The following three eulogies – by Rabbi Norman Janis, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, and Jane Myers – were given at Rabbi Gold’s funeral, April 20, 2016 – 12 Nisan 5776.
Rabbi Norman Janis
I first met Rabbi Gold in the spring of 1959. We had both come to Harvard the previous fall – he as a Hillel rabbi, I as a freshman. On our first walk together, after lunch in the Freshman Union, he stopped several times to enjoy the sunny day and to inhale the fragrance of the lilacs we were brushing into along our way. How characteristic of Ben’s love of life and of lilacs that walk was! How characteristic also and truly remarkable was the fact that I, a freshman, not quite 18, Jewish but quite secular and uninvolved and not apparently inclined to be otherwise, had been invited to lunch and a walk by this vigorous rabbi who had noticed me when I happened to accompany a friend to 5 Bryant Street – for that’s where Hillel House was located in those days, on the periphery of the university – to say kaddish for her mother at a tiny Friday evening service with very few in attendance.
After leading the service, Rabbi Gold invited us for a bit of refreshment in a little library under the stairs.
So my friend and I and one or two others sat around a library table with Ben, and I guess I asked a couple of questions. They were enough to change my life forever. For Ben-Zion Gold was a fisher of souls, and he must have thought he had spotted a lively fish in his net. So he invited me to have lunch with him, and then we walked, and then asked me into his house, where I got my first glimpse of the adorable one-month-old Hannah, and then he arranged for me to go to a seven-day Hillel camp that August. There I had my first experience of a week understood as 6 days leading to Shabbat. The guest scholar on that Shabbat was the still-quite-youthful Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had just written God in Search of Man, and was overflowing with the ideas that had inspired the book. And thus began a long Jewish trajectory in my life.
In the years that followed, my friendship with Ben drew me by degrees into Jewish life and Jewish study, especially through the medium of the little, quite informal Worship & Study congregation which Ben had begun leading around a library table in Phillips Brooks House in a corner of Harvard Yard. Ben was a fascinating, engagingly ironic teacher, deeply knowledgeable about traditional Polish Jewish religion and life, and deeply intuitive and imaginative about how to be Jewish in our very different modern American world. This fisher of souls drew in not only undergraduates like me who happened to cross his path, but all kinds of Jews around Harvard, including professors and deans, hitherto unaffiliated and non-religious who nevertheless wanted their 11-year-old children to be aware they were Jewish and to become bar- or bat-mitzvah. The Worship and Study congregation under Ben Gold proved to be an excellent place for all that to happen, as some here today can surely attest.
Nineteen years after I first met him, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold stood under a chuppah with Patricia and me, to marry us on our wedding day, in the very room at Phillips Brooks House where, at a Friday evening service under Ben’s auspices, I had first seen Patricia. A couple of years later, we anointed him “god-father” of our newborn daughter Clara Goldie.
Ben and I have been close friends all these 57 years since we met, and looking back, I really don’t know how to separate my life from his – my soul has been bound up with his. When they were little, I watched his daughters frolic in a New Hampshire brook, ate many meals at their table, and I watched them grow up. Ben and I have taken so many country walks together, and he has sometimes called me his brother. What’s more, having known Hannah and Merav all these years, and their mother Carol too, I feel not so much like an officiating rabbi here, but more like an uncle or cousin, mourning with them, for the wonderful person we have lost, a man who deeply touched and transformed so many lives, including the lives of many of the people sitting in this very room at this very moment.
How are we to understand our loss of people we have loved and without whom our lives are not the same? Well, the truth is, we can’t really understand. Even so, words can sometimes help. Here are some words about death from an ancient Jewish philosopher called Ben Sira, also called Ecclesiasticus – some words that may be helpful.
Fear not death; we are destined to die. We share it with all who ever lived, with all who ever will be. Bewail the dead, hide not your grief, do not restrain your mourning. But remember that continuing sorrow is worse than death. When the dead are at rest, let their memory rest, and be consoled when the soul departs.
Death is better than a life of pain, and eternal rest than constant sickness.
Seek not to understand what is too difficult for you, search not for what is hidden from you. Be not over-occupied with what is beyond you, for you have been shown more than you can understand.
As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore are man’s few days in eternity. The good things in life last for limited days, but a good name endures forever.
Ben Sira’s oft-quoted words are helpful in a human, good-sense kind of way. Still the mystery of life and death remains, and we turn to the Psalmist to help us address what is hidden from us and that we cannot understand:
I lift my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.
Rabbi Jonah Steinberg
Members of the Worship and Study community may remember a sunny Sabbath morning, during the intermediate days of Passover – almost exactly four years ago – when our young Student Conservative Minyan at Harvard Hillel decided to go outdoors into the courtyard of our building, to read the Song of Songs in the springtime sunshine, so appropriate to the poetry of the biblical book prescribed for the special Shabbat of Pesach.
