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Steven Bayar

Clown noses, tears, and joy

Buttercup (Credit: JSurge.org)
Buttercup (credit: JSurge.org)

Buttercup is dead. In all my years in the Rabbinate, I have never cried at a funeral — until now.

I think it was looking out at the congregation and seeing so many people wearing bright red clown noses. (His family had provided over a hundred noses for us to wear.) I took mine off and placed it gently on his coffin.

Buttercup (aka Mike Turk) was a true Mensch. At 52, he retired from a high-level position in industry and devoted the rest of his life to making people happy. He became a pastoral clown.

Mike’s daughters called me from New Jersey when he decided to go into hospice. He had had enough and was ready. He spent the remaining few days enjoying life and leaving in a way so that everyone would cry with tears of joy. Mike approached dying in much the same way he lived: a gentle control that made sense to all those around. No one wanted to lose him — but no one could argue with him.

But Mike was much more than that to me. He was one of the few people I could trust completely. Without reservation, I knew that Mike would give me the unvarnished truth but in a way that was caring, sympathetic and devoid of agenda.

Our leadership recognized this. It was Mike who was called upon to mediate staff issues, especially when the rabbi and cantor could not find common ground. It was Mike as the treasurer of the congregation who helped us create a balanced and compassionate budget. And it was Mike who was our referee.

I only saw his anger once, when a member of the board unfairly criticized another. Mike pounced and made it clear that he would not tolerate such behavior from anyone.

Mike was a natural leader, but he was just as good a follower. He shared my vision of our potential for congregational greatness. He advocated our programs with a calm exterior matched by an equally calm interior. He exuded caring.

When I found out what he and his wife Sue (Sweetpea) “did for a living,” we set up a clowning program at the congregation. My children and wife were trained. Over the years, Mike and Sue’s fame grew and they traveled throughout the country training pastoral clowns.

Mike spent his last nine days enjoying food and especially the liquor as he and his children toasted his life. He taught us all how to experience joy in everything we do.

I was in New Jersey when he passed. That last night, his daughters and I didn’t know whether I should come over, as he was in transition. He was ready. If I arrived, we worried he would come back to see me. That was not what we or he wanted. So I performed “Viddui” (last rites) over the phone. He died immediately after I finished.

He had waited for me.

As we shoveled the dirt into his grave I threw my clown nose in as well. Buttercup may be gone but Mike will live with me forever.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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