna Black died May 2 at 17. She is survived by her mother, Suzanne; sisters, Danielle and Rebecca; and many friends.
 

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.