Sam Fuchs, who escorted Ben-Zion to Shabbat morning services so many times through the past several years, probably remembers especially well – how Ben came in to our building that morning, and, instead of heading upstairs on his customary and well-worn path, the Worship and Study Minyan’s Rabbi and Teacher instead made a seemingly instinctual bee-line for the courtyard, to join in the circle of students outdoors, to celebrate the Passover springtime with the young people, and to participate in reading the Song of Songs in the fresh air.
And I remember, sitting in that courtyard, how, throughout the reading, inquisitive heads, one after the other, kept popping out of the upstairs windows, from the room where the Worship and Study Minyan meets, and pointing fingers, too – members of the Minyan peering down and gesturing at Ben-Zion, seemingly wondering if the youngsters had somehow stolen their spiritual leader. Not to worry – as soon as we were done with the Song of Songs, Ben made his way upstairs, to the Minyan he had founded, his spiritual home of so many decades.
Several people asked me afterwards, at Kiddush, whether Rabbi Gold had been confused. On the contrary – I think it was one of the sharpest and most lucid moments of his final years. In that cherished time together in the courtyard, a new generation of students glimpsed the true spirit of an eternal head of Harvard Hillel, always eager to share Jewish life with young people, always interested in something creative, personal, meaningful, traditional and new.
“Hanitzanim nir’u ba’aretz – ‘et ha-zamir higi’a.” The Song of Songs says: “The springtime buds have appeared in the land, the time of pruning-song has arrived.”
I say “pruning song,” because the word Zamir in the biblical text is a double entendre, that can mean both Song and Cutting (as with trimming back branches or foliage) – and in that latter sense, the word connotes a steely and harsh reality, a hard but necessary truth in cultivating a field of growing things.
King David, then – Ne’im Zemirot Yisrael, according to the Second Book of Samuel – was, by that same double etymology, either “the sweet singer of Israel” or “the best blade in the land.”
In equally real senses – one literal, one metaphorical – Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold was both.
I was fortunate to meet our rabbi and teacher several years before I ever came to direct Harvard Hillel, when he was still writing and publishing sharp words of Torah. Morenu ve-Rabbenu, our Teacher and Master, knew, perhaps better than any Jewish leader I have ever met – and he understood this in his very being – that even the strongest of sentiments and grandest and most cherished of ideas, within oneself, must often be pruned and trained with rigor, if they are to flourish.
Speaking of melodies, I first encountered Rabbi Gold at a Shabbat table, in an apartment on Cambridge’s Broadway, where he had been invited by several young Harvard Hillel alumni, and friends, for lunch and for a wonderful afternoon of zmirot and nigunim, the poetic Sabbath table-songs and the wordless old-world tunes that he loved so much.
I remember, from that first encounter, that Rabbi Gold surprised the more musically orthodox of us at that table by switching melodies frequently between the stanzas of each song, whereas we might have been inclined to sing a whole long poem through in each musical version. It was a bit of a revelation to the assembled young people – myself included in that rubric, at the time – that one could do that, cut a traditional melody short after a verse or two, so as to share the next tune for the same song. And I remember so vividly Rabbi Gold’s somewhat mischievous smile at our surprise.
As I recall, he said, “You don’t always have to be so reverent (actually, I think he said “so frum”) as to sing out each melody all the way through every song, if we already know the tune, let’s hear the one that’s new.”
Speaking of rigor, and of the constant challenging and refining of one’s own ideas – in that same year, Rabbi Gold published in the Boston Review a talk he had given at Harvard Hillel on April the 14th 2002 – on “The Diaspora and the Intifada.” In it, he took the brave stance that celebrating Israeli democracy, and placing one’s highest hopes in the promise and the future of our Jewish homeland, sometimes could, and, by his lights sometimes should mean siding with opposition voices in Israeli politics.
Ben-Zion, whose very name reflects the national aspirations of our people, who described himself as being in some ways “more comfortable in Israel than in America” – and who, indeed, toward the end of his life, was more comfortable in Hebrew than in English – was not a man at all timid or ambivalent about his Zionism, about its centrality in his existence – and he said:
“The minority whose love for Israel prompts them to provide a critical perspective have a difficult but important function to perform. The critical opposition in Israel is alive and active … Our role is to support the forces in Israel that want to make sure that, in its battle for security, Israel retains its sanity and soul.”
I recall this not to make a eulogy political – though I don’t think Ben-Zion would mind – but rather to highlight the nuance and the rigor of our Rabbi’s ethos, a legacy I consider so essential to the ethos and the soul of the Harvard Hillel he built. Ben-Zion challenged those around him, and not infrequently, even very late in his life, he surprised those around him; and it is important to remember that this was because he also continually challenged himself, perhaps even surprised himself, never becoming wed irrevocably to a particular iteration or interpretation of his own most sacred ideas.
