My friend Mitch and my other friend Nicole

Yesterday, my friend Marc’s girlfriend died suddenly. He’d mentioned that she’d been under the weather and he was trying to be nurturing, but that they had ruled out COVID-19. I saw a tweet about her death go by just moments after Fred Willard’s death was announced. I thought about how happy Marc had been lately and how devastating this would be for him. I sent a short email to share my condolences and then I ordered up her most recent movie on Amazon.

Marc is not my friend.

I’ve never met him. I suppose had my life gone a different route, we might have crossed paths. Marc is, obviously, comedian and podcaster Marc Maron of WTF. I haven’t been a fan since the beginning, but I’ve listened regularly for a couple years and in the last 6 months have really come to feel an affection for him.

We’re two months into the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order in Chicago and his archives have been keeping me company. I live alone with two cats in a friendly six-flat. My neighbors have a group chat and we occasionally sit in the backyard together but apart. Every month or so, Jocelyn takes me to a grocery store in a car and occasionally friends drop by with treats.

But I’m alone.

I have lived alone since April 2005, when I bought my condo and have lived alone for the last 15 years at 4 different addresses. Occasionally a friend would come and stay for a month or so while they got housing sorted out, but I live alone.

Living alone in the before times meant going to an office more days than not, regular meetings at the synagogue, solo trips to bars, brunch with f

Anathem and Spidey

riends, movie theaters with shared popcorn and my Broadway in Chicago subscription. The before times for an introvert also meant skipping game night to stay home alone with my Netflix and chill cats. The before times meant occasional dates with total strangers from the internet to interview each other on a route to finding love. It was daily encounters with baristas, bartenders, coworkers, cashiers. Sharing food. Sharing recommendations. Spontaneous plans.

Now I’m alone.

Just me, my cats and my podcast friends.

Other than Marc Maron, most of my podcast friends are in the extended universe of How Did This Get Made and not, as you might expect, the comics I used to know back in the day.

For example… Jason Mantzoukas (my #1 Hollywood crush [which started by hearing him on an episode of Gilmore Guys and then a podcast rabbit hole that led to HDTGM,The League and everything else]) was a guest on Doughboys, so I listened to that episode. Fast forward and Nicole Byer (HDTGM All Star) does a live show of Why Won’t You Date Me in Chicago and her guests are the hosts of Doughboys and Gabrus from High & Mighty. Then I have to listen to the whole suite of live shows from the Headgum Live in Chicago and decide that I also now listen to Doughboys in addition to listening to three of Nicole’s podcasts weekly. (Why Won’t You Date Me, Newcomers and Best Friends).

I will let Doughboys play all night while I sleep and run through the day as company. Mitch and Nick talk about fast food and restaurant chains, so none of it is critical. If feels like I have some dudes just hanging out. Plenty of their jokes would get eyerolls or lectures from me in person, but as company… I love having them around. I think Spidey and Cowboy like hearing about Wolly and Irma from Mitch. (And Monkey and Buster at Marc’s house).

In addition to the intimate, one-way friendships that I have with podcast hosts, I’ve also entered a stage of “unadulterated fan and cheerleader of people and art.” I think it was when I was introduced to Hamilton that I learned that being an unironic fan of something is very fun.

I’ve seen Hamilton in New York, London and Chicago. I’ve gone alone, with friends and family. I have shirts and books and programs. I just loved it and didn’t apologize for loving something popular.

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Me in a custom shirt guarding Zouks on stage at the Chicago Theater during a live HDTGM. I said I was a fan, right?

After Hamilton, I turned my fandom energy to HDTGM and flew to Los Angeles after I was laid off to see my first live show at Largo. Then I saw the crew at 5 different live shows in Chicago. I made custom shirts, wrote thank you notes to Paul, June and Jason for being my podcast friends when I was recovering from my hysterectomy and then unemployment. I made IRL friends through a fan group. I seek out the projects each of the hosts are in and continue to celebrate the crew.

As I wrote about 2 years ago, I was so inspired by seeing a few HDTGM live shows that I tried stand-up comedy. I lasted a summer and just… I guess I’m okay with not doing comedy.

