The Thing Is Very Close to You
This is my favorite quote from Torah:
“Surely, this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day is not too extraordinary for you, nor is it beyond reach,” Moses tells us. “It is not in the heavens, that you should say ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?’.... No, the thing is very close to you—in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
I first fell in love with this passage when I was giving a drash on Parashat Netzavim at my synagogue in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This quote comes from Moses’ famous “choose life” speech, and in my drash I spoke about how we choose the kind of person we want to be, how we choose all of our actions. Since then I’ve tried to figure out why these words from Moses move me so much. Part of my attraction to them has to do with the idea that everything we need is very close to us; it’s a part of us. When I was a kid, I’d watch The Wizard of Oz wide-eyed year after year when it appeared on television each spring; part of my fascination with the film (besides the flying monkeys) was that Dorothy searched so hard for what she needed, when all along it was right with her. So this passage from Torah resonates with me, certainly, on that level: We have all the tools we need—to make our own lives better and to make the world a more peaceful place for those around us. In this way we choose who we are by trying to do what is right.
But this passage also compels me because of the line “the thing is very close to you.” The word “thing” especially draws me in. It’s so vague yet so vast. What is this “thing” Moses describes?
I didn’t fully realize the power of this passage—or what this “thing” might be—until I became friends with Dr. David Neiman, a man who changed my outlook on the world and my identity. I met Dr. Neiman through his daughter, my good friend Becky. I wasn’t raised in a Jewish tradition, although I had known for years, deep inside, that I was Jewish through and through. All along there had been a light burning inside me, but when I made the choice to become Jewish, the light burned even brighter. This is why later I chose for myself the Hebrew name Orly, which means “my light.” After I decided to become Jewish, I spoke to Becky about it, and she immediately said, “You have to meet my father!” In fact, she said it about a dozen times in the course of our conversation. I hesitated—actually, I put her off for close to six months. I’d always been intimidated by meeting my friends’ parents. And I had an irrational fear of older people (Dr. Neiman was around eighty at the time), because I confused them somehow with death and illness. I thought Becky’s father, a Conservative rabbi and Jewish scholar, would judge me—a feisty, tattooed (oy) gentile (oy again) from a broken family (triple oy). Looking back now, it all seems so ridiculous.
After I’d been studying Judaism for several months and meeting with my rabbi on a regular basis, I finally mustered the courage to meet Dr. Neiman, or Dr. N, as I like to call him. I attended a lecture he delivered called “Jesus the Jew” in a bank building in Studio City. Dr. N was well known in the field of comparative religion—in fact, he made history in 1966 at Boston College when he became the first tenured Jewish theology professor at a Catholic university in the United States.
Dr. Neiman had a broad, handsome face, beautiful white hair, and a smile that lit up the room. When I first met him, he was dressed to the nines in a gorgeous gray suit and crisp white dress shirt. (I would learn later that he dressed this way all the time, even for a trip to the grocery store.) But what impressed me most was the peaceful energy that radiated from him. After his lecture, Becky and I, along with two other friends, had lunch with Dr. N at a nearby kosher hot dog stand. What I remember most was his exclaiming, “I love being around young people!” Dr. N was as comfortable—if not more so—with people in their twenties and thirties as he was with scholars his own age. He glowed in the presence of younger people; he drew energy from them and returned it tenfold.
After that day, I spent more and more time with Dr. N and Becky. Our favorite pastime—and his especially—was to eat. So we’d go to a local diner, Twain’s, and have sandwiches or fish ‘n’ chips on Shabbat or Sunday afternoons. We’d dine at old-school Italian restaurants where he’d proclaim, “The only decent eggplant parmigiana is in Rome!”
Becky would snicker and say, “Well, Dad, you have to remember we’re in the Valley.”
One evening at Twain’s with Becky and Dr. N, I ordered a tuna melt. I’d had the tuna melt several times, and it was quite good—especially with their incredible crinkle-cut fries. This time, however, I was surprised when I spotted a piece of bacon sticking out from beneath a slice of rye bread.
“Becky, it’s bacon!” I said.
“Get that waitress over here now!” Dr. N cried out, as if we were surrounded by flames.
“Oh, I’ll just take it off.”
“No, it’s not kosher. It’s ruined. Becky, get the waitress.”
Becky summoned the waitress, and an exhausted-looking woman approached the table.
“This sandwich has bacon on it!” Dr. N told her.
“It says right on the menu that the tuna melt has bacon on it,” the waitress said.
“Well, I’ve gotten it before and it never had bacon on it,” I offered.
“Can’t you just take it off?” She looked so tired.
“That’s not kosher! And whoever heard of a tuna melt with bacon?” Dr. N gave her a quizzical look.
I wanted to take the plate and everything on it and hide under the table, especially because my own family specializes in bitterly complaining to wait staff and enjoys pushing people’s buttons wherever they go.
“We’d have to make an entirely new sandwich,” the waitress protested.
“Well, then, that’s what you’ll have to do,” Dr. N told her, his stage-worthy baritone resounding off the rock-laden walls of Twain’s. He wasn’t harsh with the waitress; he was just being his dogged self, fighting for a damsel in distress.
“Really, I can just take it off...”
Becky whispered in my ear, “Let him go. He’s enjoying this.”
“You can’t take it off. It’s not kosher!” Dr. N persisted. He turned to the waitress. “Bring her another sandwich, please...this time without the bacon.”
“Okay, I’ll take it back,” the waitress finally conceded, clearly worn out. “It’ll be a few minutes.”
Becky and I smirked at each other, and I smiled inside. I was a bit embarrassed that such a fuss had been made over me, but I was secretly thrilled that a renowned Jewish scholar had fought for my kosher tuna melt at a cheap diner in Studio City. This was someone I wanted to keep in my life for a long time. This guy was a real mentsh.