Five years ago, when I found myself approaching Ben-Zion’s former directorship, he and I spent several afternoons in his living room on Dana Street. Frequently he would take a binder or a scrap-book down from the shelves to show me something he had written, or to illustrate a point with a clipping from the Crimson or the Gazette. He was still sharp in many ways, but his memory was fading, and sometimes, in answer to a question of mine he would say, “I wrote something about that,” and he would know exactly where to reach for it physically, and then he would say, “but you will have to see what I said” – and several times he made sure I understood that he himself might not say exactly the same thing so many years later.
It is a rare soul that is as powerful and as compelling as Ben-Zion’s, so completely dedicated, and at the same time so unfettered by its own insights, so continually open to new ones throughout an entire lifetime.
It is arguable whether Judaism has a concept quite like a Mahatma – and even more questionable whether Ben-Zion ever aspired to anything like the mantle of the Hasidic Rebbes he knew in his youth – but as I read the many personal remembrances sent over email from Harvard Hillel alumni this week, so many of them saying, in effect, “I would not be the Jewish person I am today were it not for Rabbi Gold,” it is undeniable that we are speaking of one of this world’s truly great souls.
The Torah speaks about the many individuals our ancestors Abraham and Sarah gathered to themselves, into their camp in Haran, as “kol hanefesh asher asu” – literally, “all the soul they had made.”
Kol hanefesh asher asita, morenu ve-rabbenu – all the soul you created, Rabbi Gold, the Jewish lives you nurtured into being.
Just very recently, not a couple of years ago, in an interview in Yiddish (that you can find in a video recording online) Jane Myers asked Ben-Zion whether, amid all the melodies, all the nigunnim that he insisted he hadn’t collected but that had rather “collected themselves” – “zich umgezammelt,” as he put it – all through his lifetime, whether he himself had ever composed a nigun of his own.
Characteristically, Ben-Zion’s answer reflected the grace and the dignity with which he handled his own loss of memory:
“Tze’ Ich hob geshaft a nign?” Ben-Zion replied, “Tz’iz meglich – ober in der minit g’denk ich nisht – tz’Ich hob geshaft a nign… ‘S-ken zayn.”
“You ask whether I ever composed a melody? It’s possible – but in this particular moment I don’t recall – whether I composed a melody… It could be.”
As his great soul departs this world, I want to say to the man I was so honored to know, Have no doubt, ihr hot takeh geshaft a nign – you composed a mighty melody, a veritable Song of Songs, and of Souls – the greatest such composition many here today have ever known.
I first met Rabbi Gold my freshman year at Harvard, almost 50 years ago. Because I was from a Conservative synagogue in Minneapolis, where women already had an equal role in services, I was comfortable participating fully. This made a big impression on him because he believed fervently that women should have an equal role in Judaism, but he had never—or rarely—seen this happen. He once said that he had developed an entire halakhic argument attesting to the rightness of egalitarianism within a traditional context. His argument was based on the words from the Torah: v’ahavta l’reia’kha kamokha—you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I only wish I had asked to see it!
In the early 70s, I got to know Rabbi Gold better through the Worship and Study congregation. He led services with his resonant, haunting voice and beautiful prayer melodies, and he led interactive Torah discussion in which we were encouraged to question. He delighted in Jewish rituals and traditions, including adapting them for the Cambridge environment. I remember one Shavuot when I helped him prepare for the congregation’s tikkun study session. I went with him to buy locally renowned Viennese cheesecake with raisins on Brattle Street, and then, following the tradition of beautifying the room for a tikkun with greenery, we helped ourselves to lilacs from the bushes surrounding the Busch Reisinger Museum to decorate the study table.
I expressed my excitement in 1976 when he mentioned that he still remembered many songs from his childhood in Poland. I asked whether I could try to record them, and we made an appointment for me to do so. The evening I visited, I turned on the recorder and he sang 11 songs and nigunim from his past, one after the other. Most of these he had never shared; some may have otherwise been totally lost to the world if he had not remembered them. Many years later I visited him several times. We would sing his songs together, and then I recorded more songs—a few more he remembered even after he turned 85. The album that was eventually created from these songs and the commentary we both worked on became a source of pride and pleasure to him, even in the last week of his life.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold left a rich legacy—of music, teaching, sermons, essays, ethical thought, his memoir, as well as his lasting impact as a remarkable human being on so many students, colleagues, and friends, and on his daughters, Hannah and Merav. With his brilliant, open mind, and his unswerving love of Judaism, he possessed the unique ability to grasp and illuminate a coherent path from his roots in Eastern European Jewish life to a religiously transcendent life in contemporary America.
I am grateful that I will continue to be connected to him, to his daughters, and to his remarkable contributions to Jewish knowledge, ethics, and religion through the work I am now doing with Christa Whitney of the Yiddish Book Center on a website devoted to his legacy. The website will house his sermons and writings, his songs, photographs, video, and more, and it will have the capacity to gather and share remarks and stories from its readers. Perhaps those of us who admired and loved him will find some consolation in his loss through our ability to continue enjoying and learning from what he created and accomplished.
I am blessed—we were blessed—to have known him as a rabbi, teacher, mentor, and friend.