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Leonard Morgenstern Z”L: A Eulogy

June 22, 2014

My father, Leonard Morgenstern Z”L died in late May. Here is the text of the eulogy I delivered during Dad’s memorial service at Temple Isaiah of Lafayette on June 2, 2014.

And here is a link to my father’s obituary.

A common part of the memorial liturgy is Psalm 15. Adonai, Mi yagur b’ohalecha?

Adonai, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who lives without blame, who does what is right, and in his heart acknowledges the truth;  whose tongue is not given to slander; who has never done harm to his fellow, nor mistreated his neighbor; for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent, but who honors those who fear God; who stands by his promise even to his own harm; who has never lent money at unfair rate, or accepted a bribe against the innocent. The man who acts thusly shall never be shaken. 

Certainly, my father could check off most, if not all, the items on this biblical checklist. He was super intelligent but thoughtful; exacting yet considerate. He was always studying something, even to his last days, even if it was a cheap sci-fi novel or potboiler. And per the admonition in Pirke Avot that the “primary thing is not study, but action,” he believed in doing, not just talking; although those who knew him would say that at times he could do more than his share of talking. 

I will offer just a few personal memories of my father that illustrate aspects of his character:

My father was a great believer in education. He taught confirmation classes here at Isaiah’s religious school. When we moved out to Moraga in the mid-50s, he had the vision to see that rapid growth would occur here.

He was concerned that even while the area was undergoing a 30+ percent annual growth rate of school age kids, there were “groups with entrenched beliefs” (the quote from a Contra Costa times article) that might attempt to keep budgets down, to stall construction of schools and schoolrooms, and to avoid the hiring of classroom teachers (meaning bigger classes). For him, the most direct way to influence the education of kids in Moraga was to serve on the school board, where he later was elected president. This idea of service to community was his way of acting on his beliefs.

With that as context, you can imagine my worries about telling him that I would be dropping out of college after my freshman year, to go live in Israel and study Hebrew on a Kibbutz Ulpan. He asked me: Can you touch type? We knew the answer to this question already: Yes. Can you study the night before and get an A grade? Yes. Can you write a paper at the last minute and get an A? Well, that was what I had been doing for the previous semester. My father said that these were the things that were the essential lessons that someone should take away from college: the skill of typing, and knowing how to write and study under pressure were the skills that will prepare you for success. “Go to Israel,” he said.

Now, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t know that I could give that same advice today. Maybe. Unlikely. My father was a very supportive parent, but he must have believed in this or he wouldn’t have said it and acted as he did. He wasn’t going to spare my feelings on something so important to him and to my future. BTW: I finally graduated from university last year (2013).

Leonard was open to new ideas, and more remarkably, searched for ways that would ensure that his thinking wouldn’t become stuck.

For example, I found a copy of the I Ching on his bookshelf in the 1970s and asked him if he threw coins and believe in its divinations (something that would have been way out of character for him). No, he told me. Instead, he liked to use the I Ching as a tool that might lead him to think differently about something. He would ask a question, flip the coins and then look at the citation revealed by chance. Then he would see if it offered him any new insight. And sometimes it did.

He was horrified to hear that the Beth Israel Judea Board of Trustees (on which I served for many years) had several trustees for life. These members would never be open to new ideas, he said.

My father was a believer in truth and also in the exactness of expression. He loved proper grammar and would tell you when you were straying from the rules established by his favorite high school English teacher. If anyone here handed him a column or something for the Isaiah bulletin, you may have heard from him. He was an excellent copy editor.

Writing his obituary, I found a letter he wrote that was published in the Dear Abby column. It seems that Pauline Phillips, who wrote under the pen name “Abigail Van Buren,” told readers to substitute the phrase “I don’t give a hoot,” instead of “I could care less.” My father wrote to Dear Abby that this was “bad advice.” Giving a hoot, he said, was not suitable for formal speech or writing, “whereas ‘I couldn’t care less’ is always proper.” He justified this with citations and explanations.

I recall that my college roommate, Mark Rittenberg, was visiting Moraga and had a long talk with my father. Mark went back to San Jose, where he happened to see Rabbi Dave Robbins ZT”L, who was then the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in San Jose. Rabbi Robbins was “my rabbi,” who served about a decade at Isaiah, and my brother and I studied with him for our Bar Mitzvahs. Mark reported to rabbi that my father had said something about an issue of the day, I don’t recall exactly what it was, political or social, but that the “damn so-and-sos” were at fault. Dave Robbins looked up at my friend Mark and said: “Leonard Morgenstern did not say ‘damn’!” One more recollection.

My father was a math genius. Really. My brother Jamie found in a drawer his correspondence with Martin Gardner, the famous science writer, over some proof of some mathematical problem. Gardner’s note mentioned Professor Nash, the subject of the book and film A Beautiful Mind.

Now, I was terrible at math, so it was all beyond me. When I started studying magic — sleight of hand, not Kaballah — I learned some math tricks from one of Martin Gardner’s books. Of course, my father could see through such tricks in an instant, even though they were perfectly magical to us math muggles. Later, I learned real sleight of hand, and it was a great moment for me to actually fool him. Many people hate magic for this, they grow angry at being tricked and feeling foolish. My dad was perfectly happy to be fooled and he appreciated the artistry involved. He never asked how a trick was done, another sign of his character.

I am reminded of a story from the Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students: What is the characteristic to which a good person should aspire? 

Rabbi Eliezer said, generosity. Rabbi Joshua said, friendliness. Rabbi Yosi said, neighborliness and good will. Rabbi Shimon said, foresight. Rabbi Elazar said, a lev tov, a good heart. To which Rabban Yochanan responded: I agree with Elazar’s words, for a good heart includes everything. 

My father had not just a good heart, but a great heart. His memory will always be a righteous blessing in mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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