But in that window, I was podcast-matched with the Jackie and Laurie Show. Two women comics who have each worked the road for over 30 years talking about the business of comedy. I’m hooked and I’m a fan. I’ve seen them both live at Zanies in Chicago, gone to their Zoom comedy shows, tweet too many replies to both Jackie Kashian and Laurie Kilmartin and cheerlead their successes.

I live alone and the people I spend the most time with are podcast hosts. Friends who live in my phone and keep me company during a global pandemic.

Sometimes I catch myself and say, “Leah, they aren’t your friends.” Doesn’t matter. Marc isn’t my real friend, but I can still care that a woman he described with so much love and tenderness died suddenly. I can care about the comics who are sheltering in place alone and listening to as many podcasts as I am.

I’m grateful that I went to as many live shows as I did where I got to see many of my favorite podcast friends on stage. That I have those memories to carry me through until we’re allowed to gather and laugh together in an auditorium.

No blue tooth speaker will ever match the roar of Chicago Theater when Paul Scheer stokes the Team Fred/Team Sanity fires, but I’m glad we can be friends.


Other articles tackling the one-way intimacy of being a podcast listener.

  1. Glen Waldon on NPR: The One-Way Intimacy of Podcast Listening
  2. Noelle Acheson: The intimacy of podcasts and the monetization of relationships
  3. Philippa Goodrich: Intimacy Plus: Is that what makes podcasts so good?
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A day after Falsettos

Ezra told me that I would cry during act two of Falsettos, but I don’t cry so much at musicals when I go in cold. You might get a sniffle from me, but unless I’ve listened to the music in advance (Hamilton) or I’m seeing it for the second time (Hamilton, Band’s Visit, Great Comet)… not so much. When I pick up the cast recording after a show, I’m undone. (Spoilers ahead)

And so I took my icy cold heart to Falsetto’s last night with the knowledge that there was a bar mitzvah, a gay dad, a doctor and that Ezra thought I would cry.

Act One is set in NYC in 1979 and in the second song we learn that Marvin has left his wife for his male lover, telling her on the way out to get tested for syphilis and hepatitis. That’s when the specter of AIDS entered the theater and settled into my bones.

I’m 42. AIDS and unplanned pregnancies were the existential threat of our teens and early 20s. Unprotected sex could kill you or derail everything you worked so hard for. I interned in San Francisco in 1996 when life-sustaining drug cocktails were getting approved by the FDA, but so many people had already died and were still at risk of dying. I did a fair amount of programming about HIV-testing as an RA in college and in 2015, worked with people over the age of 50 with HIV in London. I think the existential threat of AIDS and HIV for Gen X is what school shootings are for Millenials and children growing up today.

Something bad was happening. I was undone.


As someone who takes Judaism seriously, I was undone again by Jason’s relationship to his Bar Mitzvah, Judaism and ultimately God. Ultimately Jason prays for God’s intervention.

I was undone again.

I don’t believe that God intervenes in our lives, but I have prayed for God’s intervention.  I am comfortable in this uncomfortable, unknowing place.


I wondered about the set. For most of the show, the actors arrange and rearrange large foam blocks into furniture. The idea of an office. The idea of a kitchen. The idea of a bedroom.

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For most of Act One, the only prop is a chess board. We get a few throw pillows and a shabbat candles when the mom moves in with her fiance and life finds a routine. But we don’t get real furniture until we are in the hospital.

One by one giant privacy curtains drop from the ceiling and I am undone. Every memory of every hospital visit piles up in my soul and spills out in sobs.

As we walked out of the theater, I tested my theory on my theater companion that the abstract blocks the vague memories of Jason’s traumatic childhood only coming together in vivid realism at the hospital. Later I wondered if the realistic props materialized as the family moved from trauma and depression to love.

In the hospital, we are with a non-traditional, chosen, loving family. Every person is interconnected and every prop is defined. When the family moves back into grief and depression, the blocks return to stage and we are transported to a cemetery.

What a group we four are
Four unlikely lovers
And we vow that we will
Buy the farm arm in arm
Four unlikely lovers
With heart
Let’s be scared together
Let’s pretend that nothing is awful

Let’s be scared together. Let’s pretend that nothing is awful.

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13 years (or more) of making challah

When I began to study for my conversion to Judaism, I was obsessed with baking challah. The braided egg bread that is served on Shabbat to remind of manna from heaven became a north star. If I could make challah from scratch, then I could become a Jew.

