by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Arthur Ocean Waskow, 79, director of The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive in Mt. Airy, is an author, political activist and rabbi associated with the Jewish Renewal movement. He received a bachelor’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University in 1954 and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Today (Nov. 1) would have been my brother Howard’s 76th birthday. Accompanying this article is a photograph that embodies what we meant when we wrote together a book called “Becoming Brothers.” Look especially at our hands: He is teaching me, I am teaching him. We are learning from each other. And our eyes: Loving each other.
Last year, my wife Phyllis (Rabbi Phyllis Berman) and I gathered in Portland with others of Howard’s far-flung family and many of his friends to celebrate his 75th birthday.
I had been slowly recovering from the ruination of my mouth by radiation treatment for a throat cancer, and using a stomach feeding tube to substitute for normal eating. As we headed for Portland, I had just begun to eat a little, still using the tube for most of my nutrition.
The birthday weekend was full of love and joy. Howard and his wife, Grey, both extraordinary cooks, cooked for all of us — so deliciously that for the first time I ate three meals a day and stopped using the tube. For me, a triumph of life restored, life renewed.
Howard seemed healthy. On the day we flew back home, he casually mentioned that his dentist had told him a lump in his mouth was not a dental problem: He should see a doctor.
By the time he did, and scheduled tests, and had a biopsy, on Dec. 23 he called me in the middle of the night to say, “Otts, I’m very sick. The doctors say I have a widely spread cancer.”
He died on January 23.
As Howard lay dying, he worked feverishly to finish a book, “Homeward Bound: Seeking Satisfaction in the Family,” about family, drawing on the family he was born into and the families he joined in creating; the families his psychotherapy clients talked about; and the families in great literature, ranging from Hamlet to William Faulkner’s Benjy. The book is brilliant, eloquent, and helpful to anyone who is struggling with family woes.
Dying, Howard asked me to carry the book through to publication. I did. With the help of a special grant, we can now make it, and the earlier book we wrote together, “Becoming Brothers,” available to the public as a thank-you present for any gift to The Shalom Center of $49 or more.
Why are we doing this? Because both books are a teaching toward one aspect of “shalom” that is sacred in Jewish thought, “shalom bayit,” a peaceful home; Because the two of us joked with each other that like two football heroes in the Baltimore Colts of our youth, I was “Mr. Outside,” seeking shalom in the wide world, while he was “Mr. Inside,” seeking shalom in the family.
Because it is how I can honor Howard’s memory in a way that would have pleased him and does please me.
Many many thanks! And blessings of shalom to you: in your inner life, in your family, and in the great wide world.
At Howard’s funeral service, in a shaky voice — two shaky voices, in ghostly dialogue — I sang:
Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
Do not let this parting grieve thee,
For remember that the best of friends
Must part, must part…
And now we see him nevermore, nevermore;
He never knocks upon our door, on our door;
Oh, woe is me; he penned a little note,
And these were all the words he wrote:
Oh, dig my grave both wide and deep, wide and deep;
Put tombstones at my head and feet, head and feet,
And on my breast you may carve a turtle dove,
To signify I died with love.
For more information or to obtain a copy of “Homeward Bound: Seeking Satisfaction in the Family,” contact www.theshalomcenter.org; firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-844-8494. Rabbi Waskow’s newest book, “Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia,” was co-authored with his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publications).