November 21, 2018

Eulogy for Margie Pressman

She was indomitable.  She was opinionated.  She was a major  leader on the local and national Jewish scene decades before women played such roles on a regular basis.  She was a defender of all that was dear to her: the State of Israel; the particular set-up or aesthetics of an event; the Sheba Medical Center; her close circle of friends, including the Unusual Suspects; and at the top of that list, her husband, Rabbi Jack, and her shul, this shul, Temple Beth Am—in interchangeable order.  I have never met a woman so proud of the man she loved and what they had built together as Margie was.  In so many ways, for so many causes and organizations, for so many years and decades, and in a manner that somehow suggested it could go on indefinitely, Margie Pressman was larger than life. 

This week is Shabbat Hachodesh, the Shabbat in which we read the passage from the book of Shemot in which God sanctifies time for the Jewish people, and grants us a calendar.  They are on the way out of Egypt, the middle of the 10th plague, bags packed, blood dripping off the lintels, and God gives a little sermon.  Hachodesh hazeh lachem.     הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃  This month will be for you, forever, the first of the months.  It will be first for you, in all the months of the year.  The verse is lyrical, somewhat repetitive, and has been mined by the great commentators for layers of meeting.  I want to share three such commentaries, each of which as a window into Margie's story, her greatness and her uniqueness.  The first comes from Rashi, who makes the claim back in the first verse of the Torah, that the Torah really could have started here, in our verse, in the 12th chapter of Exodus.  Why? That is where the Jewish people began their unique, religious relationship with God.  Jewish time and Jewish peoplehood really begin here.  So why does the Torah make us go all the way back through pre-history and start with Breishit, Genesis?  Rashi's answer is that to know the present-tense God of the Jewish people you need first to be introduced to the original God, of the universe.  I understand Rashi to be nudging us, as Margie did constantly, to know the past, to tell it, and never to assume that important time begins now just because you didn’t live then.  To understand TBA in 2016, Margie would say, and did say, a lot, and appropriately, you need to go back in time.  Not just to the 80s, when Rabbi Jack retired and Beth Am was renowned for its Israel activism, including its top perch among synagogues in annual Israel bonds purchase. Not just to the 70s, when Margie and her team ran a truly legendary event here, Israel Expo West, which essentially turned this building into a teeming, 4-dimensional, utterly professionally curated festival and celebration of all things Israel.  To understand Beth Am in LA in the 21st century, you had to go back to Beth Am, in Philly, in the early 20th century.  When a dashing young man caught the attention of a beautiful young woman, whose playful coquettishness belied the fierce lion's roar of purpose, energy and vision that would emerge.  Margie and Jack found love in Philly, brought a plan and relentless energy to Los Angeles.  And even brought a name, rebirthing Olympic Jewish Center and Temple as Beth Am, a tribute to where they met and first experienced vibrant Jewish life.  Try to remember what Jewish LA was like before Pressmans arrived, before Margie took on the town.  It was nowhere near the sophisticated array of institutional Jewish life that it would  be.  How did it get there?  Remember also that Philly is one of the oldest and most established of American Jewish communities.  Margie came west with infrastructure in her genes, and brought many aspects of the highly organized, highly structured, highly professional and highly successful Jewish community.  She came with a sense of what Jewish community is, and could be.  She planted it here. Watered and nourished it.  With her spirit, her will, her determination and her profound optimism.  You  look around, and even if it is not obvious, you see the descendants of Pressman-ism, and Margie-ism, everywhere.  We who are newer to town, who inherited a working system, can delude ourselves into thinking it began with us, or just before us.  Hachodesh hazeh lachem.  No, Rashi, reminds us.  To understand now, you have to become a master of then.  Margie's life and impact will always be venerated here and in the future, as we continue to be students of there, in the past.

The second layer of meaning comes from an apparent redundancy in the phrase hachodesh hazeh lachem.  This month will be lachem, for you, as the first of months.  What does lachem mean? For you?  Whom else would God have been talking to if not the Israelites?  A classic Midrash says that God's message is this.  I give this month, this moon, this calendar, this sense of Jewish time to you for you to do with it what you can, what you wish. Without your efforts, it is nothing. Just a light in the sky.  But in your hands, it can become everything.  This read of the relationship between God's gifts to us and what we produce from it exemplified and informed the life of Margie Pressman.  Is it possible to squeeze more out of existence, out of the finite breaths we are bequeathed in life, than did Margie?  Who spends her 90s not in quiet comfort but in continuing to raise funds for important causes, give opinions about the sound system or menu at a gala, suggesting ideas for a lecture series at the shul?  Margie does.  Who, at 94, is visited at the hospital as her heart and body are breaking down, and yet finds the voice to ask about how the Israel Bonds appeal is going at Beth Am?  Margie does.  Who, just barely clinging to life, has an audience with her granddaughter Aviva and fiance Brian, who are just home from a Honeymoon Israel trip and after hearing some stories about hikes and good food asks the most serious question of all, Did you make it to Sheba Medical Center?  Did you see the Pressman name on the wall?”  Margie did. This full-voiced, never-waning energy was a testament to her pride and vitality, and her claiming this life that God gave her with every fiber of her being.  Lachem.  As if God gave to this soul, upon birth, the charge of Lach. Ani noten lakh. I give it, to you.  It is not in my hands anymore. What it will be will be up to you.  And it was.  This was the engine behind Margie's inimitable productivity and leadership. In the age at which we arrived we can perhaps take for granted the avenues and pathways open to women for significant communal leadership in the Jewish community.  But those trails were blazed by halutzim, by pioneers.  And one of them was Margie.  She was a smart, dedicated, Jewishly committed woman. In her book about Jewish women and rebbetzins, Dr. Shuli Rubin Schwartz makes the point than in previous eras of American Jewish life, such Jewish women married what they couldn’t yet be, and then used that perch alongside the rabbi, the professional leader, to carry out their vision for Jewish life.  Margie did that par excellence.  Had Margie's soul been born into our generation, would she have necessarily chosen the rabbinate over the rebetzinnate?  It is hard to know.  But her impact on this Jewish community and the Jewish community rivals any rabbis’ that I know, including  that of her  husband, our  dear Rabbi Jack z”l.  Lachem. This life is yours, for the taking.  Everyone in this room, everyone who knew and now mourns  Margie, would do well to claim life, claim existence, claim reality, claim time, claim opportunities with a portion of the vigorousness and intensity with which Margie did.