I’ve since learned that it’s not the cornerstone of cooking for all Jews like I was thought, but it is still one of the best dishes I’ve learned to make since I began this journey in 2004.

I documented the recipe I use on Flickr in 2007 and to this day, I google myself to find the photo album when it’s time to bake challah.

Ingredients

  • 2 packets of granulated yeast
  • 2 cups warm/hot water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 7 cups of white flour
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • ½ cup golden raisins (optional)
  • Poppy seeds (optional)

Step 1: Dissolve 2 packages granulated yeast in 2 cups warm/hot water. Add ½ cup sugar. Set aside.

Advice: The cookbook I got this from said tepid water—but I learned that tepid water won’t activate yeast. It’s important to use hot water (you can nuke it for a minute before you add the sugar and yeast), because you want to make sure that the yeast is still good. You do this by proofing it with sugar in hot water.  I’ve wasted so many ingredients when I was too impatient to proof the yeast.

Step 2: Mix together 7 cups of white flour and 2 teaspoons of salt.

Advice: This recipe is for white flour. For wheat bread recipe, go somewhere else. Another two loaves that I threw in the trash not knowing it couldn’t be a straight substitution.

Step 3: In a separate dish (I use a pyrex measuring cup) lightly beat two eggs and add to the flour mixture. Also add 1/3 cup of oil (I use olive oil) to the flour mixture.

Step 4. Stir it all up a bit to mix in the eggs.

Step 5. Add the proofed yeast, sugar, water mixture to the flour/egg/oil mixture.

Step 6: Stir it together with a big spoon and get it sticky enough that you can put it on the counter to knead the dough.

Step 7: Knead the dough on your counter. It’ll be sticky, but just get some flour on your hands. As Lotte Schaalman of blessed memory taught us – knead the dough until it feels like a woman’s breast.

Rise One: Place in a well oiled bowl, cover and allow to rise in a warm, draft free place until double in size. About two hours. Need a warm place? Turn on the oven for a minute and then turn it off. Pop the bowl in the oven covered with a towel for a couple hours.

Rise Two: Punch it down and let it rise for another hour

Shaping and third rise: Separate the dough in half and then into thirds and roll until you get long strands. I learned that dough needs to be stretched, then rested, then stretched again and then rest again… on and on until it’s a long enough strand to braid. Gluten is a tricky molecute and needs to be coaxed into stretching. If I need to manage time, I’ll put the braided dough into the fridge overnight and bake the following morning.

Divide dough and braid into 2 loaves. Traditionally you make two loaves, but this recipe is massive. It makes three loaves easy. I make 2-3 loaves and keep one, give away the rest. Place on a greased cookie sheet and allow to rise for two hours.

To braid, divide the dough into three parts. Roll each into a long snake of even thickness. Then pinch together the ends and braid as you do hair. As an alternative, overlap braids in the other and braid toward the end. What? I suggest going online to find some visuals for this one. That was what I did, it is actually very easy to do.

Baking: Brush with egg wash (1 part egg, 1 part water, well whisked) and sprinkle with seeds. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Knock on it to see if it sounds hallow – then you’ll know you have a good bake.

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Walking out on Women

 

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When I did comedy before, it probably took me a year or more before I called out The Baker’s Dozen for walking out of my set and the sets of other women comics. I remember calling them out from the stage at that weird Italian place connected to the Cubby Bear – I don’t remember what I said or how they reacted in the moment, just that they stopped walking out of my set.

Last night after Open Mic #5, the two hosts said hello at the crosswalk and one asked me if I had come to support another comic. “No, I performed tonight, but you walked out and missed my set.”

To be fair, he had a reasonable excuse for taking a phone call during the show he runs, but I also have fewer fucks to give. I told him he got to use that excuse once and that he’d used it up.

Then we chatted a bit about coming back to comedy and when I said that I’d performed with the trio of dudes in Hollywood that I used to perform with, he said, “Oh, so you saw how famous they got and…”

No.

I think that that #MeToo movement was making comedy a safer experience for women. I think that at 41, I have more to say than I did at 26. I think there are more paths to being successful in comedy in 2018 than in 2002. I think we live in a hellscape and making jokes might be my way to survive this administration.

