Jos Claerbout Memorial Service

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[Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann]

Unlike you, I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Jos. But as I sat with his family and heard stories of his life, surrounded by his writing, his pictures, and his hats, the vitality and creativity with which he lived his life was palpable. How dark it is to gather and to say goodbye to one who lived so briefly and yet with so much celebration and life. There are no right words. No answers to "why?" No easy equanimity to be found.

Jos's death brings together so many of you who loved him, who planned to share more adventures with him, who expected to be surprised and delighted by his next new project or passion. The radiance of his life and energy had no bounds. Jos's joy and irreverence touched so many people--those closest to him, and those whom he'd encountered for brief moments. Professionally and spiritually, Jos created webs. And like a spider's web--glorious, intricate, carefully wrought, but evanescent--so Jos's life was glorious but evanescent.

A spider spins in circles, building ever outward, and so it was with Jos. His rootedness in his family, his connection to the family, was always an anchor in his home. However far his adventures took him--Alaska, Ecuador, Mexico, Washington--he came home to share the bounty of his experiences with his family.

He was loving and playful in the family. Diane remembers that his first word was, "Mine!" And indeed, they were all his. They delighted in his antics and appreciated his infectious enthusiasm. He understood and played to the romantic young girl in his mom. He always knew if she had bought a new dress or changed her hairstyle, even after he no longer lived at home.

Affirming Andrew's assertion that Jos loved women, Jon described a recent visit with his mom, Jos's grandmother. She was sitting on his lap and he was knitting her one of his famous hats.

He reassured his grandmother that she would enjoy wearing his hat so much, that she would look so beautiful in this hat.

And as he spoke, and knit, she became more girlish and more beautiful, in appreciation of the gift of attention he had already given her, and in anticipation of the hat he was yet to finish.

And when Diane was preparing pictures for Andrew and Amy in anticipation of their wedding, Jos perused the photos and on the spot came up with limerick captions to show that they were fated to find one another.

His easy banter calmed many stressful situations, and he taught his family over and over how important it is to be playful.

Secure in his family, spreading his wings with their curiosity and encouragement, Jos wove another circle of connection. He learned in the world of work that more than information and skills are required. Friendships, life experience, generosity of time and ideals characterized his work. One of his college essays describes his forays into working in a bike shop in Alaska. Having claimed he could do anything with a bike, his interview consisted of a box being thrust at him with a dismantled bike inside. "Here, build this."

Twenty-seven hours later, Jos had the bike built, and the beginnings of an enduring friendship with the shop owner--an iconoclastic independent thinker, who challenged Jos and brought him pleasure arguing about ideas.

In that essay, Jos didn't say much about bikes, but he said a great deal about friendship, the value of life experience, and the richness that results from conversations about ideas.

More recently at WebTV, he worked as a web engineer, but what he really did was weave webs of relationships with his coworkers. As those of you who have spoken have attested to, he encouraged his friends to pursue their dreams, and his. To go to Venezuela, to push past shyness, to try new things. He loved his work, and he loved his coworkers. And he was appreciated in return.

Work stopped at his death, his friends accompanying him loyally and lovingly through the transition from life to death -- from vibrant life into silent death. And these same dear friends to whom Jos was a teacher about life, he became a teacher about death. These same dear friends are planning both a memorial in his honor and a month-long celebration of his life.

And what a life it was! Jos taught himself to be a web engineer and he taught himself to knit. His writing was amusing and effortless. He taught English in Ecuador, he worked for Habitat for Humanity, he did political lobbying in Washington, he worked on a fishing boat in Alaska, he worked as a farm worker in Mexico. He set up a web site for his hats and another for educating people about political issues. It seems as if there was nothing he couldn't do.

In time this turned out to be untrue. Despite assistance from Andrew, he couldn't build a bedframe--and, it sounds like, a portable massage table! And he never did master Icelandic. But in the realm of building relationships, and in the attempt to understand and master situations, he was peerless.

Even the outer reaches of his web was lavished with energy, humor, and pleasure. Even one-time encounters with Jos were memorable. A befuddled salesperson might be told by Jos, "Yes, madam, the particular wares you're selling look particularly fetching."

Or a cashier would be teased and flattered if Jos was there. Jos would put on a Broadway production to ask a stranger for the time. He developed a special banter with the hostess at his favorite Thai restaurant, sharing intelligence about Buddhist monks. He discussed music with cab drivers in Mazatlan. His sense of play brought pleasure to strangers. There was no one he wouldn't talk to, no inhibitions to constrain him.

He dressed as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and costumed in his imaginative hats. He boldly invited public awareness of the hats he knitted, untroubled that young men are not known to knit. And the hats themselves suggested zany associations like Cadillacs and dreadlocks. A comic once said, "Remember that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."

Jos took himself lightly and was an angel to so many--both those who knew him intimately and those who met him briefly. He flew through his life with ease and grace. Diane said that Jos had a perfect life, that his life was heaven. As we honor him and reflect on his life, we can find a glimmer of solace in knowing how much life he packed in such a short time. How many lives he knit together in his too few years.

Today, the web Jos wove gathers to comfort one another, to share his short but beautiful life. To say goodbye, but also to say thank you. To pledge to live more fully in the shadow of his death.

Jos's heart failed him only once, mechanically. Spiritually, emotionally, it was a finely tuned instrument, open and reaching out, and inviting others to be open to wonder, to laughter, to adventure.

The Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer recited in memory of those we have loved and lost, was originally recited after studying the Talmud and in the name of one who has died. It was intended to attribute the teaching to the loved one. The Torah of Jos's life, which comes to mind, is a line from the book of Psalms:


Teach us to treasure each day.
Teach us to treasure each day.
So we may open our hearts to wisdom,
Teach us to treasure each day.
Jos's heart was open to wisdom. He knew to treasure each day. Let us all learn this Torah from Jos, treasuring each other, opening our hearts to all that he was, and all that he loved, and all that he created.


May Jos's memory always be with us a blessing.


The traditional prayer that asks that one we love be sheltered in the shadow of God's wings is called El Malei Rachamin. And I'd like you to rise as I read it first in English, and then translate it to Hebrew.

Oh God, exhalted and full of compassion, Grant perfect peace in your shelter and presence among the holy and the pure To the soul of Jos Claerbout, Who has gone to his eternal home.

Master of Mercy, we beseech you, Remember all the worthy and righteous deeds he performed In the land of the living.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. The Eternal One is his portion. May he rest in peace. Let us say, "Amen."

[Hebrew; chanted]

Be seated.


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