Eulogy for Cantor Ralph Shlomo ben Mordechai v’ Rachel
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March 18, 2011
We have lost our cantor Ralph. We have lost a man whose life was a textbook for the word Mensch. We have lost a man who was a friend to all of us. We have lost a teacher...a man who taught us in so many ways. We have lost a voice; for many of us, the voice of our son’s or daughter’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the voice of a favorite Shabbat melody. We have lost a man who linked us to the roots of Ventura County’s Jewish community, who WAS the embodiment of Temple Beth Torah and the Ventura County Jewish Council…the historical memory of Jewish life in this county. We have lost an optometrist, the kind of eye doctor that people remember for decades, we have lost a kind, and humor-filled and caring soul. That is what we as a community have lost. But for Alan and Jerry, for Leonard, for Marilyn and Ethan and Marina, Sam and Ellie, for Nancy and Bethany and Karen, for Selma and the Dressler family, for the Moses’ family, and this extended family, what they have lost is so much more than the public man we mourn today. For there was no mistaking how the kindness, the neshama, the life of Ralph as a husband, a father and father-in-law, a grandfather, a brother in law, an uncle, enriched his family. Marilyn, our hearts surround you and your entire family, for we know…. we know… we know… what Ralph meant to you, and to your family, and we are forever grateful that you shared him with us.
Yet it would be a disservice to Ralph if our thoughts today were all about what we as a family and a community have lost. We have not truly lost; we have gained, we have gained so, so much from this man. We gained from his music, his teaching, his humor, we gained from his kindness, his energy, his folk dancing; we gained from his love, his rootedness to this community. He passed it all along to us. He did it because he loved us, he loved his family, his parents and his family heritage, he loved Pt. Hueneme, he loved being in the helping profession of optometry, he loved living Jewishly. There is no doubt that at times, Ralph’s love for us compromised his time at home with Marilyn, but we thank you Marilyn, for loving Ralph enough to let him be who he needed to be inside. We will only truly lose Ralph, if we—all of us-- don’t let his life be an inspiration to us for how we should strive to be. And that, I don’t believe, looking in your faces today, will ever happen.
Ralph taught us that being Jewish wasn’t a state of being, it was an activity. He was always in motion as a Jew. Being Jewish was folk dancing, and getting the bubbes in the circle as much as getting his beloved teens and pre-teens and those who were just learning to walk.
Ralph taught us that being Jewish was about singing, whether it was Yiddish, or Helfman, or Debbie Friedman, or Carlbach or Anatole or klezmer. Prayer and community were intertwined for Ralph, he made music and memory part of this sanctuary. How he loved this sacred space, and how he loved what goes on in this sacred mishkan. When he retired as our Cantor, when he reached 70 some 13 years ago, he didn’t disappear, because he was no longer on the bimah weekly. He took his place in the pews, because he was and had always been, part of the praying community of this congregation. He was here with us on Erev Shabbat, he was here with us on Shabbat mornings, in recent years with those who would pick him up and drive him here. That was what being Jewish was- actively living your Jewishness. Ralph loved and reveled in his Jewishness.
Ralph expressed his love of Judaism through his teaching. Whether it was preparation for Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or teaching for 60 years in our torah school, he conveyed to his students his love of Jewish living and his love of them, and that is why they loved him back. He encouraged his students, let them know how much he believed in them, and they did not disappoint him. We cannot begin to calculate the number of students whose lives Ralph touched. How many B’nai mitzvah, over 60 years of teaching, how many students did he introduce to the alef bet? How many songs did he bring back from kallot and shabbatonim through the 60s and 70s and 80s and teach us? I do not know his first student, I do not know his 100th student, but I do know his last student. His last student became a Bar Mitzvah last June. He honored his teacher Cantor Ralph by inviting him to make an aliyah to the torah. As Cantor Ralph ascended this bimah, I must admit, I was filled with emotion, because I knew that this represented his last student, after a lifetime of teaching. Last week, when this student was in tears to hear that his teacher was dying, I told him Ralph’s secret: the secret that when you teach, you live on in your students. That if he lived another 70 years, his teacher Cantor Ralph would live on, too. The truth is that all of us were Ralph’s students, and he lives in all of us.
