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My Grandma Knows Everything

My grandma knows everything. I do not remember what age I was when I first began announcing this piece of information to the world. I do not remember the moment, either, that this realization first struck me as discernable and true. And yet there it was – beyond the lens of the more experienced (and perhaps jaded) eyes of a parent seeing her or his own parent; through the simple, noble and definitive vision of child – in the way that a grandchild can connect, understand and appreciate the wonder of a grandparent – it was quite clear to me: My grandma knows everything.

I would happily announce this paradigm of mine to anyone who would listen: my family, my friends and my grandmother, herself. In fact, she and I had our own song and dance that we would perform – quick and simple, knowing each other’s unspoken cues – that would lead to conveying this maxim to an unwitting audience. Truth be told, this schtick had a certain shelf life that ended somewhere at the onset of young adulthood and the assumption that most of us young adults eventually embody – that we each know everything that we need to know. Even though I have not uttered this bromide in years – as I searched my mind and my heart for the words to share with you this morning – it was these words that I felt compelled to share and explore. My grandma knows everything.
What did Phyllis Bookatz know? Well, all of us who interacted with my grandma, were keenly aware of what she was thinking or feeling about a particular matter or person – whether we liked it or not. What one thinks and what one feels is not necessarily the same thing as what one knows. I am not standing here with a childlike wonder suggesting that she actually knew everything. My grandma would never claim to be a scholar filled with academic knowledge. As many times as I tried to sit at the feet of my elder and coax her to wax philosophical about questions of an existential or ideological nature, she never really thrived in that kind of exchange. She was too practical, too corporeal. So, I wonder: What did she know? My grandma knows everything.

The Hebrew word that we most commonly translate from the verb ‘to know’ is Da’at. It is used in a myriad of ways in the Tanach – expressing all kinds of knowing or knowledge – from knowing the difference between ‘good and evil’ to knowing someone in the ‘biblical sense’ to knowing what is true and how the world works because one’s life experience. The mystics understand Da’at as the concrete and solid manifestation of our accumulated understanding and wisdom. The nature of Da’at is not about espousing pieces of information or overwhelming others with impressive data – but honestly and boldly living what we know. Da’at is how we embody what we understand, how we live the truths that are embedded in our hearts and souls. So, from what I thought I understood as a child to what I thought I understood no more as a young adult … today, as a middle aged adult, I am quite clear in my mind and heart as I tell you: My grandma knows everything.

Phyllis Bookatz – in the way she lived her life – embodied this Da’at – this knowing – in how she worked, how she played; how she spent her time, energy and money; how she fought and how she loved. Within this life of actions, deeds and values we see what she knew. My grandma knows everything. However, ‘everything’, might take too long for us to cover in the time that I am given to celebrate her this morning. So, I ask you to indulge me as I share with you just a small portion of that ‘everything’ that I am blessed to understand and hopefully ‘know’ myself one day.

My grandma knows about working hard, commitment, perseverance and strength. With her practical, stick-to-it and serious nature – my grandmother was a doer. She was someone upon whom others could depend, someone who would get things done. She would not get caught up in the what-ifs or the emotionality of a task or a project – she would put her head down and do what she needed to do – because it needed to get done. There are many examples from her life about how she knew about these things. My aunts, uncle and mom can tell you examples from their childhood; my cousins share my witness to the thing she did – not just for the community – but for each one of us – the people at B’nai Jeshurun can share them, too and so can the countless others who knew Phyllis in one of her life endeavors. From among these numerous moments of commitment, perseverance and strength … one profoundly speaks to me. I cannot speak about my grandmother without speaking about my grandfather. The two were inextricably combined in my memory and my heart. They were an entity, a force together. They were yin and yang before it was cool and hip to talk about people being yin and yang. As formidable (and sometimes intimidating) as each could be individually, they were more so together. And yet, almost three decades ago – my grandfather died in a slow, painful and treacherous manner. I remember feeling worried and concerned for her – how would she overcome this devastating loss of her Jules. To this day I am awed and inspired by the way that my grandma lived after he died. Tapping into her storehouse of a lifetime of acquired commitment, perseverance and strength – Phyllis crafted, created and forged a life – that while did not include her beloved Jules – did include meaning, purpose and love. She knew how to commit, to persevere to be strong and how to survive. My grandma knows everything.

