A compliment to remember

It was nearly fourteen years ago, but for some reason, the memory sticks with me. My husband, a congregational rabbi, was starting work in a new pulpit. Only a few weeks before the events of September 11th, sometimes the horror of those days seems to spread outward, a stain on a white tablecloth casting a shadow over even the days before it happened.

But on this evening I remember feeling no foreboding for what was to come, no hint of the evil gathering at the gates. A summer night, warm and humid. Klezmer music being played in an outdoor pavillion. I was a couple of months (still secretly) pregnant, trying valiantly to keep down some food while chasing after a toddler.

And I had to be social. Groups of new congregants wandered around outside, picnicing on blankets and in folding chairs, dancing vaguely self consciously while, it felt to me, checking me out. Though I certainly tried, I’m sure I wasn’t at my bubbliest as I smiled and nodded and asked people about themselves while I attempted to keep the nausea at bay.

A man walked over to me and began to chat. I don’t recall the entire conversation, but he must have asked me some questions about my own life, talked to my 2 year old. And then he took out his wallet and bursting with pride showed me pictures of his smiling little girls. We talked some more. It turned out we had, for a time, been members of the same small shul, and had some friends in common.

Then, the conversation turned towards his wife. His face glowed recounting how they had met and been engaged in a matter of weeks. How accomplished she was in her career. What an amazing mother she was. Rarely have I seen someone describe a spouse in a manner so lacking in guile, so unabashedly filled with, well, love.

Over the years we saw one another frequently. The family regularly attended services. They were ever present at our home for seudah shlishit, singing in full voice as the sun went down and havdallah approached. I taught both their daughters for their bat mitzvahs, and watched their parents beam as they witnessed their little girls become young women before their eyes.

And I recall the genuine excitement they exuded on their first family trip to Israel. They sat around the Shabbat table at our home in Jerusalem. That big, slightly gruff looking man had eyes glistening, wondering at his own good fortune.

A little more than a year ago, they came to us, and tearfully informed us they were moving to a new city, so that she could pursue her career dreams. He gave up his law practice and happily followed the love of his life into a new adventure. As he worked on reimagining his career, Steve started to blog for Times of Israel. This looking inward helped him to find a new passion in teaching. Last week, he posted this piece about his first semester as an instructor and how it had changed and excited him.

Right after Shabbat I heard that Steve had collapsed suddenly, and would likely not make it back to us. Or to his beloved daughters, no longer girls, not quite yet women, nor to his wife, his beshert. As is no surprise to anyone who knew him, in a final act of chesed Steve’s organs were donated to give life to others who are suffering. To anyone who knew him, this is no surprise.

But focusing on sadness is not how he lived his life. These last nearly fourteen years were a celebration for him. And all I remember is that on that very first encounter, he gave me one of the most profound compliments I have ever received. “You have to meet my wife,” he intoned, “she will love you. You have so much in common.” And for a moment I forgot my discomfort, and the strangeness of being watched. This man had just compared me to the love of his life, the person he most admired, his soulmate. What a privilege. And that love is so strong, so palpable, it will endure long after his body has left her side.

Yehi zichro baruch.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.