Ralph belonged to us, but he belonged to his family, first and foremost. Coming to Ventura County as a 11 year old- a refuge from Berlin in 1938, he found himself surrounded by new family; the Zander family and his Uncle George, who had sponsored his family to get them out of Germany. His parents Martin and Rosa and older brother James focused their attention to settling into life in America, and life in southern California; in many ways Ralph was shielded from the reality of the life they left behind in Germany. Perhaps the greatest impact that being a refuge from Germany had on him was the inner drive to make sure that his life counted, and to make sure that the Judaism that was snuffed out there, thrived and was strengthened over here.
Now, Marilyn Rosenblum was all of 21, a freckled, round-faced, attractive young woman, when she and her friend Marsha left New York for work in Pt. Hueneme, in response to California’s teacher shortage. Marilyn’s sister Selma came to help the girls get settled; no sooner were they here than they went to the movies one night. When the lights came up, the couple seated near them asked where they were from; it was Mike Winagura, and his wife. “Come for coffee,” the Winaguras invited. “What?” The girls thought, “people invite strangers to their house for coffee in California?” It just so happened that the Winaguras had a neighbor; Bee Elisman, and Bee had a brother named Harold, and a friend named Ralph. She called Ralph, who dropped in to call on Marilyn and Marsha as they were setting up their new apartment. Turning on the California charm, he came over bearing melons, fruit that some of his patients in his new optometry office had brought him. Six months later, he proposed, not with melons, not with an engagement ring, but with a watch; as Marilyn explains, he wasn’t sure if she would accept, so he didn’t want to buy a ring! Some 56 years later, I think Ralph would agree that the ring he eventually bought was a good investment. Bee’s brother Harold, by the way, met Marilyn’s sister Selma, at Marilyn and Ralph’s wedding, but that would be Brian, Larry and Sharon’s story!
Those of us who have known Ralph just in the last decade or two knew a man of great energy and activity. Imagine Ralph in his 30s and 40s. Those were years in which he served on the Pt. Hueneme city council, was active in civic committees, worked to establish the Boys Club of Hueneme, and more. Alan recalls walking with his dad house to house, to get out the vote for him through 3 city council elections. Ralph and Marilyn lived across from the Community Center; his sons recalled that after meetings it wouldn’t be unusual to see Ralph and other community officials- the mayor, the chief of police, the school superintendent, sitting in their house having a drink with their dad. Hueneme was that small and that close of a community. Jerry would comment that, as a young teen, he could see the hard work of his father as a councilmember every time he would drive into Hueneme from Oxnard, and see the cleaned beaches, the painted buildings, the trash-free community parks. He felt proud of his dad’s accomplishments, that Ralph really was impacting his city for good. And everyone in Hueneme knew Dr. Moses—but likewise, Dr. Moses knew and cared about them. Yesterday, County Supervisor John Flynn posted a comment online recalling that in the 1960s Ralph had been one of very few voices to speak up against anti-integration laws that would forbid the selling of one’s home to people of other ethnicities. Among the things that Ralph’s family is proud of was that Ralph learned Spanish as a young man helping in the fields during World War II, when most of the men were gone in the service. This was not a common occurrence in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, for non-hispanics to bother to learn Spanish. It speaks to Ralph’s character, that he was not one to believe in the walls that separate people, he was the type of person who only saw opportunities to engage and draw people near, to make the world kinder, starting with himself.
