My Aunt Sarah was feisty, rebellious, outrageous, brilliant, and creative. She excelled in intellectual and literary circles decades before women were ever encouraged or accepted as academics; her stubbornness and her desire to live on despite seemingly insurmountable illnesses, disabilities, and losses compelled her to press forward when most anyone else would have called it quits. This is the Sarah I respected: the one who taught me to persevere, to challenge norms, to redefine what it means to be a "survivor."
But this is not the Sarah Blacher Cohen I wish to share with you today. In quiet moments, another (entirely different) Sarah emerged. This is the Sarah I loved. This Sarah was desperately afraid of dying, afraid her life had been meaningless and wasteful, afraid she hadn't made an impact on anyone or anything. She looked at herself and saw imperfection. In these last months of her life, those who knew and loved her kept half-waiting for her to spring back, just as she had done so many times before. We joked about co-writing a play with her about the comic-tragedy of her illness. We waited to see how she would pull together the unseen strength she kept hidden in the recesses of her heart for just these moments of seeming hopelessness.
But, in many ways, dying was the bravest thing Sarah has ever done. It was the one thing she fought against harder and longer than anything else in her life. We read in the final book of the Torah, "U'bakharta b'chayyim—Choose life!" Upon hearing that she had died, I told a friend, "my Aunt Sarah didn't just choose life, she took a lasso and wrung it around Life and dragged Life toward her." Dying seemed antithetical to everything Sarah had been, everything she seemed to desire.
In her death, Sarah remains my greatest teacher about life. Sarah Blacher Cohen, the playwright, the scholar, the professor, the historian, the trailblazer did not die this week. What died this week is the fear, pain, and suffering she lived with silently for decades. The imperfect, mortal body died this week. My Aunt Sarah lives on. [End Page 244]
Underneath her iron will, Sarah was soft, playful, loving, devoted, and giving. She loved listening to classical music, eating See's lollipops, speaking in Yiddish, singing old folk tunes, and spending time with Gary. Gary was the cherished love of her life. She loved her brothers and sisters, her nieces and nephews, her students, her colleagues, and her friends. She loved her work. She loved her life.
There is a Jewish tradition that says we help elevate the soul of the deceased when we do acts of goodness in their memory. I ask that we remember the whole Sarah—the Sarah she often did not allow us to see—the Sarah who was at once strong and fearful; determined and pessimistic; playful and professional.
Sarah was my great aunt, my grandmother's youngest sister. Maybe because my grandma helped to raise Sarah as a little girl—or maybe because Sarah and I shared more in common than anyone else in our family—our relationship was profound and sacred in a way that is impossible to quantify. A few years ago, she wrote me a letter, telling me that I was like the daughter she never had. And, in many ways, I am her progeny. She gave me a love of learning and a love of living.
I recently came upon a poem that I believe Sarah would have loved. It is called, "The Converse of Making Light":
You ask: "What goes faster than light?"I know, sure as day follows night.It's the inverse of spark,that old demon Dark,It always gets there first, alright?
May her memory be for a blessing. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. [End Page 245]
Julie Pelc Adler is Rabbi and Director of Jewish Student Life at Santa Monica College Hillel. She also serves as the Director of the Berit...