And Cloud Nine had one more resident: David Neiman.
After Pesach that year, Becky phoned me with some sad news. Her father had bone cancer, and it had progressed to stage four. He hadn’t told Becky—or her sisters, Rachel and Rina—that he had been battling cancer for years. He was that kind of man, that kind of father. He wanted to spare them his tsouris, didn’t want them to worry. Soon after, Becky sublet her apartment and moved in with him. Her life—and that of her sister Rina—was taken up with medication schedules, doctor’s appointments, meal preparation, and keeping up her father’s spirits—by discussing religion, politics, world history, and even Dr. Phil and Ben and J-Lo with him. (He accurately predicted the couple would break up within a few months.)
I, in turn, began to spend even more time with Dr. Neiman, bringing by cheesecake or Chinese food or watching television with him while he hung out with my dog, Harry. Dr. N was always very concerned about whether Harry liked him. How funny, I thought. He was such a strong man, so cerebral; he’d been through so much—his family had fled Russia in 1921 when he was an infant; he’d conducted ten archaeological expeditions to Israel; he’d mourned the death of his wife, Israeli guitarist and singer Shulamit Dubno, more than twenty-five years before; and he had raised three daughters as a single father—and yet he worried that my scrappy one-eyed dog didn’t like him.
“You love your mother, don’t you?” he asked Harry, holding my dog’s head in his hands and looking into his sole eye one night.
Harry stared up at him, expecting a treat. Dr. N liked to spoil him, even letting him gobble leftover chicken off his fork or lap up the remains of his cream of mushroom soup.
“And you’re clearly in love with Becky,” he went on, rather sorrowfully. “But you just like David, huh? Just like him. That’s all.”
By Yom Kippur, Dr. N’s health had declined further and he was unable to attend services at a temple. Becky’s sister Rina arranged a service at his apartment, and we were joined by their cousins. Dr. N traded in his suit for a white terrycloth bathrobe, which he was now wearing almost constantly, and quietly conducted the service in his living room. His voice was quavering, and he was extremely weak, but he was determined to make it through the service. Each of us took turns reading from the machzor he had written, which contained poems and special passages on Jewish history—Dr. N’s favorite area of study. After the service, Dr. N went to rest, and Becky and Rina and I broke the fast (a little early—please don’t tell my rabbi) with frozen yogurt at a strip mall down the street.
As I sat there devouring a dish of peanut-butter chocolate, I looked at Rina and Becky, and thought, These are my sisters. This family has taken me in and sees me as a whole person: as a Jew; not as a Jew by Choice but as a Jew, as a member of their—our—tribe. I’d been so scared to meet Dr. Neiman, so nervous about reaching out to someone I’d thought was so different from me, someone I assumed would judge me. I’d been so afraid to take the risk.
Dr. Neiman passed away peacefully on Feb. 22, 2004, a shadow of his former self. But this is what I will remember most about him and keep with me forever:
David Neiman was my friend. I will miss his warm smile, his brilliant wit, and his playful sense of humor. I will miss his humanity. I will miss the way he could take down the house with his one-liners. I will miss the way he loved his daughters, fiercely and joyfully. He didn’t tell me this; I could just tell.
I will miss the support and friendship he gave me while I studied to become Jewish, the way he approached me in the parking lot of Vitello’s restaurant one month after I had my mikveh and beit din and asked, “How are you doing?”
I thought the question was strange considering we had just celebrated his birthday together. “I’m doing fine,” I shrugged.
“No, how are you doing?”
I knew what he meant now: He wanted to know how I was doing now that I was Jewish.
“Oh, that! I’m doing great, just GREAT!” I told him.
He smiled and hugged me, and gave me a sweet kiss on the ear. He was the one person who could make me feel the most Jewish without saying a word. He had a gift for just being around people. White, black, gay, straight, Jewish, gentile—it didn’t matter. To him, all people were G-d’s gift to the world.
I will miss him because he proclaimed that the New Year’s Eve Becky and I spent with him this year watching I, Claudius episodes back to back to back was his best New Year’s ever—and he had partied all night in Times Square in the ’40s, he told us! “I’m past that,” he said. “This is where I want to be. With you and Becky and Harry.”
I will miss him most because he was the father I never had.
So what is this “thing” Moses describes in Parashat Netzavim? How did Dr. N teach me the meaning of this? Well, I think the “thing” is many things, but I know for sure that one of them is this: The thing that is very close to us is other human beings. Dr. Neiman, at his congregation in Brookline, Massachusetts, often saved up his recyclables for a homeless man who regularly stopped by the synagogue for help. While board members would shoo the man away, Dr. Neiman made it a point to bring in bottles and cans from home and have a conversation with him, ask him how he was doing, chat about the weather, compliment him on his industriousness. He was living Judaism. A scholar with 4,000 books in his home and office—in English, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Spanish, Italian, French, Ladino, and more. A man who founded in New York the Academy for Higher Jewish Learning, now known as the Academy for Jewish Religion. A man who had taught at Brandeis and the Gregorian Pontificate in Rome. He nurtured his mind, his being, his soul, but knew all this was pointless without connecting with others, without taking giant leaps of faith and spirit—even when the prospect might be scary. This is Torah, this is what is close to us, this is what is in our mouths and hearts to observe. If we don’t take risks, if we make our decisions out of shame or apathy or fear—which I’ve done often, as a Jew, as a lesbian, and as a person—we aren’t living Torah.
One of my favorite quotations comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters About Judaism: “A life of seclusion, devoted only to meditation and prayer, is not Judaism.”
I like to think David Neiman thought about this quote often.