Most week nights there were meetings-city meetings, temple meetings. In 1959, Ralph served as Temple president. His work which began with Rabbi Joe Glazer continued with Rabbi Herb Morris the next year. It was love at first sight- Herb and Ralph, and Judy and Marilyn. The Morris family became part of the extended Moses and Dressler families. For years and years after, there wasn’t a summer or winter that the Moses and the Morris’ weren’t vacationing somewhere, sharing Shabbat or havdalah at someone’s house, spending New Year’s Eve together, with Uncle Ralph making his German concoction of mulled wine for all. This wide, expanded rambling family gathered at Martin and Rosa house in Ventura, Oma and Papa’s yard held sukkahs and barbeques and laughter and love, and the very best of what family could and should be. Ralph loved and appreciated how blessed his life was- the closeness of his parents, the love of his wife Marilyn, the energy of his sons, the joy of his friendships. Ralph had a genial manner, a personality that emanated an automatic acceptance of you for whoever you were, and people responded to him- we responded to him. There were many good friends in his life, there was Herb Morris; who was so like Ralph in his ability to live Jewishly, their friendship was one that his children characterized as being like cross-pollination. And there was his big brother Jim, with whom he was close his entire life- Last year, when Jim died, Ralph would say to me, “when I was a boy, Jim would take my hand when I crossed the street- and that characterized our relationship throughout our life.” And there was his brother-in-law Harold Dressler, two men of equal character and ethical commitment, Harold and Ralph shared not just a life and a family, but an office throughout their careers. When Ann’s bakery opened down the street from their office, they walked down, taught the baker how to make Challah, and then brought home Challah each week for Shabbat! Harold and Ralph lived life together, and uncle Ralph and Aunt Marilyn was as much a part of Sharon and Brian and Larry’s life as Uncle Harold and Aunt Selma was a part of Larry, Jerry’s and Leonard’s life. Ralph appreciated the blessings in his life. In 1969 he and Marilyn took the boys to Israel, of what would be their first trip there- Ralph commitment to Israel was deep, and he went back another 5 or 6 times throughout his life. But on that first trip, he wrote this letter back to his parents from the plane as they took off, a letter which his family found recently and Alan transcribed in recent days:
Why am I so satisfied with my life? Everything has worked out so beautifully. I can truly greet each day with gratitude, and I do. I enjoy all my activity, be it the Temple, the Practice, the City, and above all, the family. And now, unbelievably, Israel. Only those who know me and love me best can comprehend what this will mean to me. This is your fulfillment in me -- you raised a little Jewish boy, who cries Jewish tears, and yearns for continuous identification with a people and a history. And this is all happening in the next few days. And, to experience this with my wife and children!"
Those words from 42 years ago, still describe the Ralph we have known for fourscore years. Ralph taught us how to greet each day with optimism, with humor, with the possibility of giving of ourselves to someone else, whether for him it was going to visit someone in the hospital and sing a few Yiddish songs, or to an optometry patient who couldn’t afford new glasses. His sense of himself so fully and completely Jewish, whose being was made whole through identification with his people and our history, an identity that strengthened and enlivened and was personified through this temple for seven decades. And finally, his joy of being with his family- his connection to Marilyn and his boys was always visible. Marilyn, you were Ralph’s rock- just as he was yours- so different in so many ways, yet you completed each other because of your love and admiration for who the other was and what the other was accomplishing with their life. And to his sons: those moments that WE saw, when Jerry, you might be sitting in the pew with your dad on yuntif, or Alan, here performing with the Ventura Klezmer Band at a Brotherhood brunch, or simchat torah- that we got to see Ralph’s obvious pride in all three of you; and to hear about Leonard and Bethany, and Sam and Ellie in Virginia. 42 years ago he wrote these words, as well, in that letter to his parents: “My actions toward my family- Marilyn and the boys- reflects the love and affection that you lavished on me. I feel deep down that with Marilyn’s help we are doing a good job—the values and sentiments that we demonstrate to our children are directly related to the warmth that you gave me (and then Marilyn) all my life.” Half a lifetime ago, Ralph knew that he was blessed and he lived each day, reflecting that blessing. It was contagious. He taught us how to carry that enthusiasm for all things family, all things community, all things Jewish. He taught us, even when he didn’t know he was teaching, his grandchildren Ethan and Marina, Ellie and Sam, his torah school students, the people he sat in meetings with, his colleagues. And as he taught, he inspired. Inspiration, like the human soul, lives on. Inspiration dies, not a physical death, for it is not tangible, inspiration dies only when the human soul neglects it. Ralph gave us so many gifts; our gift to him now, is to continue to be inspired by him. He belongs to all of us, every one of us has the memories and the moments when he taught and inspired. We never wanted to believe that this day would come, that Ralph would be gone. He has been the heart and soul of this community, the heart and soul of his family, forever. But what he has left us with is a legacy of love, acceptance, commitment to community above adversity, music and spirit. He gave us the blueprint for how to move forward into our future, and for this, he continues to be our teacher. Zichron Tzadik L’ivracha.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller