On February 11th 1923 my father’s soul touched down in this world and at 3:56 on August 18th 2011 it departed. It’s hard to believe. In fact, I wouldn’t believe it, except that it says so right here: “1923 to 2011.” And because I was right there when it happened, a moment I was afraid of and had therefore been preparing for for my whole life…except who can ever be prepared for a thing like that?
Who is ever going to love me like he loved me? Who is going to say to me for no reason, “You need 20 bucks, a hundred bucks, two thousand?” Who is going to put his arm around my shoulder and say ”You know, you’re a good kid. I really admire you.”? Who is going to gaze at my sister Jennifer and then look over to Marciarose and say, ”You cooked “em good.”?
We all know it’s not a tragedy when an old man dies, particularly a man like Jerry who had accomplishments and friendships to last two lifetimes. But it is still very, very sad. But then, I say to myself, “This is how you feel now, but how will you feel later?”. And then the smart part of my brain says, ”If you know how you are going to feel, why not just try feeling that sooner?” So, I know exactly how I will feel. I will feel gratitude. I had a great dad. And so I urge us all to move from sadness to gratitude for having had Jerry in our lives, as quickly as possible.
These past few days have been something of a revelation. Maybe it’s something about my generation, but I admit it: I used to think that last thing my parents did that was interesting was to give birth to me. But it seems pretty certain I was misinformed. So Jennifer and I want to thank the speakers who have gone before and all of the people who have reached out in the past few days for letting us know fifty years of our father better.
Jennifer and I are Jerry’s only children, but there are so many here who, one way or another, think of him as a father. We are so lucky. I realize that all of you are now our brothers and sisters and we thank you for helping us honor him.
I should have mentioned this in the beginning and maybe I did, but this is a speech that will have rough transitions, no segues and the occasional break for poetry. Because my Dad was such a fan of poetry, I thought I’d read a few lines right now.
This is from WHEN I THINK ABOUT THOSE WHO ARE TRULY GREAT by Stephen Spender, lines that remind me of him.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center,
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
“Left the vivid air signed with their honor”….Not too bad at all.
I know that you are here to comfort us, but I want to offer a bit of comfort back. Jerry seemed tough sometimes, sometimes when it wasn’t even his intention. Let me help you recast some of your memories in a rosier light.
To those of you who think he was tough on you…it wasn’t just you. He kicked me out of my own sixth birthday party for poor sportsmanship. I insisted that I should get two turns at Pin The Tail On The Donkey and when I would not let go of this notion, I had to spend some time on the fire escape.
There are those of you who might have felt that he was a tough task master…it wasn’t just you, He ripped up one of my college applications because he thought my signature was sloppy. He had high standards, particularly for those of whom he thought highly.
And maybe some people thought he was aloof or ignored you, but he wasn’t…really. He was just concentrating. If I didn’t shout his name, he was fully capable of walking right past me on Chestnut Street. In fact it was a game I played to see just how close I could get. I got pretty close.
Some things about my father that don’t show up on a resume:
When I had friends over as a kid he was always game to come in and lead pillow fights at two in the morning. And not token pillow fights either, but epic battles that lasted a long time and left feathers everywhere. And could only be resolved by ice cream.
He claimed to know Judo.
There was a big part of him that never stopped being a Hebrew School teacher and an Eagle Scout and a big brother.
He would occasionally, if he saw someone being arrested, get out of the car, identify himself as a lawyer and just stand there, making sure the guy was being treated according to the law.
There is a wall in Marciarose and Jerry’s apartment with pictures of every losing democratic candidate he worked for from Adlai Stevenson through Walter Mondale. We call it the “wall of shame.”
In the days when that was still done, he wooed my mother with dogged persistence. Writing long patient letters as the wise 25 year old to the coltish 17 year old who wasn’t quite ready to settle down. He outflanked her. He might have stalked her. He enrolled her friends by writing their term papers, He enlisted her parents. She didn’t stand a chance.
The only times Jerry ever truly lost patience with me or my sister was if we were unkind to our mother.
Which leads me the second poetry break. This is a poem by ee Cummings. It was in a book Jerry gave me in 1969. I took it with me to Pine Forest summer camp, which likely did not help me build my strong case for manliness. Even then, this poem always reminded me of my parents—and even more so today.
if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses
my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)
standing near my
(swaying over her
with eyes which are really petals and see
nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
This is my beloved my
(suddenly in sunlight
he will bow,
& the whole garden will bow)
This guy really knew his way around a love poem.
These are just some of the things my father loved-in no particular order: justice, my mother, old books, a joke, fairness, yiddishkeit, his children, his grandchildren, French toast made with Challah, art, americana, justice, his friends, the many young people he has mentored and helped, winning, lovingkindness, poetry, my mother.
As he goes, so goes an amazing amount of knowledge, but also such a crazy combination of knowledge: jurisprudence, halachah, poetry from the psalms to the Highwayman, the Congo and the Raven. The ability to buy the perfect size 8 dress, everything ever known about the presidents, their mothers, and their first ladies (with the exception of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania who didn’t have one but everyone knows he was an oddball).
Jerry knew how to conduct a war crimes trail, help someone get into law school, or become president of the ABA. He knew how to take a really good photograph, hang a picture, shoot a basket, buy a great copper pot, deliver good news and bad, and cook matzah brei using every pan in the kitchen. He had a capacity for friendship that was epic. He was one of the last of the old-time married people. The world will continue to go round but somehow, with him gone, gravity is weaker. The pull that keeps us moored together is a bit lighter.
Someone asked me how will I picture him? Well, not so much as he was in the last eight years or so when he was having a harder time. Though please keep in mind that these years also had their attractions, Old friendships were burnished, many new ones were made and during those years he saw the birth of two grandchildren and he stood on the bimah for the bar and bat mitzvahs of three others.
So, how will I picture him? Well it’s not carrying a briefcase, or surrounded by briefs or being hypnotized by an ancient bookcase…but we’re getting closer.
The image I have of him that I like the most is probably 30 years old. It’s quite late, and I’m walking past his open bedroom door and see him standing, naked, in the middle of the bedroom, his hands clasped behind his back, watching Star Trek with fierce concentration. He’s happy. And I’m happy for him.
I suspect that many here today, certainly me, are a little bit stunned. It wasn’t surprising, and it’s not that the death was so big. It’s that suddenly you realize the life was so big.
Something must be done.
So, now, we are looking for ways to keep his memory alive and to honor him. But it’s important to do it through action not reverie—in which case, I want to suggest that there are many unmysterious ways to do this: Try harder. Pick an unpopular cause and fight for it. Find a way this year to extend the benefits of justice and fairness to one more person. Find a young person, invite them for Shabbat, and give them a hand up.
Keep doing all of that. Do it again. This way, when we think of Jerry Shestack, we will be making true the words of Robert Lowell, “In the end there is no end.”