Jos Claerbout Memorial Service

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Diane and Jon, you have now experienced a parents' worst nightmare. And as a way to move through this moment, I'd like to invite you to take the hands of others who have been through this valley into the darkness. I'd like to offer a reflection written by Leonard Fein--a writer who, like you, had to bury his child. This offering has some ease in it: an ease I hope you'll find amidst all these people who are here to offer their love.

No drunken driver.

No drive-by shooter.

Not by fire or by water or by sword or by beast or by any of the decrees of the tradition.

Instead, by fluke. By sudden lethal shadow without warning, a random event with no moral or social meaning. Hence, no sense of issue of justice or unfairness, no opportunity for anger or for outrage. Only sorrow and pain, and irretrieveable loss.

No words can or should stand between this father and his extinguished daughter; No tongue can mediate the event or the void that is its aftermath. Poetry brings no comfort, music no solace, nor language any understanding. Yona Fein was alive, alive for 30 years and now for always, she is dead. And we, her parents, sisters, husband, and daughter, are forever bereaved.

No earthly power can change that. For us, for always, there will be the presence of an absence, the irrevocable presence of an infinite absence. And just now that absence crowds out most everything else. Most, not all.

Before the clichés became clichés, before they came so trippingly off the tongue as to have been emptied of meaning, they captured truths. "May her memory be for a blessing," for example. We are making a book of memories now. A book for Nomi's daughter, and it will one day be for her a blessing, a path to her mother who loved her so wisely and so well. Here is one such memory, a blessing.

When she was an eighth grader at the Solomon Schechter Day School in 1978, a couple of Holocaust survivors came into class to tell of their experiences. Nomi was an inveterate writer of thank you notes and letters (something she did not learn from her parents, but simply knew). And this is what she wrote that day:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. X:

In my Haftora portion, the recurrent topic is peace, and "The wolf will lie down with the lamb" is the main sentence in this Haftora. [Ed. note: Haftora is a prophetic teaching.]

Because of this, and because the TV version of the Holocaust had been aired just two weeks before my bat mitzvah, I chose the topic of "faith" to be the main topic of my bat mitzvah speech. My view of this issue was that after having just seen a reenactment of the most terrible event in Jewish history, I could not fully believe that the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and that peace will one day be here.

But while listening to your speeches, the thing that amazed me most was your continuing faith in God, and it occurred to me that if people such as you--who have lived through such terrible conditions as you have--still have the faith and love left to believe not only in God but in the goodness of people, also then people such as I--who have never had much reason to complain and be bitter--have much more reason to be grateful and to have total faith in life.

So if I'm ever called to give a talk about this Haftora again, my view will be different. Instead of not believing and not having faith, I will think of you, and remember that I do not have the right not to trust and have faith, when around me people such as you have the right to complain and do not.

Thank you not only for coming to share your dreadful experiences with us, but also for opening my eyes and restoring my faith. Thank you for the transfusion of hope and belief you gave me.

These words, the words of a not-yet 13-year-old, might be dismissed as an expression of childish naiveté, or as words written by a person who had not yet confronted the ultimate terrible trial, the trial of death.

But what if--as I have believed since I first read those words--they are wise beyond measure? And indeed have we the bereaved not had reason during these days of loss to believe in the goodness of humankind, we whose broken hearts have been so caressed and consoled by others kindness, even love. Is there not even a small element of mystery here as if, Nomi's death, became the occasion for the confirmation of her conviction?

Just now, in our sorrow, it may be--it is--difficult to generate much enthusiasm for goodness, for life, for life's blessing. We feel ourselves cursed, not blessed. But is it not the case that what we hope, for, the sweet fruit of Nomi's womb, is precisely a life lived as Nomi taught? A life of hope and confidence in others' goodness and people's richest possibilities? And whether Liatgrans into Nomi's perceptions and into Nomi's menschlickeit or not, is not that fact that we hope she will say something about how her spirit lives on in us?

No, the words cannot displace or even soften the hurt. There are two tracks -- the track of memories and blessings, of the healing generosity of so very many people who have reached out in consolation of love, beyond anything any of us could have imagined. And there's the track of loss and death. The one can only brush against the other, but now and again, that brush makes bearable, if only for a passing moment, the severe decree.

And so whatever blessing memory itself provides, there is also the rich blessing that the curse begets: the embrace of a comforting community. That embrace, which changes nothing, means everything.


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