In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Ira Eisenstein, z"l

Remarks at Dr. Eisenstein’s Funeral By Rabbi George B. Driesen
July 1, 2001

Late in the afternoon on Thursday a shadow flicked across the face of the sun. A precious light on loan to the Jewish people, to the Reconstructionist Movement, to Adat Shalom Congregation, and for almost ninety-five years to the Eisenstein and Kaplan families, was extinguished. So here we are together in this beautiful place, where just a few short weeks ago, Ira Eisenstein delivered an uplifting, perfect gem of an oration invoking the number 120 to locate the dedication of our sanctuary in the stream of Jewish history. We have come here to comfort one another by remembering a few of the great gifts that emanated from this man throughout the wonderfully long and productive life with which he and we were blessed, gifts to his family, gifts to us in the Reconstructionist Movement, and gifts to the members of Adat Shalom, whom he blessed with his presence as Senior Scholar and teacher during the last six years of his life.

When I heard the baleful news that Ira had had a "massive heart attack" Horatio's words when he saw that Hamlet was no more came immediately to mind: "there cracks a noble heart." Nobility. Uprightness, dedication to his people, brilliance, wisdom, unflagging dignity, commanding instant respect, these were the outward marks of the man not just in his later years but from very early on, as I who first intimately encountered him and his family over a half century ago, vividly recall. I remember the lucidity of his words which even as a youngster I sensed stemmed from the integrity of his thinking and the complete candor with which he spoke. I saw then, and later, and now have heard from Ira’s daughters, Miriam and Anne, the love he shared with Judith, the only woman he ever loved and wanted, and whom he almost missed marrying because he was so shy. They were, and I’m quoting his children, "absolutely a team." Literally, they made beautiful music together, as I know from first hand experience as a confirmand singing and declaiming the jewel-like cantatas they wrote. It is a measure of Ira’s optimism, indeed, his faith, that in 1948, while the War of Independence raged in Israel and no one could foresee the outcome, the cantata they wrote for our class was based entirely on the text:

/ubhekj cuy vn /ubhrat

/ubh,aurh vph vnu 'ubhkrud ohgb vn

"We are fortunate. How good is our portion. How lovely is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance."

Ira's inheritance was remarkable. His grandfather was Judah David Eisenstein, a well known Hebrew writer and scholar who lived to be over a hundred. Ira's parents, Isaac and Sadie Eisenstein, Miriam says, thought Ira walked on water even before he could walk at all. Ira's brilliance and integrity caught the eye of Mordecai Kaplan, the great genius who founded our movement. Kaplan chose Ira as his assistant, and all the world knows Kaplan chose wisely and well. For his part, Ira gleaned tremendous satisfaction from the very long association with what Kaplan's grandchildren call Ira's "brilliant, frustrating father-in law." Judith, as I am sure virtually everyone in this room knows, was Kaplan's oldest daughter.

Together Judith and Ira built a private fortress, filled with love, music and laughter. A fortress because Ira and Judith's first child, Ethan Jacob Eisenstein, was born so afflicted that he has spent his entire life in an institution. A fortress because having a world renowned genius as a father-in-law and working associate could have wreaked havoc not only with Ira and Judith but with their children as well. But it did not; Miriam and Ann tell me they never felt the slightest obligation to live up to Kaplan's lofty ambitions, but, thanks largely to Ira's complete acceptance of their life choices, felt free to follow their own paths.

The Eisenstein's home was a fortress because at one point in their lives the family picked up and left New York, and the S.A.J., where half the congregation was related to the Eisensteins in one way or another, and where everyone accepted Reconstructionism and most everyone was highly intellectual or aspired to be, and moved to a midwestern city. There Ira served a congregation that rejected not only his Reconstructionism but his vision of a synagogue life embodying the culture, religion, values, and ethics of the Jewish people and even his personal style as a rabbi. Judith and the children suffered, too, not least because their ties with friends and relatives were necessarily attenuated; in short they were lonely.

Ira was a wonderful parent, his children attest. Ever ahead of his time, Ira was a participating father, who chauffered the children and romped with them. He was, believe it or not, a hilariously funny, often times silly man at home which endeared him to his children and to his grandchild, Aaron Johnson. Ira had a penchant for absurdity. He amused the children with absurd jokes, stories, and games. Ira was a great ham, and would say something absolutely absurd, but with a completely dead-pan expression on his face. Sometimes, Judith, who for all her brilliance was a trifle ingenuous, would start to argue. For example, once when the family was discussing buying a cat, Ira said "we can’t buy a cat. It will eat all the birds." Judith sputtered, "but we have no birds." Ira and the kids responded "kerplunk" which signified that Judith had been caught again, and everyone dissolved into gales of laughter, tears rolling down their cheeks.

As I mentioned, the house was filled with music. Ira was a lover of Gilbert and Sullivan and liked to sing the many numbers, including some of the patter songs, he knew by heart. Judith and Ira (who was a something of a cellist) often played duets. Later Ann, who is a violinist, joined in. And of course everyone sang Jewish songs.

