Sunday, July 26, 2015

We Are Never Alone

The goal of this blog is to give you a meaningful way to think about the 9th of Av.

Today is the fast of the Ninth of Av.

I'm guessing that many people don't have it on their calendars, and are not sure what it's all about.

I can't think of a better way to start relating to the holiday than this amazing story (told by an excellent story-teller):

It's also available here:

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Champion of Justice

The goal of this blog is to evoke cathartic Shabbat-table discussion. Please print and share with someone tonight.
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Six Months Before He DiedAs promised in last week's anti-Cosby blog, here is Part 2 of a series in honor of my father's 10th yahrzeit.

1. Eulogy
2. Question
3. Special 4-min video.

The Eulogy is what I said ten years ago at his funeral. At the time I was speaking from notes and while people asked me for a copy of the speech, I just didn't have the wherewithall to type it up. It took a lot of work, so I hope that someone out there reading it, whether or not you were at the funeral ten years ago, will find something inspirational within this entirely inadequate summary of the life of my father.

After I agreed to speak, I felt I wasn’t up to task. I’ve only known my dad a short time, compared to most of you.

I was also a bit worried – how do I, coming from what appears to be a different spiritual take on life than my dad, speak about him, appropriately? Yet I was looking through some of his journal’s last night. When he traveled, he kept journals, detailed journals: when he ate, where he ate, what he liked about the food, what he didn’t like, the waiter’s name, how much the meal cost, what the exchange rate was….And I saw clues of a spiritual life there that looked very, very similar to my own.

But we never talked about these things in detail. Maybe because I was not trying to wear my spirituality on my sleeve (maybe on my head, but not on my sleeve). It just wasn’t a topic that came up. We were much more interested in what we had in common – we had so many things in common. It just wasn’t an issue.

There are seven people who are called “kerovim” – close family : the seven mourners: father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, and of course, wife. Those are the ones who are supposed to be comforted by everyone else. But I know, because I’m a product of this community, and I know, because I’m here now, and I know, because even though I don’t live here now I’m in touch with this community, constantly, that my dad was like a father or brother to many, many, many people. He wasn’t just a friend. He was a friend that was like a brother, like a father, a trusted counselor….

And what do I say, when someone like that calls me up to wish me comfort? What do I say to the G______s and the C______s and the W______s and the W_______s and on and on and on? We’re crying together. We kerovim are supposed to feel the greatest pain, the greatest agony and grief. Yet these words are empty compared to how we all feel right now. “Anguish” maybe. “Bereavement.”

As you know, I’m one of three children, whom my dad loved equally, and in addition to his children and grandchildren and extended family he had buddies. Someone called me yesterday who knew him since seventh grade. He had buddies from high school and college. I saw a picture last night from second grade with Freddy Warnick (that’s what it said: “Freddy” Warnick).

But who am I, what do I say, when Denny’s buddy from his childhood, or his friend from college, or his partner of many years, or his daily running mate, or his fellow board member, or the woman he hired, or the man whose business he helped save – what do we say when they call to comfort me? The extended family, the close and dear friends, the associates and clients, the employees and even adversaries, who felt that spark of closeness that none of us can even talk about him in the past tense?

There were so many people who were like kerovim to him, and I think the reason we all felt this way about him, why we all feel this way about him, is because he because he had this way, that I think was quite rare, of entering our lives individually. As if we were the most important people in the world when he was speaking to us – he was so empathetic in that way.

It doesn’t matter what the relationship was, whether it was professional, or whether it was friendly, whether you were a running buddy of his, whether he bought coffee from you once in awhile, or whether you were working with him on a big project.

There is something called kria which means tearing the clothing, which the seven kerovim do. It represents the feeling of someone having been torn from us. So many of us here today feel like we have lost a family member, we are all bereaved – of a person who was not just central to our lives, but essential to our lives and to the community. The shock we are feeling is the shock that someone would feel if he woke up without his left arm.  How do you cope? How do you process this? What do you do next? How do you say goodbye so fast? How do you sum up a life so quickly? A life that goes way back, and broad, and deep.

When people start talking about my dad, they use all kinds of words….