The final frame comes from a close read of the words “hazeh,” perhaps one of the simplest words in the Bible.  It means “this.”  Hachodesh hazeh lachem.  This month should be for you.  Back we go to Rashi, who reads into this rudimentary word an elaborate stage direction involving God and Moshe.  God didn’t just give the law about the new month.  But God pointed with a Godly finger to the moon, exactly as it appeared that night and said, hazeh. Just like this.  See that moon there?  This is what it will look like when you consecrate it.  I love this midrash, however fanciful it is.  God left nothing to chance. If you are going to delegate, then give good instructions.  I didn’t know Margie in her prime.  But I imagine her, as Tevye ruminated about a wealthy Golde, supervising a complicated event, barking orders with both certainty as well as heart, giving her opinion without qualifiers, pointing here, pointing there.  See this table set-up?  See this seating arrangement?  That is exactly as I want and expect for it to be. Hazeh.  A word of specificity, and an avenue towards uncompromising excellence.  It was not always easy to be in Margie's firing line. But you had a sense you were part of something extraordinary.

Margie leaves this world, and enters the next, as we ponder the beginning of Jewish peoplehood, as we remember that the past is crucial to the present and thus the future as well, as we hear the Torah encouraging us to clutch life and time with urgency, as we imagine a God pointing out divine expectations, prodding us to fulfill them with precision. With a sense of dignity.  With a recognition that we are involved in something holy.  We are listening, Margie.  And we rededicate our lives and our work to the principles you modeled and by which you lived.

I have been speaking about Margie the leader, the visionary, the lioness of Judah.  I am aware as well that we mourn and remember today another Margie, the mom.  The matriarch.  The grandmother.  My heart goes out to you all.  Danny, we are colleagues and friends. I know that your work has taught you to attend to the cycle of life with a certain amount of sobriety and equanimity.  Life has an arc. It ends.  You have stood at pulpits like this hundreds of time and brought comfort and healing to thousands with your words and wisdom. And I also know that it is hard to lose a mom, whatever her age, whatever one's profession, irrespective of how many artful eulogies you have prepared and delivered.  You and Judy–you have been through a crucible in the last 6 months.  We, at TBA, have said goodbye to visionaries. You have said goodbye to parents. We have a tear in our communal fabric. You have a wound in your hearts.  You have my profound condolences as your avelut for your father, just six months old, is now extended by another year.  And to your extended families, to Joel z”l, to Helen, to Aliza and Craig, to Benjie and Melissa, to Rebecca, to Elijah, to Aviva and Brian.  To the next generation, to Batsheva, Avital and Nathan, and the new arrivals Liam and Charles, who spent their first days of life in the NICU on the same floors as their great-grandmother, Margie.  To all of you, I want you to know that I stand here not only as a rabbi who currently occupies the bimah made famous by Rabbi Jack, and by Margie, but also as a grandson still mourning my grandparents.  As the father of kids who just lost a great-grandmother last week, for whom the pain is real and more piercing than it often looks on the outside. You are, and will remain, in my hearts. And you have my word that your mother's and father's, your grandmother's and your grandfather's legacies are intact here, and will be perpetuated for generations.

In certain moments, it seemed as if Margie would defy death. Just beat it down, send it away, with the confidence and hutzpah with which she lived.  Many times in the last 5 years I visited Margie at Cedars in moments that looked like the end.  Only to field a phone call from her two days later, as she recovered at her home on Lasky Dr., pointing out an error in the KHA or asking me to keep the AC down for the next event.  She held on so long and so tightly.  Which makes the last days and moments of her life so striking. In the end, in the very end, she went quietly, and quickly.  Danny, who has been down from NorCal for a few weeks, was by her side nearly every minute.   He noticed her breaths were getting slower.  He stepped out of the room for a minute.  And then he heard Natalya crying.  Dear Natalya, who has served this family with such exemplary attention and affection.  That was it.  This life, clasped and harnessed with such determination and force.  And then, full release.  Into God's embrace.  Into quietude. Into eternity.  Where there is no struggle.  And where, we pray, there is celestial reunion with the universe, and with Jack.

We all surrender to time, eventually.  But some of us, if we are lucky.  And determined.  And plucky.  And endowed with a certain drive and verve.  Some of can transcend time. Some, like Margie, are truly larger than life.  Even in death.

Tehi nishmata tzerura bitzror hachaim. May the soul of Margie Pressman, Malkah baat Yisrael v'Rachel, be bound up in the bonds of life.  Yehi zikhra barukh. May her memory be a blessing.