I think Tig Notaro is showing me that a premise can last 10-20 minutes. I thinkHannah Gadsby is showing me comedy doesn’t have to be self-deprecating to be funny and the tension can last longer than 3 seconds. I think Jackie Kashian and Laurie Kilmartin are giving me an education on what hasn’t changed for women in comedy since I quit. I think Nicole Byer is showing me that I can take up space and date. I think June Diane Raphael is showing me that audiences in Chicago will cheer when politics interrupt comedy.

So, no. I’m not back on stage just to drop the names of the three dudes I knew in comedy once upon a time. It’s just easier to talk about them in casual conversation than to bring up the serious side of comedy.

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Like Riding a Bike

I went up again tonight – this time in a well lit Second City classroom. Things started at 9 and I expected to go up at 10:30, but didn’t go until 11:15 or so. Then I stayed to the bitter end (just another 30 minutes) to make sure the last five comics had someone to perform to.

As much as I keep hoping for a Mrs. Maisel beginners luck set that kills, I’m learning that returning to stand-up after 14 years is like riding a bike… That was sitting on the back porch for all those years without any maintenance.

I honestly don’t remember how to get better in 4-minute increments other than to keep showing up.

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Uphill Both Ways In the Snow

I’ve only been to one open mic, but I’m signed up for one on Saturday night to try again. I had a long call with a friend who did comedy with me back in the day and regaled him with all of the things that are different after 14 years away.

Screenshot 2018-06-08 12.52.16

I don’t want to spend any of my limited minutes on stage talking about how I used to walk to school, uphill, both ways in the snow about doing comedy in 02/04… so here are a few things that have (and haven’t) changed in the last 14 years.

  1. There are so many rooms. I wonder if I have a copy of The Reader from a typical week in 2003 to see how many open mics we used to have. I don’t remember there being more than two a night and most people only went to one. Now there are upwards of 10 every night of the week – even on weekends?!?!?
  2. YouTube didn’t exist when I did stand-up comedy. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. We had Friendster, Hotmail and plenty of us went to Kinko’s to write and print in the middle of the night.
  3. There might have been one comic who took their notes up on stage on a Palm Pilot in the early aughts, but rooms were all about paper notes. Last night about half of the comics took their notes up on their phone, which means they are spending time waking their phones up between jokes.
  4. Dudes in their 20s still tell rape jokes. Find a different starting point, gents.
  5. The room was a lot more diverse. There were only two women, but there were 5-6 Asian comics. In 02/04 a room was diverse if 3 of the 50 comics were black and 4 were women. In a list of only 15 comics, to have 1/3 be people of color – that was remarkable!
  6. Drink specials and kind bartenders (at least at Spyner’s) are still part of the scene. There were $2.50 beers last night.
  7. People have a lot to learn (and I have a lot to remember) about using mics – that’s the same as it always was. But as Jerry Seinfeld taught us in 2002, all you’ve got to do is get the mic out clean.

I’m going up again tomorrow night. I’m going to keep working this jokes and trying different rooms. We’ll see what happens.

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Let the record show

I went to Spyners on Western tonight and did four minutes at an open mic. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever done, but it was far from the best.

But I dug up a tiny notebook, jotted down a few headlines and got on stage.

Huge thanks to Dee from the HDTGM fan group I’m in for joining me at the open mic to offer her support while I try to do this stand-up comedy thing again.

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Thinking Seriously about Comedy

This weekend I watched six hours of live comedy, something I haven’t done since I quit doing stand-up comedy sometime in 2004/05. All six hours were live shows for the podcast How Did This Get Made as part of the Onion Comedy Festival in Chicago – Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas (let’s be honest, swoon) turning fun-bad movies into comedy gold.

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The next day, I let my mind wander without a podcast in my ears or a screen in my face and tried to figure out – what is it about this trio that has me so excited about comedy again? Why have I spent so much time and money to be in the same room with these lovable goofballs, when they come to my phone for free every week? Why do I seek out podcasts where they are each featured guests?

And why do I want to get back on stage after quitting comedy over 10 years ago?

***

I moved to Chicago to try my hand at being a stand-up comic based on winning the Snowdown Joke Down in Durango, Colorado in January 2002. In a town of 14,000 people where I managed the local rape crisis hotline, I put my future in the hands of three judges during the “locals only” winter festival. snowdownparade

Snowdown is basically if the fine folks of Stars Hollow let the fraternity brothers from Neighbors plan a winter festival. Lots of drinking, lots of costumes and full buy-in from all locals.

