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Rabbi Don

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

In Zen funerals, we talk directly to the departed.

Oh Don, this morning I am hearing chanting in my head. Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate.

"Gone gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.”

But you are not completely gone. You are still with me, as you have been over the years since I saw you last.

Was it the last time you were in New York, when Bob Kennedy and I met you for dinner on the Upper West Side? I know it was before the Pandemic. I feel like it was after Bernie had passed. I felt like a kid allowed somehow to sit at the adult table.

You and Bob were both already seniors when I arrived in Yonkers, both important stars in Bernie’s interfaith sky, when that interfaith practice was for me the most compellingly unique aspect of Bernie’s vision.

Over the last few years, it became harder for us to communicate. I was busy. I made too many excuses, but you were always there in my life.

I doubt that you knew this, not sure that I really did, but you have always been my Rabbi. I never had a Rabbi, but you magically arrived to co-officiate with Bernie at our wedding with Bob as emcee. (Vatican protocol prevented him from co-officiating). Dee and I had our three Sensei wedding. We loved it. Dee’s family loved it. No one in Staten Island had ever seen anything like it. You sang “Dodi Li.” We have a picture of you and Virginia dancing at the wedding reception.

It was a year or more earlier, on my first Street Retreat during Holy Week, in a year in which Passover and Easter coincided, living on the streets, you led a Seder in Tompkins Square Park, the only Seder which I have ever been to in which someone showed up to sit in Elijah’s seat. The King and Queen of Tompkins Square Park, hippie squatters in a nearby abandoned tenement, arrived for the festive meal with their dog.

It was wonderful. We even had the wine. Over the years, I have told and retold your story of the wine. While the rest of us had gone out to hustle various food items, -- matzos, bitter herbs, -- you had taken on the wine challenge. You didn’t expect difficulty. Someone at one of the many remaining synagogues or temples on the Lower East Side would give you the wine once they heard your story. You were shocked. Doors were closed in your face. You told them you were a Rabbi but by then we all looked homeless.

Bernie was not surprised. He had been introduced to what became our Street Retreat practice by his friend Jim Morton, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (We would end our Retreat there, joining the midnight Easter Mass).

Jim had participated in what I think was the first training program in grass-roots community organizing for clergy, sponsored by Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation. Jesse Jackson was another participant. As part of their training, the clergy had taken a plunge into the Streets. One of their assignments was to seek sustenance from houses of worship of their faith. Jim reported almost universal rejection.

But Don, you were not discouraged. You kept trying and rather to your surprise, the Latino clerk in a liquor store just off the park gave you the requisite bottle of Manischewitz. We had our Seder. What a great teaching. What a great Peacemaker koan. As Bernie was so fond of saying, “The Street is the great teacher.”

The first year after our wedding, during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Bernie led the first Peacemaker Auschwitz Retreat. You were one of the people who made it special.

Leading the Kaddish, you connected us all who gathered, from so many places and so many backgrounds in mourning. By the end of the retreat, the Kaddish had been translated and recited in many languages. You united us in mourning, and you united us in dance. Evoking the spirit of the Hassidim, we danced through the aisles of the auditorium in which we gathered in the evenings to bear witness. Many, I think, were shocked to find themselves dancing in such a place of horror, but we all danced. Ecstatic, I tripped falling against a chair arm. I had cracked a rib, I was told by a doctor, a fellow retreatant. “Nothing to be done.”

It seemed like for years afterwards, Dee and I would get to see you in person once every year, when you and Virginia came to New York to apartment sit. One year, we were having dinner at a clam house near Gramercy Park, and I mentioned that I had walked around that park many times but had never been in. (It’s a private park. Only residents of the surrounding buildings have keys).

“Would you like to go there after dinner?” you asked.

“We would love to.”

It turned out that the apartment you were sitting came with a key to the park. We spent a delightful summer evening strolling in that most exclusive Manhattan landmark.

I have particularly fond memories of our year studying together, meeting on zoom. Was it weekly or every other week? Because we were in different time zones, I was meeting at my desk in our open architecture office. We were studying Martin Buber, although I am not sure how we got on that. Perhaps I had told you that years earlier, when Bernie had asked us all to adopt a persona in order to look at whatever we were studying from a perspective distinctly different from the persona of our ordinary selves, that I had chosen Martin Buber. A spur of the moment choice.

I wanted to study the Tales of the Hassidim. You wanted I and Thou. Although we were friends, you were my Zen senior. So, I and Thou it was. I had read it years earlier, but you had really studied it. Basically, you read the book to me during our meetings, almost singing it in a way which brought out meanings which I hadn’t seen, and then we would talk about the passage and where it seemed so close to Zen and where it seemed quite different. I’m not sure when these study sessions ended. Probably, I got too busy. Now, I wish I hadn’t, that my priorities had been more balanced.

Don, could you possibly have realized that you were my Rabbi? I barely glimpsed it, but you were there, available to help me contemplate the un-Bar-Mitvahed hole in my life and perhaps even to fill it if I had allowed you.

For a couple of years, I thought that Morri might opt for a Bat Mitzvah. I hoped she would and that I might have my Bar Mitzvah at the same time. But Morri’s path went in a different direction, and I got busy with other things.

Now, I’m saying, “Let’s get back to studying. I want to read Tales of the Hassidim with you.” I want to talk with you about how these tales are talking to me.

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.

But I am still talking to you. In my head, I’m chanting, “Gate Gate Agate,” or is it “Gate Gate Ayata”?

I don’t know enough Sanskrit, actually any Sanskrit.

Gone, gone, not quite gone. Still in my heart.

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