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“What’s next?” Writing Our Legacy

Rabbi Jodie Gordon

Yom Kippur Morning 5777

October 13, 2016

My grandpa Lou loved to tell stories.

Whether to a captive audience of 1 or to a big roomful of people- he loved to weave a tale- of his days as a boy cantor singing with Yossele Rosenblatt, of how he helped to bring professional basketball to Syracuse with the Syracuse Reds, and he especially liked to tell stories of the practical jokes he and friends would play on one another.

My grandmother, Ruth, was a professional writer, and while less inclined to set herself center stage in a social setting, she had a remarkable way with words. Between the years of 1942 and 1989, my grandparents, Ruth and Lou Gordon, collectively wrote close to 100 pages— essays and letters, most of which were personal reflections and reminiscences.

My grandfather, somewhat of a lovable narcissist, published his first in 1987. The plastic binding and ivory card stock cover bear the title “The Life and Times of Lou Gordon”, with a rather stern looking photo of the man himself. Truly, his writing captures an extraordinary swath of history. His writing is self-referential and self-effacing all at the same time- he zooms in on the particulars of his life against the backdrop of World War II, of life on Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s, and eventually, his writing ends with his retirement in the early 1980’s, which is when he decided to collate and publish his writings. Twenty years later, when he died at the age of 93, he was adept at using a computer, using AOL and email to communicate with his children and grandchildren across the country.

My grandmother didn’t compile and publish her own collection of essays and writings until a couple of years later. Her book accounts for only 28 of those collective 100 pages. Where my grandfather was prolific, my grandmother used an economy of words—where he had the propensity to become grandiose, my grandma Ruth’s words were often subtler, more nuanced, and more reflective about the world around her. She was educated and well-read, and often wove the words of her favorite authors and poets into her own writing. The lilac cover of her book bears no picture of her, though she was a beautiful woman.

The title is printed in an elegant but simple script: “My Mother was a lady, and other thoughts” by Ruth J. Gordon. Like my grandpa, she begins with a preface— a disclaimer of sorts, reminding the reader that this

“is not an autobiography but since I write about people, places and things in my life, it may be perceived as such. This collection is for all of you, with love, from your wife, mother and grandmother. I dedicate this book to my husband and to all my children, and their children, present and future.”

Now, even years after their deaths, I find myself drawn to these books every so often. I look at the world around us, and wonder how Lou and Ruth Gordon would have made sense of what we see going on. In his later years, my grandfather had a real sense of wonder and awe about progress. Whether it was his first time successfully using email, or his first encounter with a female rabbi, he would look at us with a twinkle in his eye, shaking his head and ask “What’s next?” I hear his voice in my head often these days, asking “what’s next?”— but that awe is complicated. It’s mixed with a touch of fear. Just as my grandfather reacted to progress with awe and fear, the approach to Yom Kippur is filled with those same feelings.

Our tradition offers us many pathways into Yom Kippur— it is first, a day of atonement. A day to rebalance and recalibrate our relationships through the act of teshuvah. It’s a day to confess— to say out loud the ways we have missed the mark, to take responsibility for both our personal and communal wrong-doing. Yom Kippur is nothing less than a dress rehearsal for our own deaths. The wisdom of our tradition is that we don’t rehearse our deaths annually in order to be morbid. Rather, we confront death in order to help us get better at the task of living.

In 1987, my grandfather was 73 years old, and my grandmother was a lady, who didn’t share her age. They were retired, or nearly retired– they had raised their children, and now had four grandchildren. I would imagine that unlike the death-defying days of youth, my grandparents had begun to consider their own mortality.

They set their sights on something new: securing their legacy– writing it, in fact, for themselves. The concern with legacy is rife within our tradition as well as our popular culture. I don’t know for sure whether my grandparents would have used the term, but these two books are nothing short of an ethical will. They are a rich inheritance for their children and grandchildren.

The strong desire to leave behind something tangible, words by which to be remembered trace back to when our patriarch Jacob was dying. He gathered his sons to offer them his blessing and to request that they bury him not in Egypt, but return his body to the land of his ancestors. We see examples of this type of instruction throughout the Torah- in many ways, we can look to the entirety of the Book of Deuteronomy as an ethical will, as Moses gives his people, his children, their final instructions before they cross over into the promised land, leaving him behind.

Through the middle ages, ethical wills became a unique literary category, popular within the Jewish community. Most often written by fathers to their children, they were also sometimes composed by aged teachers to their students. Written in old age, they were composed in a personal style, intended solely for the private use of their children and relatives, or in some cases a beloved student. They provided a glimpse into the writers innermost thoughts and feelings- expressing their fears, hopes, and dreams.

Some, like the one written by Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms (about 1050) show a strong concern for justice:

“Think not of evil,” says Eleazar, “for evil thinking leads to evil doing…. Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul…. Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.”

Others, like the will of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, the translator, (about 1190) were more poetic in nature:

“Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds.”

One can imagine Eleazar of Worms, and Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon sitting down to write, pausing before setting about the task of writing these final words for their children and grandchildren to read. So much of what is recorded in these ethical wills is reflective of the contexts in which they were written. In his lifetime, Eleazar of Worms saw great suffering as the Crusades raged in Europe; amidst the violence and hatred, he offered up words of peace and comfort, and a reminder to share of our bounty with others. Ibn Tibbon too knew unrest and discord in his life, leaving his native Spain during the Almohad persecutions and resettling in Lunel, France. Knowing the experience of being unsettled— he encourages his children to find respite in words.