When I lived in Durango, I realized that I could really get my friends laughing at poker night and made the immediate leap in my brain that jokes at a dinner table could turn into a stand-up comedy routine that would have me traveling the country within two years.

I won the stand-up portion of the Joke Down, planned my move to Chicago and hosted a going away party in the Ska Brewing warehouse that doubled as a fundraiser for the Rape Intervention Team. When I was on the local radio station doing a promo for the event, the DJ self-disclosed that he was a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Two weeks later we shared a stage and made a friendly room roar with laughter. Then I packed up my truck and moved to Chicago.

***

Sunday – Tequila Roadhouse (RIP). Monday – Lyon’s Den (RIP). Tuesday – Cubby Bear. Wednesday – Frankie J’s (RIP). Thursday – Second City Conservatory shows.

Practically every night of the week I was at an open mic learning to be a stand-up comic or at Second City cheering on my friends in their conservatory shows. I went up in rooms where the list was 50 comics long and regularly shared the stage with people who now have movies (Kumail Nanjiani), TV shows (Pete Holmes) and multiple specials and albums (Kyle Kinane).

When I tell the story of why I quit comedy, I always say, “and then I auditioned for the first season of Last Comic Standing. I stood in an alley for 6 hours in January with my peers and realized, in the light of day, that these weren’t my people.”

The line included a guy who told the same child-rape joke every week. The guy who offered women rides home from open mics, but then solicited blow jobs for stage time. The group of men I privately called The Bakers Dozen, because about 12-13 would always walk out of my set (or that of another woman) to smoke up in the alley.

When I fact-checked myself, the audition for Last Comic Standing was in my first 6 months in Chicago, but I did comedy for 2 years before I quit and switched to writing, blogging, occasional storytelling, converting to Judaism and ultimately climbing the corporate ladder.

But my overwhelming memory of quitting comedy was that I didn’t find my tribe in the rooms I visited every night.  I didn’t do drugs,  I didn’t date in comedy circles and I didn’t work blue. I didn’t fit in, so I eventually called it quits.

***

I spent the last 12 years aggressively climbing the corporate ladder in public relations. Two agencies, five or six promotions, countless new business meetings, and a Master’s from Northwestern.

My brief (and now distant) stint in stand-up comedy served me well. No CEO is scarier than a drunk crowd at the Cubby Bear. No reporter is going to dismiss me as harshly as an audience member who once said to me, “Lady, we’re trying to have fun here, can you just put down the microphone?” I was pretty much bullet-proof in a board room thanks to those open mics, but I never stopped being a stick in the mud.

***

In 2012, I finally watched The West Wing and fell in love with it. A few years later, the podcast The West Wing Weekly launched and I finally got into podcasts. Then the Gilmore Girls Reboot was announced, so I caught up on Gilmore Girls and added the podcast Gilmore Guys to my list.

pete holmes jason

Then there was this guest who really caught my ear. He was talking about rape culture and taking feminism very seriously. Huh… who was that? Jason Mantzoukas. Shrug. I had no idea who he was at the time, but he plugged his podcast called How Did This Get Made and I added it to my queue. I had some good laughs over bad movies and dug up all sorts of older interviews of Jason on other podcasts.

Eventually I found Jason on Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird. Pete is one of the guys I have fond memories of from The Lyon’s Den, even though I am jealous of his success in a way that is not attractive… in a regret-laden-road-not-traveled way. Then I listened to other interviews Pete did with people I knew back in the day.

Then Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon released their movie – The Big Sick. Screenshot 2018-06-05 14.58.28A Romantic Comedy set in Chicago’s comedy scene. Kumail telling jokes that I’d heard him tell at open mics. A movie that plunged me deep into nostalgia for the Lyon’s Den and doing stand-up comedy.

I saw The Big Sick three times in the theater. I posted about it so much that Kumail  asked me how crowds were reacting. My friends went at my urging and also loved it.

A RomCom that centers on a group of comics who have each other’s backs. A small tribe of supportive friends. A RomCom that took place in the fictionalized bar I went to every week for two years.

***

Then #MeToo happened.

