Good Night Sweet Prince

Rabbi Jonathan Kendall's daughter, right, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel
Rabbi Jonathan Kendall's daughter, Rebecca, right, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel

One inevitable and inescapable rabbinic responsibility is to write eulogies. In these days of multiple family members and acquaintances invited to speak at the levaya, the “pressure” is diluted. Once upon a time, only the Rabbi spoke and this created something of a burden because the last thing you wanted to hear at the close of the service was something on the order of “Am I at the right funeral?” The obverse can also pose some very real dilemmas; what happens when the entire community is in mourning? Each member carries around disparate memories, some highly personal anecdotes and some of universal dimensions. Then memory becomes kaleidoscopic, sometimes even disorganized and motley. I would share with you, as Shiva begins to wind down, what I hope will be a coherent, intelligible and lucid remembrance, but as in life, there are no guarantees.

Rabbi Jonathan P. KendallA
Rabbi Jonathan P. Kendall

I first met Elie some thirty years ago. It was a bright, sunny, smog-less day in Los Angeles and I was picking him up to transport him to Santa Barbara. It was a big deal for what was then a little stiebl. Only months before he had been accorded the Nobel Peace Prize and all of my congregation and a sizeable part of the larger community was salivating over his appearance. The funeral home with whom the Temple did most of its business loaned me a limo and driver for the trip. I can recall pulling up to the Beverly Hilton and…there he was. My heart was on the verge of leaping out of my chest. Slight, but nonetheless larger-than-life, there stood the living, breathing incarnate hero of my childhood and rabbinate. I, rather inelegantly, navigated my way out of the back seat and went to great him, coming very close in my nervousness to falling out of the vehicle. I did not alight gracefully. He did not smile, because it would have been cruel. As I look back now, that was my first Wiesel lesson. I introduced myself and I will never forget his first words to me, “Where did you get this car? A funeral home?” Then he smiled and the ice was broken.

I will not bore you with all of the details, except to say that he predictably mesmerized the 1,000+ who came to hear him that night. I returned him to his hotel and then I learned that while he was powerful, a tsaddik, a master teacher, a person with an extraordinary, exceptional, unmistakably Jewish moral compass, and a man whose insights into life’s rhythms set him apart from everyone else in the orbit of my experience – the encomiums here could be endless – he was not able to control the weather. By morning, a thick fog had blanketed the coast that not only closed the Santa Barbara airport, but also the 101 Freeway, making a return to Los Angeles impossible. When I awakened and saw the fog, I giggled like a little kid. Racing through my head was the comical refrain of “I’m going to be stuck with Elie Wiesel for another day and night,” as if this wasn’t the dream of just about the entire Jewish world.

Usually the patina of preeminence wears off or, at least, diminishes with the passage of time and familiarity. Not so here. I kept the kids home from school that day so they might spend a little time with him. “Have you taken them (my children) to Israel?” he asked. “Twice, so far,” I allowed. “Take them everywhere you can,” he said, “the only place I ever went with my father was Auschwitz.” How does one respond to that? Sometimes silence is better than babble.

In short, he loved my daughters and just as he was my hero, he became theirs. That there were other times he would see them, hug them, make a fuss over them – was a source of inestimable joy for me. Even now these encounters bring tears to my eyes.

The fog lifted that next morning and he was gone, but not forgotten. Over a short period of time, we became improbably close. Perhaps his magnetism and the very aura of his being made everyone feel that way. It was, even by my lights, an unlikely pairing. He came from the Hasidic world and his knowledge of text was broad and luxuriant. My Great Grandfather and Grandfather were Reform Rabbis and, at best, I was a disciplined student in a few narrow areas. His eyes had witnessed too much of the unimaginable; I had an American middle class upbringing that was threat-free. We were not on an equal playing field – not even in the same stadium. I watched the little plane lift off on its way to LAX and decided to allow myself the luxury of basking in the reflected glow of the last two days. Dayenu! It would be enough.

I think there might be a book – at least a healthy monograph – in what I learned from Elie Wiesel. In the interest of space and time, I share one teaching: I once asked him – more chit-chat than anything else – “What’s your favorite city?” His response, “Jerusalem – when I’m not there.” Elie was an ohev yisrael raised to promethean heights, but there were issues. They are secondary to what he taught me: there are enough sonai yisrael (haters of Israel) in the world; I will not add my voice to them. So it was his position to either praise or remain silent. And I said, “Isn’t this in conflict with your speaking strength to power and all of the other times when silence could be seen as either acquiescence or indifference?” “Not with our history,” was his answer. Those four words kept me from joining organizations to which I might otherwise be attracted; I wrote over 500 articles for the Scripps Howard newspapers; you will not find any critical of Israel. Only God knows how many sermons I have preached, but you will be unable to find one disapproving of Israel. I was saddened to see Elie in the House Gallery, seated next to Sara Netanyahu, in my opinion, a craven prop for Bibi’s speech. But I understood.

A week before Pesach in the year I met Elie and savored every second, the telephone rang. It was Elie, calling to wish me a sweet and kosher Passover. And so for years before the hagim and the High Holy Days, a call would be exchanged. He spoke for me in other congregations and we were able to renew old ties and my heart still jumped out of my chest when I would see him. Over time, the calls diminished but never the admiration, never the respect, never the love.

And now, he is gone. Beyond the line of our vision, but still here to inspire, to move us toward categorical and unbending goodness, to push us toward empathy even when it is discomfiting, to remind us of our sacred obligations, to remember. I brushed ever slightly against his life; he touched mine in ways too many and complex to number. Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, good night.

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