Memorial for Walter Blum

March 31, 2010

Walter Blum, 2008

My father, Walter Blum, died a year ago on March 22 of lymphoma. At the time, I wrote on this blog about my difficulties saying the traditional Kaddish prayer and how I planned to formulate a series of alternative “events” to honor my father in a manner that I hope he would have appreciated and to which I myself could better relate.

Over the course of the last year, I have taken on several projects “ilu’i nishmato” a term which, re-framed in a modern light, might be translated as “to elevate the essence of who he was.” I’ve posted already about SiddurWiki, my collaborative approach to create humanistic commentaries on the traditional prayers in the siddur (if you haven’t taken a look, please do). I’ve been working hard on another project that I’ll be writing about in the coming months.

The first event, however, was a memorial evening where I mixed music and humanistic interpretations of Jewish texts to try to share what my father was like and what he was passionate about.

The music for the evening, which took place last year on June 9, 2009, was composed by Yoel Sykes and Daphna Rosenberg, musicians from the Nava Tehila Jewish Renewal community in Jerusalem, who wrote seven original songs based on psukim from various places in the Torah, prophets and psalms. The entire evening was recorded and I am very pleased to present excerpts here.

The evening ran about an hour, but I’m only posting the recordings of the music here. What I said is shown as text below.

(תהילים כ”ז, ד)

The first song we’ll be singing together is based on a verse you’ll probably be familiar with: “Shivti B’beit Adonai, Kol Yamei Haya” – “I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

In these psukim, we understand the importance of being in what I’d call “full God consciousness.” But another meaning that would be more appropriate for my father is that he spent his life fully conscious and present, his mind actively engaged in the world, never passive. He was able to discuss any subject, and he was lucid up until the end. This being present filled up the days of his life. A major part of what filled him up was music.

My father was a musician. He had a degree in music composition from Columbia University. He wrote music, he played piano beautifully. We had a baby grand in our home growing up. Early in his career, he played music on the radio as a D.J. That love of music fills me up too. And Jody. And our children.

So as we sing the words of Shivti, think about what fills you up, what keeps you present and engaged in the world. And think about the music and how important that is to all of us, especially to my father.

(תהילים קי”ח, י”ט)

The words for the next song we’ll sing are also from Tehilim, but most people know them from the Hallel service. The opening words “Pitchu Li Sha’arei Tzedek” mean “Open for me the gates of righteousness.”

The key word I want to speak about here is righteousness or justice. One of the qualities that was central to my father – and I hope to my brother and me as we grew up – was doing what was right. My father was honest to a fault. He would never cheat, never lie.

He was loyal, especially to my mother, despite all the difficulties they had during their nearly 53 years of marriage together. And he believed in justice. That the bad guys should get their comeuppance.

He was opinionated, a quality that could both draw you to him and turn you off, depending on whether he was waxing philosophical or just being paranoid. But either way, it  always revolved around the idea of justice. For example, growing up, the idea that President Nixon might get away with what eventually brought him down was abhorrent to my father.  He had similarly strong feelings about President Bush along the way.

We didn’t always agree (we tried to avoid discussions of Israeli politics) but I will always respect the legacy he gave us – this very Jewish characteristic. So let’s sing Pitchu Li.

(יואל ג’, א, ד)

When Yoel suggested the next song I’ll admit that at first I was confused. The words from the book of Joel refer to a time of great upheaval before the coming of the Messiah. “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

What the heck does that have to do with my father? These are not easy words by any stretch of the imagination, regardless of my father, and my own relationship to the concept of the Messiah is tenuous at best. But I think there’s another meaning here too. One of plunging into the depths of despair and coming out with hope and courage.

My father lived that kind of life.  He came down with polio when he was 17. It ate away at his stomach muscles and he spent a year in the hospital, much of it in rehab learning how to walk again in his weakened condition. Being in the hospital was the low. But my father was a fighter. He struggled all his days to live as normal a life as possible.

The words here reflect that journey. “The sun shall be turned into darkness” – his days in the hospital fighting the polio – and then the redemption – his personal climb back up.

Here’s another story: even after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he refused to give up. He was given a choice. Do nothing and he’d have anywhere between 3 weeks and 2 months to live. Or try chemo, which could either kill him quickly or give him up to a year. He chose to fight, not to give up. Ultimately, this battle was not successful. But his perseverance was entirely in keeping with his character.

The message, I think, is important for all of us living in Israel. Haven’t we lived through terrible times when hope was nearly lost? But by never giving up, we are still here, still alive in our homeland after 2,000 years.

The music to this next song is similarly dichotomous. Rather than being somber filled with doom and gloom, Yoel has set it to an uplifting rock beat. I encourage you, as we sing, to think about ways in which you have moved from despair to hope.

The next song was suggested by Daphna. It’s a tune that’s sung at the Rainbow Gatherings that are held around the world, including in Israel. “Pachamama” means Mother Earth and the words here are a contrast to the despair in the previous verses – they’re uplifting, optimistic, free. “I wanna fly high, so high like an eagle in the sky.”

But there is a continuity from “V’haya Achrei Chen.” The same words from Pachamama could also be read as a desire to overcome adversity, to make the most of the challenges put before us.