I start thinking about my clients from the Rape Intervention Team. I do the math and add the 16 years since I left the job to the 13-year-old age of my last client. She’s almost 30 if she’s still alive. Was she able to heal and become a survivor?

I start thinking about the rape jokes and sexual harassment in the comedy scene when I was in it. I talk to some of those guys I knew from open mics who are trying to support #metoo now, but didn’t do anything to help the women they came up with.

***

And then this weekend, I went to see six hours of live comedy. Before every show, Paul Scheer tells the audience that during the Q&A it is unacceptable to make racist, sexist or homophobic jokes.

In the middle of the show about Striptease, June Diane Raphael gave an extemporaneous talk about the dangers of the movie. About workers rights, women’s rights, legalization of sex work and ending the mother/whore dichotomy.

And what did her two male cohosts do? They listened.

And what did the rowdy crowd do? A crowd there to laugh about a greased up Burt Reynolds and a woman who dances with a python named Monty?

They listened and cheered. An audience at a comedy show in Chicago, cheering during and after a speech about women’s and worker’s rights – things have changed.

***

Through How Did This Get Made, I found three comics and countless guests who I think  would be my tribe if I’d stayed in comedy. It didn’t happen overnight, but it seems to be that comedy is now a place where women can be political and funny and safe. Where men (not all men, unfortunately) are trying to be funny without being misogynist. Where even Jason Mantzoukas, who is known for playing outrageous, sex-obsessed maniacs, is someone I count on in interviews to be thoughtful about sexism and rape culture.

***

This winter, I MCed a talent show at a Jewish retreat and a friend who has known me in Jewish conference circles for a decade said, “Leah, why didn’t I know that you’re funny? You’re really funny. You aren’t funny online, but I laughed so much tonight.”

I told him that it’s not my role in Jewish conferences. We usually have real stand-up comics in the mix – like Benji Lovitt or Michelle Collins. No need for a failed stand-up comic to be funny when there are professionals in the room.

But maybe it’s time.

I’m no longer aggressively climbing the corporate ladder. I started my own business to plan retreats and facilitate meetings, but I have more time to think and more flexibility for open mics. (And more mornings when I can sleep off open mics)

But maybe it’s time.

There are open mics that are women-only spaces now. There are social clubs for women in comedy. There are role models other than Ellen and Roseanne Barr.

Maybe it’s time.

***

Thank you to Paul, June Diane and Jason for showing me that my people are in the comedy world today. I think it’s time to try again.

 

 

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Eulogy for my Aunt Barb

I missed the boat on delivering a proper eulogy for my Aunt Barb at her funeral on Sunday, so here’s what I would’ve said if I’d realized the floor was open.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Leah Jones – Larry and Linda’s daughter. Aunt Barb was my great aunt – Uncle Jimmy is my late grandma’s little brother. I didn’t realize until today that Jimmy and Barbara were the cool, young aunt and uncle to my parents, because to me they were always the grown ups.

When we got here today, we heard that Aunt Barb’s visitation yesterday is one of the biggest that Brazil has ever seen. Was it 184 cars of people that came through?

Instead of focusing on her biography – the over 50 years of membership to her church, over 50 years of service to the Reelsville Volunteer Fire Department or 62 years of marriage to Uncle Jimmy – I want to share one lesson that we can all take with us when we leave the firehouse today. Something that Aunt Barb taught me and probably all of us.

The lesson is simple.

Show up.

Just… show up.

I can’t think of a single family celebration – holiday, wedding, funeral, graduation or birthday – when Jimmy and Barb didn’t show up. If two things were scheduled on the same day and hours apart, like my sister and my high school graduations, Jimmy and Barb would split the duties and show up.

Eavesdropping today, I realize she didn’t just show up for the Proctor, Cohn and Jones families. She showed up for all of you. She went to countless football games, pancake breakfasts, bible studies, recitals, weddings, graduations and funerals.

You knew she would be there. Didn’t it feel good to know she would be there? When you saw their minivan pull into the driveway or heard Jim and Barb call hello from the door?

More than that.

We never worried about how she would show up. To my knowledge, nobody ever worried about Barb bringing an argument to the holiday table – nothing beyond whether you should put noodles on your mashed potatoes or gravy.

Obviously gravy goes on the mashed potatoes. Noodles are their own dish.