In 1942, five years before she would meet and marry my grandfather, my grandmother, penned this poem, which she entitled “A Prayer for Mankind”:

If I could wake and find this all a dream Not death, but joyful life in every hold From every side love sends his glowing beam Then love and joy would fill this world of old. Then earth’s children could make their troubles fly And all join hands to watch their sorrows die.

I imagine her as a young woman—looking out the window of the apartment she lived in with her family on the Upper West Side, writing these words in a year which saw the opening of three major concentration camps in Europe, the year in which 13 year old Anne Frank first wrote in her diary, and her family went into hiding. Surely, her sense of urgency was immense. Seeing the news of the world unfolding around her, I imagine her own fears at the starkness of it all: of war, and death, of life. And so she did what knew to do best: she found words to hold her pain, and her hopes. Years later, she passed those words on to me, perhaps knowing all too well that they would prove relevant in my own lifetime.

Yom Kippur pushes us to consider the outer limits of our imaginations— the “what ifs” that we most often push aside, out of sheer necessity. But on this day, we confront those “what ifs”— and we make spiritual preparations. This day of heightened spiritual awareness feels more pressing than ever— today it is our soul at stake. In the year ahead, it is the soul of our country, and our world.

What if this was our last chance to say what really mattered to those we love? These Days of Awe give us every opportunity to imagine that reality— the exercise of writing an ethical will has the potential to be an extraordinary spiritual tool: a way of giving language to the morals and values we strive to embody, and that we hope to pass on to future generations.

As I am sure is true for many in this sanctuary today, it is hard not to look at my daughters these days, and wonder how in God’s name I will explain about this time in our history.I imagine Lola and Goldie one day reading about this election, and asking how it could be that women were never more empowered or degraded at the same time. I imagine them reading about Aleppo, about the refugees and little boys named Aylan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, and wondering why no one did anything? I imagine them learning the names Keith Scott, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and looking at me in disbelief— that was 2016?! Perhaps closer to the heart of our own family story, I imagine them learning about the terror and fear that human beings on both sides of the separation barrier in Jerusalem experience— both Israeli Jews, and Palestinians. I imagine them reading about the late Shimon Peres, and wondering why none of it was enough to make peace, even now?

How will we explain this unique time in our history, when (to quote a colleague) “the most powerful people in the world, were convinced of their own powerlessness?” I want to have something better to tell my daughters. I want you to have something better to tell your children and their children, when they ask us— as they certainly will, how we navigated this enormous moment in history.

Yom Kippur pulls back the cosmic curtain between heaven and earth, revealing that even the angels themselves are filled with awe and dread on this day. As the Divine hand moves to scribe the names of each soul in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, we are left to take pen to paper and scribe the Book of our own Remembrance.

Imagine with me for a moment, that blank page.

The paper itself will transcend time and space—- today, it is you who writes the words, for generations to come, who you may never meet. It’s planting seeds in a garden you may never see. [1]

To whom would you address your letter? To your children? To your spouse? To your teacher? Your friend? What would you pass on? What values would live to see another generation through your words?

These are big questions, to be sure.

And there’s no time like the present to try answering them.

Dear Lola and Goldie:

Today is Yom Kippur, 5777. Lola, you are nearly 2.5 years old, and Goldie, you are just 5 months old. I am so grateful that you are not aware of the turmoil and pain that the world is holding these days.

I have never been more acutely aware of the passing of time than I have since becoming your mother: and it’s true what they say— the days are long and the years are short.

Similarly, my dreams for the lives I hope you will lead and the world I pray you will inhabit are massive— but right now, my advice for you on how to get there is rather simple.

I can say it to you in English, I can say it to you in Hebrew, and I can say it to you in Pig Latin if that would make you smile— and it’s this:

V’ahavata l’reyecha kamocah. Love your fellow human being as you yourself are loved. Which is to say, more than the moon and stars and back again.

In other words, be kind.

I could offer you a laundry list of advice about how to do this—some of which I am not very good at taking myself. If I can teach you just one thing in my own lifetime- about how to be in this world as women, as Jews, as human beings, it is just that: be kind. Love your neighbor as yourself— love your neighbor even when they are nothing like yourself.

As the saying goes: this is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary, let’s study it together.


My grandfather’s question echoes in my heart, wondering, “What’s next?”

The truth is, none of us really knows.

Though our tradition tells us B’Rosh Hashanah yichateivun, u’vYom Tzom Kipuur yeichateimun—- On Rosh Hashanah it was written, and today on Yom Kippur it is sealed, unfortunately, we don’t get to read the book ahead of time. Uncertainty is a prerequisite to living. And so we write. Each day of our lives unfolds as a new part of the story, we write new chapters as we grow and change, and the world around us changes too. Today we have the opportunity to write a new page in that Sefer Zikhronot— that Book of Remembrance.

What choice do we have but to plant seeds in gardens that we may never see grow?

Ours is the opportunity to decide how we will be remembered, and what we will hand down to the generations that come after us. Ours is the privilege to enliven the memories of those who came before us. Ours is the privilege to speak wisdom, to craft a legacy of kindness for generations to come.

May each of us merit to see our world fulfilled through acts of love and kindness.

[1] Lyric from Hamilton. . “The World Was Wide Enough”


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