I’m not going to speak about all of these qualities, there will be time later today, people will be talking about these qualities, and people who knew him in ways that I didn’t know. And I think those are just starting to describe who he was. They are for sure all true and you could pick so many anecdotes to illustrate those.

I’m going to focus just for a couple minutes on three qualities that are not on the list.

You don’t hear people say these three qualities, but I think that that when you hear the depth of what I want to say, I think if you hear the concepts, you will agree with me that this touches upon something about my dad, about who Denny Seinfeld was. And not only what he was, what we admired about him, and what we all want to strive to be, and how we want to remain inspired by him.

My father had a very Talmudic way of discussing things. If you ever discussed anything with him, and I know you all did…. He called it Socratic: he would pose a question to you. Instead of tealling you his opinion, he’d ask you a tough question and make you think like, “Oh, he’s got me on that one”, and you’d really have to think fast.

So in Talmudic fashion, in Dad’s honor, I’m going to ask you a question. I’ll ask you about these three qualities that I found in the Talmud, and ask you to tell me if you think he was any of these three things, and why, and of course it’s a trick question:

Was my father a wise man?
Was he a strong man?
Was he a wealthy man?

The first one’s easy to answer, right? People went to him for advice. Isn’t that what a wise man is, someone you go to for advice? Could be…. But not in the Talmudic sense: that’s not what the Talmud means by “wise”.

My dad, Dovid ben Eliezer was also known as Dennis Gary – Denny – Dad – his eight grandchildren knew him as Saba…. We all knew him in our own special way, with our special name.

You know where he got that trait from? From his parents, his parents whom many of us escorted to this very spot only a couple years ago. I think his parents were optimists. They had two children during the painful depths of the Depression, while war was looming. Most of the country waited until after the war to have their baby boom, but the Seinfelds didn’t wait. Bringing not one but two children into the world named D-D and Denny was a simple (and very Jewish) act of pure hope and optimism. My Dad, a great empathizer, who really celebrated and suffered other people’s celebrations and suffering, also learned from his father how to say, “Life goes on.”

Some of you here remember him as a kid. His 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Marsh, had a different perspective on his social skills, writing that he “could show more initiative and exercise leadership by looking ahead and anticipating situations.” In other words, she was saying he was little short-sighted, not able to see the outcome of situations. However, Mrs. Marsh was also confident that he would develop those qualities as the elected class president, and by the spring report card, she reported that he indeed had.

So you know the Talmud does ask the question, “What does it mean to be a wise person?” and of course when a rabbi asks you that question, you know that the right answer is not “knowing a lot of stuff.” It says that wise means someone who foresees the outcome of a situation.

You know you read in the obituary that he served on so many committees, on so many boards, you have to wonder, why did they want him so much? Because he could foresee the outcome. He thought ahead. He was the kind of person you love to have on your committee and you hate to have on your committee at the same time. You love to have him there because he asks the tough questions. You hate having him there because he asks the tough questions. He had not only the ability but the all-important tenacity to ask the tough questions, to push us – believe you me, his children included – to consider all the possible outcomes. He didn’t mind that painful thing called thinking, and making other people do so too. I think he taught this to us too — all of us who are his disciples. All of us: his children and everyone else.

The Talmud’s other answer to the question is that a wise person is someone who learns from every one else. That’s what it means to be wise. It’s very interesting the way the Talmud says this, which is only clear in the Hebrew. It doesn’t say every other adult, it doesn’t say from every other Jewish person, it doesn’t say from every other man…. It says from every other human being. Is there a better description of my father’s relationship toward other human beings? All he wanted from people was to hear their ideas, their beliefs, their hopes and dreams – from the elderly to young children. My dad was a feminist before anyone thought of the term (although I suspect he may have picked some of this up from a certain woman he met in college). He didn’t mind learning from anybody, from his children, from his grandchildren. Everybody was a universe to him, and everybody meant something to him. He got their story. When he was on the TCC Board, he was so thrilled to be participating in those people’s lives, who would bring themselves up, and although he felt he had so little to do with it, he felt so inspired by them, taking htemselves from having a poor educational and economic foundation and making something out of their lives, and he wanted to learn about them and learn from them.

I know he talked that way about his family and his cousins.

His treatment of others was so natural to himself that it disarmed you if you weren’t used to it. Even when two of his children went (by local standards) off the deep end, if he was judgmental, he kept it to himself, he certainly didn’t ever make us feel ashamed of having chosen a different path than his own.

He simply had so few, if any, pretensions.  I remember when Jerry Seinfeld came to Tacoma. It was 1984 or 85, I think. Dad couldn’t care less that Jerry was a comedian – what mattered to him was that here was another Seinfeld and we didn’t know of any other Seinfelds before then. You see, my dad had this family tree that he made when he was a teenager, and there were some missing holes in it, and Here’s another Seinfeld! So he went down that night, a Saturday night, to the nightclub, and he met Jerry afterwards and came back with this new branch of the family tree all filled in, it was so exciting. The fact that Jerry became famous was interesting, but he wasn’t so concerned about that. He loved the idea that there were connections between people. Some years later he even flew down to LA for a taping of the show, because he was family. And I think this genuine love of people and respect for their wisdom is what drove him in all the non-profit work he did.

This wisdom I think is what drove his passion for Tacoma Community College. I don’t remember him more proud than when he told me about the award ceremony where they would honor students who had come from nothing – no education, no money, no support – and graduated from TCC..  Displaced people, people with no direction, who found their way. He loved getting to know the student, finding out their story.

I asked my mom, I understand why he served on the the TCC Board, but why did he go so far as to set up a scholarship fund there, not at one of his own prestigious colleges? And why did he put his name on it? That seems out of character. You know what she said to me? He was performing one of the highest levels of tzeddaka, which is: be a role model. Encourage others! If you don’t put your name on it and do it locally, then no one’s going to know about it. You have to show others, you have to pave the way. He wanted everybody to follow suit. He wanted people to be part of the community and to contribute. That’s what he was all about. You know that. And if you and I are not living up to that, well that’s our fault, because he certainly gave us all the signals of what we should be doing.

You know, both my Dad and Mom raised their children with this value from a very young age: A slice of what you make, you have to give back. How much? Oh, about ten percent. When I started learning in yeshiva in Israel I shared with my dad that it says in Jewish books that it’s supposed to be ten percent, and he said, “Wow, that’s kind of neat.” I mean, he had intuited that; no one had ever taught him that. He just felt that ten percent of what you make, you give back.

How many people in this community can we stand here and say that about them? How is this community going to replace that kind of attitude, which wasn’t a philosophy, it was part of who he was? Who is going to fill his shoes?

He loved to tell people how much “bang for your buck” everyone gets out of a CC education –for 1000/year you can have a year of education – nurses, dental technicians, people who would really benefit society.

We know how he loved life, how he cultivated things. He wasn’t necessarily so great at things. He wasn’t a world-class tennis player. But he could play tennis. And squash, and raquet ball, and down-hill skiing, and water skiing and cross-country skiing…. basketball? Did I mention he was an avid swimmer and runner? Not like a fanatic; he just loved doing it. He loved the pleasure of it. He cultivated drinking wine. He went berry-picking on a daily basis. He would call me and say, “I’m just sitting here eating these berries and I’m waiting for you to come here and share them with me.” And now we have the last bucket of berries that he picked. You know he was just preparing for us to come. And when I told my daughter Goldy what happened (she’s six years old), she said, “Saba just told me last Friday how he was looking forward to us coming.”

And we came….

You know the only thing my dad loved more than all these things I’m talking about? There’s only one thing he liked better, and that was sharing them with other people.

He used to drag me out of bed at five-thirty or six in the morning to go for a run with him. Why? Because he enjoyed it so much he wanted to share it! You would go visit him and he would overload you with whatever he had at that moment. He had these little “Poke Boats”, a type of kayak, and he’d make you go out with him, he’d be very disappointed if you weren’t into it with him. That was his personality: he got pleasure from sharing and being part of your life.

Some of you may remember something he did in 1986. As part of a charity auction for Stadium High School, he was determined to be the highest bidder for the right to conduct the Stadium High School Band. He won that right. It was to be for the final concert at the Pantages Theatre. And it was to be for The Stars and Stripes Forever — with the big fanfare at the end with the trumpets and trombones coming out front. You know he got a John Phillip Sousa tape from the library, and he walked around the house conducting, practicing. And he just couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get the beat. He listened, he tried, and I tried to help him, I coached him as much as I could, and when the final performance came we thought he was ready, and fortunately we in the band knew the song by heart because we played it all the time in parades and everything, because he wasn’t with us at all, but he was so happy. Because he was doing tzedaka, and his children were there, and he was participating, and he was having fun, and that’s what life is supposed to be about. He was living. He was living! He wasn’t talking about living, he was doing it! He knew how to live.

A simlar thing happened many years later when he was going on a trip to France. Here is a man who had learned German in college and had been fluent in German, but hadn’t studied a foreign language since then. But he was going to make a trip to France, and he knew that the way you really enjoy a country is you speak the language. So he started putting up French vocabulary words all over the house. My mother would open drawers and there were French words, here, there and everywhere, everything was labeled. For six months, and he taught himself French. And I was skeptical. I heard about this over the phone. I was actually living in France at the time. I was thinking, “That’s cute.” And he came, and… he was doing it. He actually was communicating in French, at a passable level — enough that Parisians were not snobbish towards him. He just lived life.

Did anyone here ever see my dad angry? Of course not. He never got angry. Maybe a little, everyone does once in awhile, but so seldom. He never had that problem. He had such self-control.

The first question I’ve answered, “Was he wise?” The second question is, “Was he strong?” The Talmud says someone is strong who is in control of himself. Someone who doesn’t let his ego get out of hand. That’s my dad: no ego. Nothing was for himself, it was for his wife, his children, his community.

And the third question, what about wealthy? Was he wealthy.

The Talmudic answer is that you’re only wealthy if you’re happy with what you have. If you have a hundred million dollars and you want a hundred million and one, you’re a poor man. If you have nine dollars a week to spend, as my parents had in law school, and my mother had to come up with seven different ways to cook the same potatoes, they were happy. It was an adventure for them. My parents were known in the community as people who would go outdoors, hiking and camping, They didn’t grow up with that. They got a little ten-dollar pup-tent….(maybe it wasn’t ten dollars, that would be more than a week of food, it was probably more like two dollars), and they just found a campground on the map and went up there. You know, here’s all the New Englanders in their fancy tents and their fancy camping stoves, and here’s my parents trying not to touch the wall of the tent because if it rains then you get soaking wet….and that’s how they were, and life was an adventure for them. And they shared that together, every step of the way. In my mother’s house right now there are three books from the library, tour books for their planned next destination this fall.

I think that if my father had lived to his father’s age, to ninety, if he had lived as he should have, twenty-five more years, we would all stand here sad, but fulfilled. We had a full Denny! We had a full Dennis! We got a full Dad. We got everything out of him. We had so much more to get from him. I had so much more – I’m speaking personally. I have a whole list of things I wanted to discuss with him this summer. I was saving them. I can’t discuss them with anybody else. In that way he was what we call in Judaism a “rebbe” for a lot of people. He would know you and he had the wisdom, and he could put them together in a certain way. How is that fair? This person who is written up in the Tribune as “Champion of Justice” — how is it just, that he is taken away, not only from us, we’re not the only ones: he didn’t get the life either. Another twenty-five years.

There is a midrash (story) about Jacob the patriarch, a very interesting story. It says that before Jacob lived, everybody died suddenly. Nobody got sick before they died. Everybody, they would sneeze and they were dead, and that’s where we get the expression “God bless you” or “Gezuntheit” when people sneeze, it goes way back, because someone could sneeze and that could be the end. And Jacob prayed and said, “You know what? Can it be, God, that I get sick first and give people a chance to say goodbye to me?”

And so that’s why people do get sick and they get that chance, but we didn’t have that chance with Dad! It happened like that! I mean I couldn’t even….

We want you to know up there, if you’re listening: it’s a really good guy you took from us, and you took him too early.

