This past Monday night we heard the tragic news that my mother-in-law, Alice Kinberg, was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street and had succumbed to her injuries. She was 72. She had been living in Boise near her son, my brother-in-law, and his family for the past few years. Prior to that she had lived by us in Olympia and Bellevue.
When we heard the news, I flashed back to another time 23 years ago when I heard similar and equally distressing news: when Yohanna called me while I was at my cubicle—we were living in New York City at the time and I was working as a journalist—to tell me that her father Rabbi Myron Kinberg had died suddenly of a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 51.
At that time, Yohanna and I had just recently got together. We met in the fall of 1995, but we didn’t start dating until February, 1996. He died in April that year. I did have the opportunity to meet him, though, Yohanna and I had just recently taken a trip from Manhattan out to East Hampton where her father was serving a congregation, having left Eugene, Oregon about two years prior.
It was on that visit that I also first met Alice. The second time I would see her would be at her husband’s funeral.
Yohanna and I got engaged in the fall of 1997 and married a year later. This week we celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary. All this to say that my relationship with Alice exclusively spanned the time from when she lost her husband until her own life ended tragically on a street in Boise. I do not know her like her kids know her, or like her siblings (one in Portland, two in Israel) know her, or even those who were in community in Eugene with her for two decades know her.
Because of this, to me, Alice was a survivor. She survived the tragic premature death of her husband. But she not only survived that loss, but she survived an earlier life that was not the most comfortable. She was a refugee and an immigrant twice over. Born in Morocco, her first languages were Judeo-Arabic and French, a Jewish girl attending the Alliance Francaise (I always felt a tinge of pride when she complemented my French accent.) In the 1950s she fled with her family to Israel by way of France, when prospects for Jews in North Africa dimmed. A few years later she met Myron, a rabbinical student visiting Jerusalem, and after a short courtship they married and moved back to the United States, raising three children first in Cincinnati, then Topeka, then Eugene and finally New York.
For a good deal of time since Myron’s death we not only lived in close proximity, but under the same roof in a household that was, as Yohanna puts it, “multigenerational and multicultural.” For me this was both a tremendous blessing and, I will be honest, not without friction at times.
Her life itself was to me instructive: a gift and a challenge. Here was someone whose life experience was so different than mine (both Morocco and Oregon are worlds apart from the NY suburbs!), who I was now in deep and close relationship with. She up-ended almost every assumption I held. As a Sephardic Moroccan Jew everything from Jewish food to liturgy to ritual (Maimouna!) was new and unique and different. Her embrace of animals was something that took me time to adopt (we are inheriting two cats). And her extreme generosity with her stuff (and sometimes our stuff) would make me uncomfortable because it was so respectable and I knew I could never attain that level of giving and material detachment. And yet, over time, I have come to embrace all of this.
Alice had an out-sized presence, which now makes her absence that much more noticeable. I so deeply appreciated and admired not only how people were drawn to her, but how she received everyone with an open heart. She would made friends with anyone she would meet. And in every aspect of her being she was a teacher, to adults and children, to family, friends, and strangers, providing wisdom and inspiration.
And as a classroom teacher, she so effortlessly combined the formal and the informal, she had a command of such a wide breadth of knowledge. I remember an adult Hebrew class she taught at my congregation in which the content was maybe 10% Hebrew language and 90% whatever Alice would draw from the wealth and depth of her eclectic knowledge of Judaism and spirituality.
Alice was both deeply traditional and radically progressive. She had a love and respect for Jewish ritual and knew her way around traditional practice. (For a time she thought I was more traditional than I was and she went out of her way to defer to me until we set her straight.) And at the same time she could be stubborn and defiant, especially in the face of authority, both religious and secular, a quality that is to be admired, and, perhaps, exercised judiciously.
Mother-in-law jokes aside (and in this case they don’t really apply, the only thing that may come close is when we first met she looked at me, smiled, and said “I’ve always wanted red-headed grandchildren!”), the relationship between a person and their mother-in-law is an interesting one. We do not choose our families of origin, but we do choose our partners. But we don’t choose their families of origin either. Though, as someone said at a wedding I officiated earlier this year, “at a wedding, everyone gets married.” Alice and I were in each other’s lives for 23 years, as long I have been together with Yohanna. With my mother-in-law, her greatest quality and gift that I see in her, what I most appreciate about her, is that she raised the woman I eventually fell in love with and married and built my own family with. In all of her ways, Alice made Yohanna who she is.
In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we are introduced to our spiritual ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who are called to take a journey from the land that they know to a place they do not know. Their commitment is rewarded with the covenant, and a spiritual bond that will sustain them in their future. At one point, when Abraham laments the fact that he does not have an heir, the text reads, “God took him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And God added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And because he put his trust in God, it was reckoned to his merit.” (Genesis 15:5-6).
Alice loved her offspring–her three children and five grandchildren–fiercely. (While I mourn for myself and Yohanna, I also mourn for my kids.) And Alice’s offspring is more than just those eight. They are us, her in-laws, her nieces and nephews, friends, students, literally everyone she came into contact with—even those she met only once.
These words from Torah also remind me of more recent words of Hannah Szenes, the Hungarian-born partisan who died—75 years ago this week—after parachuting into Europe to fight in the resistance. She wrote, “There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
A survivor, I thought Alice was going to live forever, but life often has different plans for us. The stars are the future promise, and the stars are the past, lighting the way. Alice is of the stars now.
After Myron died, the grief I felt was the loss that comes from missed potential. I had only spent time with him once. And as Yohanna’s and my relationship deepened, here was someone beloved by the person I loved who I would never know. That loss–of “what might have been”–felt unique and different, as opposed to losing someone you know for a long time.
And yet, having lost another tragically and unexpectedly, albeit 23 years later, the same feelings also apply. I mourn for the Alice I knew, and I mourn for what the relationship might have been in the years to come. In just two months we will gather again to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah, the first family milestone in our shared journey of loss. I know she will still be there.
Zichrona L’veracha, May the memory of Alice Kinberg–aka Savta Haya–be for a blessing always.