REMEMBERING BARBARA BRENNER
As I was scrambling around yesterday to get ready to come down for this service, my hand fell on this button that Barbara was handing around at one phase of her illness. It says, “I am. BB” She IS. She WAS. She WILL BE. Oh my goodness, yes.
I had the great honor of being not only Barbara’s friend but also her rabbi for the last decade-plus. And since I am quite sure that every one of us here is aware of Barbara’s powerful, uncompromising, fearless life of advocacy, I thought I would share a bit of another, softer side of Barbara that I treasured.
But first: Barbara was raised in Baltimore, the third of seven children of Morton and Betty Brenner. Her five living siblings, Joe, Mark, Nanci, Rick and Larry are all here. Their eldest sister, Ruth, died several years ago, also of ALS. Barbara was a Smithie, then went to graduate school at Princeton, where she came out as a lesbian and soon after, 38 years ago, met and partnered with Susie Lampert. They moved to Los Angeles. Barbara worked with the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU and decided to become a lawyer. She received her law degree from Boalt Hall in Berkeley. She had a distinguished practice, primarily dealing with employment discrimination and civil rights cases. Then at age 41 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which focused her passions and gifts. She joined the board of Breast Cancer Action and a year later became the Executive Director. She retired from BCA in 2010, a few months earlier than planned, because she was already contending with early symptoms of ALS.
I first met Barbara and Susie at High Holy Day services up in Mendocino, where I live, neither Susie nor I can remember exactly when. I loved them both at first meeting and began to visit whenever I could. And I would say that initially I really got to know Susie better than Barbara. Or maybe the Barbara I knew then was who was available for me to know at the time: I may have learned a little more at their dining room table about breast cancer policy scandals and various venal characters who stood in the way of honest prevention and treatment than I had actually asked about.
Still, the three of us had a standing coffee date every year the morning after each High Holy Day service. And Barbara (and Susie too) would gently but precisely question me about what I had said the day before in my little talks. I was always surprised and chastened a bit by how seriously and precisely Barbara listened to and thought about what I said — and that stayed true to the last day of her life.
Because I stayed at their house when I visited, I woke up in the mornings to Barbara practicing the piano each day before she left for work. I think she took up learning the piano well into her adulthood, and she was very serious about it (what wasn’t Barbara serious about?) She continued to play the piano long after she could no longer speak or locomote very well, until her hands would no longer let her span the keys. When she could no longer travel to her piano lesson, her teacher came to her.
This got me to thinking about all that Barbara listened to these past three years, because listening became important in new ways to her throughout her years of illness.
She loved loved loved the music of Debbie Friedman, and later of Alisa Fineman. I would get occasional e-mails like this one, from May 6, 2011:
Subject: I’m listening to Debbie Friedman sing L’chi Lach
and thinking about the blessings in my life. I count you among them.
Shabbat shalom, dear Margaret.
or this one a couple of weeks later, when their elevator was being installed:
Subject: The sawing is loud, and the hammering louder . .
Date: May 20, 2011 11:11:19 AM PDT
as I keep turning Debbie Friedman’s “And You Shall Be a A Blessing” recording up so I can hear it.
Wishing you a lovely and peaceful Shabbat.
In fact, this past Friday, the day that Barbara died, just a couple of hours earlier Susie and I took a little walk to buy some eggs. Susie had been — among so many other things — Barbara’s personal DJ, keeping up with playing music that Barbara wanted to hear. On Friday her choices were classical. We were in the parking lot of the Whole Foods when Susie’s phone beeped: a text from Barbara: what music had Susie put on before we left?
A piece of old unfinished business that Barbara and I took care of after she became ill was giving her a Jewish name. For years she had come up to the Torah as Barbara bat Morton v’Betty, and we had said now and again that, while this is a fine name, she might enjoy taking on a more spiritual-sounding ritual name. Lots of back-and-forth about what that name might be, until a day after she and Susie had returned from their beloved Yosemite. Barbara said that while there she had — I can’t remember the exact words — but stood near one of the great waterfalls and become blissfully aware of the individual droplets of water raining down, that she felt, or wanted to feel, like one of those little flying, floating molecules. From which conversation emerged the name Shefa, which has nothing to do with water but with the abundant, cascading generosity of the divine.
Something so tiny and silent about a single droplet of mist amidst the roar of the all of it… the new name was a side of Barbara that I think became more, well, audible as her physical voice receded.
On Thursday we said a prayer that is customary to say before death. It speaks of the soul finding its eternal rest in the garden of Eden, under the wing of God. The next day, the day she died, I asked Barbara if there was anything else she wanted to ask or tell me. She typed me a note: what do you mean by the word “soul”?
There is probably a complicated theological answer to give, but what I said in that moment, which I didn’t know I knew, which I learned from Barbara, is that our souls, whatever they are, breathed into us at some unknown moment before we are born, are uniquely and distinctively ourselves. Our souls make us who we are. They animate our particular and unique being for whatever time we are given to be here in this world. There is only one BB soul, only one Shefa bat Morton v’Betty, only one drop in that waterfall that ever was, is or will be exactly and precisely her. And now the music has been played, and we have heard it, and we are blessed.