Someone with a disability, like my father, always strives to fly high. My father wasn’t perfect, as I’ve hinted before. He was a real kvetch. He complained all the time. But I think he did try to make the most of what life had given him, to the best of his abilities, as it says in the song “just a little star telling me to be who you are.”

I wish I could say that in his last days, my father had the peace that this song suggests, as in the words, “And when my time comes I will lay down and fly.” But his death was so quick – less than 3 weeks from the time of his diagnosis until he passed away. People say that was a blessing. That he didn’t suffer for too long. But my father was scared. He didn’t want to go. One of the last things he told me was that it was too soon. He didn’t have time to put his things – or his mind – in order.

So I suppose then that this song is a paradigm for how things should go in their ideal way, both during life and at the end. To the extent that my father achieved this in his 80 years of life, I am glad.

Pachamama I’m coming home to the place where I belong / x2

I wanna be free so free like the flowers and the bees,
Like the birds on the trees and the dolphin and the sea,
I wanna fly high so high like an eagle in the sky
And when my time will come I will lay down and fly

Pachamama I’m coming home to the place where I belong / x2

I wanna be free be me, be the being that I see,
Not to rise and not to fall, being one and loving all
There’s no high there’s no low, there is nowhere left to go
Just inside a little star telling me be who you are

Pachamama I’m….

My daughter Merav played a song next. She and her guitar teacher Mishael Dickman chose a song by the Foo Fighters called “Next Year” that speaks about the soul and longing for reunion.

I’m in the sky tonight,
There I can keep by your side
Watching the wide world riot and hiding out
I’ll be coming home next year
Into the sun we climb
Climbing our wings will burn white
Everyone strapped in tight
We’ll ride it out
I’ll be coming home next year
Come on get on get on
Take it till life runs out
No one can find us now,
Living with our heads underground
Into the night we shine
Lighting the way we glide by
Catch me if I get too high
When I come down
I’ll be coming home next year
I’m in the sky tonight
There i can keep by your side
Watching the whole world wind around and round
I’ll be coming home next year
I’ll be coming home next year
Everything’s alright up here
When I come down
I’ll be coming home next year
Say good-bye

(שמות כ”ד, י)

I’m going to take some greater liberties with the words to the next song. The beginning of the verse that you see is cut off – we only sing part of it, beginning with “K’maaseh livnat hasapir.” But in context it reads “and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of sapphire stone.” It’s the “under his feet” that spoke to me and made me laugh as well. Daphna described it to me as “God’s ottoman.”

If I think about my father, the position I most often imagine him in is in his easy chair in the family room with his feet up on the ottoman – his own sapphire stone.

His chair was like the captain’s chair on the bridge of Star Trek. He sat there facing the view screen – the TV in this case – with his remote controls at his side. I know this sounds a little superficial, but TV was a really a big part of our lives growing up. And my father helped shape our relationship to pop culture.

Now, we had only one TV in the house and there was no cable in those days, so my father chose what we watched. Otherwise, would we have ever chosen Masterpiece Theater ourselves? Or the Prisoner? Monty Python perhaps. All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed Sullivan. Hawaii 5-0, The Avengers – remember all those? How my brother and I ever snuck in the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family, I’ll never know.

So tonight I am transposing the literal meaning of the text, describing how God sat watching the world, to how my father sat watching through his own little window on his world.

(תהילים צ”ב, ו)

“Ma Gadlu Ma’asecha Adonai. Maod Amku Machshevotecha” – “How great are your works O Lord, Your thoughts are very deep.” The words here reflect one of my father’s greatest gifts to his children – the ability to think, to discuss, to debate on a wide range of subjects. My brother describes my father as a true “Renaissance Man.”

My father worked for more than 30 years as a feature writer for the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday magazine. He arrived home from the paper at exactly 5:25 PM. Dinner was served precisely at 5:30 PM. We ate together nearly every night where we discussed politics, philosophy, science, history, religion. My brother and I were expected to participate. I credit my father’s love for intellectual pursuits as having given me my own abilities to pontificate at the Shabbat table.

Every night, after dinner, my father would retire to his den where he would work for 2 hours writing his book. He wrote many books over the years and unfortunately none of them ever sold. But he kept at it – another example of his ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

The words of this next song should, I think, speak for themselves. “Maod Amku Machshevotecha” – My father’s thoughts were very deep indeed. “Ma Gadlu Ma’asecha” – And his works were very great – his years of writing, both published and not.

What about your works and thoughts? Are they as deep as you can make them? Can you do more to achieve your full potential? Let’s meditate on that while we sing the next song.

(מן התפילה)

The verses to this final song are the conclusion to the Kaddish prayer. When we were planning this evening, I shared with Yoel and Daphna my difficulty saying Kaddish, but how I love the music during prayer. I asked them if they could write a new tune specifically for Kaddish.

Yoel started to strum and within 5 minutes they’d created a beautiful melody for the last line of Kaddish. Perhaps this will be the way that I can say Kaddish – either in shul or privately – singing quietly to myself. Maybe this tune will even be adopted as a way to end the Kaddish in the service itself (since this writing, Nava Tehila has adopted Oseh Shalom as the conclusion to Ma’ariv). I invite you now to sing with me as we end the evening.