Even in a world where religion can be contentious and I converted to Judaism, she made sure I knew that I should still show up and that she would still show up for me.

So I want to thank you. Everyone in this room. You have all taken this lesson to heart without realizing it.

You showed up today.

I’ve never been to a funeral where the staff had to keep opening the walls and adding more chairs like this.

It means so much to her family that you are here and that you’ll continue to be here to support Uncle Jimmy, her mom Grace, Tracy, Connie and all the grand kids, great grands and her kids.

Thank you.

 

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In Between Lines

Today was Rabbi Herman Schaalman’s (z”l) funeral.

When he gave his last Yom Kippur sermon in 2016, he recounted that he’d been giving High Holy Day sermons for 80 of his then 98 years. It was enough.

His story is well-documented and fairly easy to find on the internet. Google has not and will not forget him. He was born in Munich during the first World War and came to the USA to attend Hebrew Union College (a Jewish seminary) just before the start of World War II. At 19 he arrived with nothing and nobody and in the 81 years that followed, he reached thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish people through teaching, preaching and camping.

I have been a member of his synagogue since I started going to services in late 2004. While he wasn’t MY rabbi, he was my rabbi’s rabbi. Every year at Yom Kippur, a portion of his sermon was dedicated to telling us to get married already. To have children, already.

There are stories that I’d heard second hand and stories I learned today. About how his first fiance died tragically, but then he met Lotte to whom he was married 75 years and 8 months. I knew that he had escaped Nazi Germany, but this week I learned that he once snuck out of a cafe when Hitler came in. He taught his regular Torah class the day after his wife died, but today we learned that in after his wife’s death (only 18 days before his own) he officiated his grandson’s wedding in his living room.

There were eight eulogies today.

A priest who recalled Rabbi Schaalman’s remarkable friendship with Cardinal Berdanin and how that friendship began to mend centuries of bad blood between Catholics and Jews. He shared a stanza from a poem by Australian writer Adam Lindsey Gordon.

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another’s trouble,
COURAGE in your own.

Then there were eulogies from five rabbis, though there were probably 100 more wishing to share their memories and lessons learned. His three grand-children and his two children each took the bimah to remember the man they loved so much.

I went today hoping to be filled up with stories to power me as we build a resistance. Eulogies and officiating from ten members of the clergy who understand the separation of church and state (and tax exemption laws), meant I had to read between the lines to find the fire in the room.

Here’s what I got.

The funeral began and ended with melodies that Elie Wiesel taught Rabbi Schaalman when they were on a retreat together.

We were reminded that Rabbi Schaalman’s final torah portion was that of the burning bush. A fire that burns and does not consume.

His son told us the story of his father receiving a telegram at a wedding that said “Your father’s in Dachau. Save him. Mom” and how he was able to make arrangements for his parents to escape Nazi Germany.

We were told that Rabbi Schaalman had no time for nostalgia or the ‘good ol’ days.’ He was grounded in Torah and driven by and to change. He helped pave the way for women to become rabbis. He helped redefine “who is a Jew” in the Reform movement to include people raised Jewishly with one Jewish parent. At the end of his life, he openly questions God’s existence, but never questioned that the Torah was worth studying.

As a survivor of the Holocaust without an extended family, it wasn’t until he officiated his grandson’s marriage two weeks ago that he felt he had finally established roots.

He drove to any college that would have him teach, because he believed that interfaith dialogue and relationships is the only way to stop the next Holocaust.

When he first arrived in NYC from Germany, before the five scholarship students went to Ohio, he was taken to Coney Island. There he saw a group of teens in Nazi regalia who were being beaten by Jewish teens. It was not the salami effect he saw in Germany – go along to get along, how much worse can it get. Instead the Jews he saw in America were standing up for themselves. (In short, it’s okay to punch a Nazi).

He was a patriot, “because this country saved his life. America was a lifeboat out of Nazi Germany.”

His son talked about how serious his dad was. “He was serious, because the world deserved to be taken seriously.”

Oh, how we need to get back to taking the world seriously.

While there wasn’t an unabashed call to fight fascism, I heard it said between anecdotes and stories. The unabashed calls were to have personal relationships, to strive for a long marriage, and to break bread with people of other faith traditions.

So I’ll do that.

And in doing so, I will also fight the rise of fascism at home and abroad.

 

 

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