When Ann presented Ira with a grandson, Aaron, the two became great pals. Besides the jokes and the games, Ira and Aaron shared a love of baseball and, assuredly to please his grandson, Ira switched allegiance from the Yankees to the Mets and would pretend that Aaron was one or another of the Met stars when Aaron practiced his hitting at a nearby batting cage. They went on walks together in the country, and Ira played chamber music with Aaron who played the violin. Ira's rabbinic stature never interfered with his and Aaron's, carefree, private delight in one another. Love and acceptance, that was the key thing in Ira's world, the family agrees. So it's hardly surprising that a while ago Ira remarked that he had equalled Kaplan in that he, too, had four daughters: Miriam and Carol, Anne and Judy.

We know what a wide ranging curiosity and a fine intellect Ira had and how deeply knowledgeable he was. With Judah Eisenstein and Mordecai Kaplan for models, and Judith by his side, it is hardly surprising that he maintained high standards for himself and others. Accuracy in Hebrew and English usage, in quotation, and in ritual were important to him. For example, those of us who were privileged to share shabbat evenings with him remember fondly his gentle but persistent insistence that when we join in a brachah we not recite "amen," since it was redundant, and we have determined to follow his teaching in his honor and because it was right. Careless thought and factual errors made him wince. As an architect of the Reconstructionist Revolution, he welcomed liturgical and ritual innovation, but he was deeply pained by changes that offended Reconstructionist principles.

For me, he was a living library and never failed to come up with an accurate answer to my questions about Jewish sources. He had a remarkable memory, especially for distant members of his family, friends, colleagues, students, congregants----for people because, contrary to the impression some drew from his reserved manner, he loved people. He loved natural wonders and technology, too. Decades before one appeared on the market, Ira invented the idea of an electric toothbrush and argued that whoever developed it could make a fortune. For years, he had wanted to become computer literate. But Judith wisely dissuaded him, rightly suspecting that if he did that he would spend far less time with her and with the other members of the family. After she died, however, Ira bought a computer and asked Carol to teach him how to use it. She gave him one day’s instruction and he was off and running, corresponding with former students and friends, keeping up with the news in Israel and here, studying classic Jewish texts, doing research that he could not do in what remained in his personal library. Truly an amazing feat, for he was then in his 89th year. Many of my contemporaries (and I am almost three decades younger than he) have never learned to use a computer because it came along too late for them; their minds had already ossified. Not Ira's.

You might not think it, but Ira was an enormously persuasive advocate, for the Jewish people, for Reconstructionism, for the dream of an American Judaism nourished by the culture and example of a reborn Israel. He did not advocate as some do, with fiery passion and a mellifluous, intoxicating torrents of words that stop up the intellect and galvanize the limbic system. Rather he taught, he explained the ideas that under girded his faith with such clarity and grace that no one could misunderstand him. His manner and his bearing contributed to another amazing attribute of Ira's. He was a consummate peacemaker. Time and again I have watched with wonder how, in the midst of a noisy acrimonious debate at a meeting or convention, Ira would raise his hand. When he rose to speak a hush would descend, and all would listen with rapt attention as he, often, recast the tendentious issues and spelled out a position to which all sides soon adhered. Ira was so brilliant, so steeped in our literature and the best thinking of our secular culture, that he blessed everyone he met along life's way with insight and understanding. Time and time again, as I have moved around the country I have met people upon whom Ira made a lasting impression. Some have joined the movement in one capacity or another. Others have not. But repeatedly they conveyed to me how clear, inspiring and exciting his teaching and his presence had been. And, if I my be permitted a personal note, Ira's impact upon me when I was a young adolescent was so profound that I determined to follow in his footsteps, an ambition which, after a false start forty-seven ago, I finally and happily fulfilled a little over two years ago.

I leave to others the privilege of explaining the debt the rabbis Ira mentored and trained owe him. I can only add on good authority that except for the nachas he took from his family, nothing meant more to him than his beloved students who vindicated all his life's work and efforts and in his later years showered him with visits, letters, messages, and above all their accomplishments.

I hope I may be permitted to speak as a member of Adat Shalom, which I have been since its founding, and try to convey to you what his presence in our midst has meant during these years. It is astounding that in his nineties Ira drew around him a new set of, if I may be permitted to use the expression, Hasidim from this synagogue who went faithfully virtually every week to his apartment to learn Reconstructionism, humash with Rashi, perkay avot and much, much more. It is a tribute beyond measure to his incredible vitality even in the face of the ravages of his infirmities and to his enormous intellect that he could prepare for and teach these classes, and thereby energize this wonderful group of new followers. At the same time, we who knew him from long ago were able to gather atthe rebbes tisch after services to imbibe his wisdom and share his memories. It was a gift beyond compare, and we shall be eternally grateful that he was spared so long--and grateful, too, to Sam Tawiah and Enoch Addo, the blessed caregivers who accompanied him and saw to his needs everywhere. They enabled his existence to continue to be a life and us to be bathed in the light of his presence. When Ira died, Sam, who was with the family in the hospital room, cried. I shall never forget his tears. They were living testimony to the power of godliness in the universe, the power to which Ira gave unswerving devotion all his long, long life.

On behalf of all assembled here, and those who were unable to come, I extend my condolences to Ira's wonderful family. We share their sorrow as we shared in the great blessing that was his life. In Shakespeare's words "take him all in all he was a man. I shall not look upon his like again."