Sometimes I Hate This Job


I’M PUTTING OFF WRITING A eulogy. Doesn’t everyone?

Linda Tomback is a good friend who used to attend our Saturday morning Torah study[1]. Her death is the eighth in our congregation in the past two years; the first two were also regular members of our study group — a cantankerously proud “old-school Reform Jew” named Larry Giller, and big enthusiastic ba’al teshuvah (returnee to Judaism) Steve Surtshin.

Then Richard Bien, with whom I enjoyed some intense Torah and life discussions but didn’t know as well as I would have liked; Esther Norton, whip-tough and smart and motherly generous; Paul Habas, tall and formal, devastating sense of humor; Margaret Laybourn, cherished by many friends but someone I only saw across the oneg table; and the gentle yet formidable Richard Newman, who taught me why we have principles — and how to live by them.

“Each man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne wrote. True, it’s our common fate — less evitable even than taxes, since we share it with everyone fish or plant or fungus — but when it happens within a small social group within a small historical moment, Donne’s truth rattles rather loudly.

Linda’s funeral is this afternoon. I have not attended any of the above friends’ funerals either due to medical complications (mine), privacy (the family’s), or ignorance (again mine); in fact the last funeral I attended was Jim “Sputnik” Gjerde‘s in 2003. He was about the best friend I had, of 24 years through high school and young manhood and whatever our particular manhood is; as Shakespeare might have said, our lives were seated on the ground telling ribald stories of the lives of kings until we rang the chimes at midnight. His death undid me, and frankly rather soured me on the whole prospect. “Death? Pfffft. What else is on?”

Funnily enough, I said a few words at Sputnik’s funeral too.

Torah study is a lot like golf, in that you can really get to know someone while you’re doing it; it demands openness and honesty and the sort of integrity that’s perhaps better called consistency. I didn’t know Linda long — only two years or somewhat less — but she was a lot like Sputnik: intense, smart, funny, kind, instantly easy to hang out with, generous beyond measure, unselfconscious in her approach to God and Its mysterious ways.

Maybe those ways are less mysterious to her now, and she’s hanging out with Sputnik and Larry and Steve and Richard and Esther and Paul and Margaret and Richard and whoever it is that you miss, when you think of conversations you can’t have. I don’t know; I don’t think I will know until my own death, and perhaps not even then. But I have told you their names because, according to one voice of Jewish tradition, they contain our souls, and thus live on with each mention, and who knows but that might be true, in some sense. May we all partake of this, or similar, immortality, or at least the comfort that pondering it may bring.

[1] Which we began in October 2001 from Ann‘s insistence on more Torah than our part-time rabbi could teach. On the Shabbats he doesn’t, everyone brings a different chumash (book of Torah with commentary) to our Sonoma living room and reads through the weekly portion from 10 a.m. to noon until someone has a question or comment. Then we hash it out. Sometimes our rabbi attends, which is both a tremendous aid and a tremendous compliment (and tremendous fun, since we share a similar perspective but he’s this like yeshiva-trained neo-hasid who’s studied with these just amazing people and incidentally or on purpose witnessed a considerable piece or two of history.

But I digress.

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