This week's portion: Choice and change
Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)

About Oscar

Oscar at my wedding; Lenox, Masschusetts, 1998.

Oscar Ehrenberg used to invite me over for dinner when I was a kid. This was a particular treat when my parents were traveling; Oscar and his wife Millie, who lived just a few blocks away, would invite me to join them as though I were an adult who could make plans for herself. Reminiscences like these aren't what I usually post here -- but sometimes I just need to say these things, aloud where someone else will hear them. To help me remember. To create a record.

Oscar was born in what is now Slovakia in 1930. He died on Thursday in his own home, surrounded by friends and family, and the impact of his passing continues to ripple through the universe of those who knew and loved him well.

Oscar was witty and handsome -- as this article in the Express-News notes, a bon vivant. He and Millie reared their children alongside my parents' children, kept me company during my parents' travels, sometimes even accompanied my folks on those travels (the multimedia slide show on that Express-News page features a shot of my father and Oscar visiting China back in the early 1980s, when travel to "communist China" was adventurous and rare.)

As a boy, he spent two years in Auschwitz. I remember the tattoo on his forearm, and though he never spoke with me about that part of his life, I know it shaped him. He worked tirelessly to further causes of social justice.  In 1994 he spearheaded a community effort in San Antonio to aid the victims of genocide in Rwanda. (As the newspaper article recounts, "'I saw people starving,' he said. 'I had starved once. I didn't think we could simply do nothing.'")

When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, everyone grieved -- except, I think, Oscar himself. My mother recounts that when he was first hospitalized, my parents' rabbi stopped in to pay a pastoral care visit -- and he was thrown, graciously but firmly, out on his ear! Oscar didn't want to be ministered-to; he didn't want to be treated like an invalid. He wanted to keep living.

And he did, for longer than anyone had expected. Pancreatic cancer isn't something we can defeat, but even as the illness circumscribed his actions he found things to enjoy. Oscar savored fine wine, good food, and time with his family and friends -- even once the days came when a lunch date tired him out completely.

Mark Freedman, the executive director of Jewish Federation of San Antonio, wrote: "I will always remember his optimism, to the very end he was planning the next day and what good could be done with that day if you believed you could make a difference. Oscar always made a difference." And the whole community knew it, too -- more than a thousand people poured into my parents' congregation for his funeral.

The last time I saw him was in May of 2006. He and Millie came to my parents' house for hors d'oeuvres and a drink. I was shocked to see him so thin, his bones jutting so sharply -- looking, suddenly, like the Shoah survivor it's so easy for me to forget that he had been. I told him about my chaplaincy work, hoping that he would talk with me about his illness. But he resisted my attempts to steer the conversation in that direction. He didn't want to talk about sickness or death. He wanted to hear about my life in western Massachusetts, about the work and travel my husband was doing, about the things I enjoy in the ordinary moments of my life.

I learned a lot from Oscar, both about how to live and how to die. He taught me how precious our time here is, and how important it is that we each find a way to balance the call to heal the broken world with the need to live mindfully, and joyfully, through the duration of our days. I miss him already.

My father, and Oscar, and me. May 2006, San Antonio.

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