There’s one other story I’ll tell you. This is also in the Talmud. It’s about one of the most righteous, learned women in Jewish history. Her name was Bruria. She was one of the great scholars of her generation, about eighteen hundred years ago. And her husband was a rabbi named Rabbi Meir, who was maybe as learned as she was. They had two children, two boys, who passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly on the Sabbath. He was out – her husband was out – and she put them on their beds and covered them with blankets and didn’t tell him, because you’re not supposed to tell someone bad news on the Sabbath. She waited until afterwards. And what she said to him was like this:

“What’s the law if someone gives you a security deposit, and they come back and want to collect it.”
He said (thinking I guess it’s a strange question for his learned wife to be asking him), “You have to give it back right away.”
She said, “We’ve had a deposit… and it has been collected.”

We had our time, and he was a gift. It’s not ours to say when a person gets collected. And it’s not ours to say it’s too soon. Because we’re not in control.

Such a precious, sweet and pure soul. So full of spiritual attachments, so distant from material attachments. So distant from pettiness.

Dad, we’re really grateful that you didn’t suffer pain at the end, that it happened quickly. That was a gift. We’re glad that you went out that way, in a way, even though we couldn’t say goodbye to you they way we wanted. You didn’t suffer.

How fitting it is, I think, if you think about it that my dad went out while he was reaching up to the sky. That’s how he lived, and that’s how he went out.

We’re going to miss you more than anything, Dad. And we are going to be so enriched by these years. And they’re not just words, and they’re not photographs, they’re what you put into us. They’re right here. We’re going to try to lay your broken body down here, cover it with dirt, we’ll say a little prayer, and let you go where evidently you need to go right now. And we’ll carry you with us all the time.

2. Question for your table:

What do you you want them to say at your funeral?

3. The important video
that I hope you'll watch and share with as many people as you can (especially anyone who knows anyone in Mexico):
Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, July 10, 2015

It Was 10 Years Ago

The goal of this blog is to provoke deeper dinner-table discussion. Please print and share with someone tonight.
Happy Birthday to our friend Pinchas in Jerusalem!

MyDad_StarBill Cosby has done me a big favor.

Mr. Father-Figure has made it really easy for me to speak about my real father.

Ten Years ago this coming Sunday (on the Jewish calendar), my father was on a ladder.

He was trimming a tree.

He was preparing for our visit a week later.

He just had to get that one last branch.

My mother was by his side when he fell, and stayed by his side all the way to the hospital, the rest of the day and into the night when he died.

"To everything there is a season... a time to be born and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes).

The 1,000 people at his funeral all felt that it was too early for him to die.

In honor of his 10th yahrzeit, I am planning a special memorial Table Talk next week.

This week, prior to the yahrzeit, I would like to share one thought about his short life, followed by a question for your table.

This morning, the pundits are of course all talking about William Henry Cosby, Jr.

How he had represented the ideal of fatherhood.

How he had been a personal role model for so many people.

Now civil rights leaders are asking them to remove his star from the Hollywood sidewalk.

"Not gonna happen," says Walk-of-Fame apologist Leron Gubler.

Gubler, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive, says that there is nothing a celebrity can do, no matter how despicable, to change his star status.

If you can make millions of people laugh*, Hollywood shall honor you forever.

What does all of this have to do with my father?

Welll, quite simply, he didn't have 1,000 people at his funeral because he made them laugh.

Six Months Before He DiedQuestion for your table:

What kind of people do you want to come to your funeral

(a) those who love you because you're funny, or rich and famous?
(b) those who love you because you have lived a life of honesty and integrity?

Shabbat Shalom

"Who is truly honorable? He who honors others." (Avot 4:1)

"There are 3 'crowns': The crown of the Torah (i.e., wisdom), the crown of the priesthood (i.e., spiritual greatness), and the crown of kingship (i.e., poltical leadership), but the crown of a good name surpasses them all." (Avot 4:17)

PS - This just came to my inbox:
Highly recommended 10-minute viewing on today's theme. Narrated by Tom Hanks.

* (and an undesclosed number of studio executives rich)
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