My grandma knows about being Jewish. Identifying, acting and living as a Jewish person was essential to my grandmother’s life. She knew the formal, more public ways that one might understand her Judaism. My grandmother’s commitment to Heights Temple/B’nai Jeshurun and Israel Bonds are legendary. Her home (i.e. her kitchen) was ground zero for every significant Jewish holiday. I could go on and on listing these formal involvements and commitments of hers … But there was more to what she knew about being a Jew. When I first decided to pursue a career as a rabbi in the Reform movement and not the Conservative one, I think I feared how she might respond … having been so committed and immersed in a Conservative community that she and my grandfather loved so much. And yet, that was never the case for even a moment. From my grandmother, I have come to understand Judaism more deeply and broadly than than the lines drawn by its institutions. Again, while she would have never been one to express it – she lived Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s understanding that Judaism was bigger being only a religion, or culture or ethnicity … it is a civilization. And she embraced the fullness of this diversity and it’s complexity. She supported and was supported by the religious, cultural, ethnic and national ways of being a Jew. She lived as if Judaism and being a Jew was bigger, larger and more important than any particular ritual or politics or doctrine – and held no patience when those (or other dynamics) got in the way of being a Jew. (And she would let anyone within earshot know what she thought.) When I began the path of becoming a Reform rabbi, I feared I might be taking steps away from her … And what I have come to understand is that every step I took actually brought me closer to what she knew about being a Jew. Phyllis Bookatz knew about living a Jewish life. My grandma knows everything.

My grandma knows about family. We all here know the numbers … four loving and devoted children; 4 sons and daughter in law who join in that love and devotion; 13 grandchildren, 12 and soon-to-be 14 great grandchildren. In many of our conversations and particularly in our last one, my grandmother wanted me to know how extremely blessed she felt to have the love and devotion of all of her children and grandchildren – she knew complete and genuine gratitude. Each of us can speak of the numerous ways that her presence in our lives mattered deeply to us and enriched us. And yet for me, what she knew … what I have come to understand from her about family and relationships may be the most precious, essential and difficult lesson to learn. My grandma would not be one to teach the theology of Martin Buber, but she taught me a great deal about his lofty ideal about the nature of divinity. You see, Buber teaches that God is the name for what happens when two individuals love one another completely – for the other’s gifts and for the other’s limitations. I cannot speak of my grandmother without speaking about this precious piece of ultimate wisdom I learned from my relationship with her. A mature relationship means loving someone for all that they are – because of their greatest gifts and their most challenging limitations. The fact that I can stand here today speaking to you at her request – speaks to what she knew and what I seek to know in my own life. Families and intimate relationships are the most powerful and influential forces of nature in our lives. Like any force of nature they can elevate us and flatten us, bring us joy and pain. When we are able to love one another not in spite of, but because of our flaws and mistakes we are able to experience the full divinity embedded in each relationship in our lives. I understand from my grandma about the sweetness offering and receiving redemption and forgiveness; about the elastic nature of families and relationships and their power to impact and endure. Phyllis Bookatz knew about family. My grandma knows everything.

And now perhaps, in the realm that her soul dwells now … she does truly know everything … or maybe not. My grandma was always pretty clear – set in her practical and matter of fact way about life, death and what happens beyond this world. In fact, she often appeared as a foil when I have found myself teaching about Jewish views of life after death. She would represent the view that when we die, we die … there is only this world and so the only thing we can do is make the best of it. Fitting to her nature and way of living in this world, and yet … In the last year or so she seemed to open her mind to the possibility of another possibility. She would not talk extensively about this shift in ideology, except to mention the thought or possibility of being with my grandfather again someday. For my grandma, this simple suggestion was seismic in nature … and brings me great comfort. Comfort in the shadow of death and our grief that she may be with right now her beloved Jules. Comfort in the light of the mystery of life that no matter where she may be that all she knew is such an essential and fundamental part of the lives of those of us who cherish and love her.

For my beloved grandma, who knows everything … I offer these words from the poet as my prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in all of our lives:

Epitaph (Merritt Malloy)

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them

What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

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