Radical Grace: A Eulogy to Shulamit Aloni, From Her Youngest Son

The graveside eulogy given by Udi Aloni, the youngest son of former Israeli cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni, who died on January 24, 2014.

Udi Aloni
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On your 70th birthday I wrote you:
 In the bedroom a drawing of Don Quixote. 
In the living room a ceramic Don Quixote.
 In the yard, a sculpture of Don Quixote.

It seems to me that you’ve placed them as an emblem 
to remind you of the absurd, or pathetic, aspect of the struggle.
 In your greatest battles, the small demon of doubt was always there.
You’ve acted with the passion of the Man of La Mancha, and the doubt and self-irony of Cervantes. 
I think it shaped your unique voice, 
a radical voice. 
Devoid of self-importance,
fighting for what’s right without 
self-righteousness.

I tried to sit down and write a coherent midrash [Bible commentary] for the elevation of your soul, but I was flooded with so many images, so many different thoughts and emotional torments that I simply wrote an outline to stop the ocean of emotions that was flooding me.

It seems it wasn’t for nothing that you so loved God’s response to Job (Job 38:8): “Who shut up the sea with doors.” You, Mother, were also a sea of emotions and the Leviathan of creation and freedom, but you were also the one who put law, wisdom and boundaries around this raging ocean in order to protect the weak, the orphan, the stranger and the widow.

You worked with all your might to introduce a constitution in Israel, but at the same time you called for conscientious objection and you supported the conscientious objectors, on the strength of, “It is time for the Lord to work; they have made void Thy law” (Psalms 119:126).

You always told me you were a divided soul, and I did not understand. But then, we always think of the radical as the one who is undivided, who must aim for the target without swerving to the left or the right. We always thought the radical arose from the attribute of judgment, but you taught me a radicalism that was born of the attribute of grace. Because we have already learned that the attribute of judgment is also the root of evil. You succeeded in teaching me radical grace, how to have conviction and doubt at the same time.

When we sat together, you and I, studying Tractate Hagigah of the Talmud, about the four who entered Pardes (the orchard, or Paradise), we always loved Elisha ben Abuya, who was called Aher, “the Other,” the one who cuts down the saplings, who knew the power of God and rebelled against it. Rabbi Akiva was said to have “entered and left unharmed.” You always loved to tell me about Rabbi Meir, the student of Aher, about whom it was said that “he found a pomegranate, ate the seeds and discarded the peel.” And that was your learning principle.

More time would have to pass for me to learn that you contained a greater virtue. You were Elisha, who doubted the Torah, any Torah, and also Rabbi Akiva: a legislator who was full of faith, who taught generations of students, who knew that “Love your neighbor as yourself" is a central commandment of the Torah. The Pardes was with us all our lives.

And what is Pardes? It is the four ways of life, the four levels of Scriptural interpretation, an acronym for Pshat (plain, or direct meaning), Remez (hint, or allegorical meaning), Drash (inquiry, or comparative meaning) and Sod (secret, or the mystical/esoteric meaning). And you go into Pardes, and Pardes is within you.

Pshat: Your activism: Establishing shelters for female victims of domestic violence, standing up for Palestinians, for the gay community, for [convicted Israeli nuclear spy] Mordechai Vanunu, for Israel’s Black Panthers, for [Arab-Israel actor, director and activist] Mohammad Bakri.

Drash: The teacher and the lawyer in you, who teaches and acts to create justice, charity and grace, to interpret Judaism as a humanistic text and to protect the human being that was created in God’s image – every human being.

Remez: Your tremendous love for art, theater and the beauty that human beings create.

And Sod? Who knows your secret? That place with neither words nor form, your infinite passion for justice, a passion born of love. Perhaps your secret is the secret of the wounded healer. No one knows how many wounds you carry from your past. You did not share with us your painful childhood in Poland, the loss of your beloved brother during adolescence, the loss of your love during young adulthood, the political betrayals you later suffered, nor the loss of Reuvke, your husband, buried next to you. You thought that if you healed society of its ailments, if you protected the weak from the strong, you could heal your secret wounds, and the more time that passed, you learned the shaman’s curse – that the wounds of the past you carry will not heal, because they are the source of your power to heal others.

You know, Mother, you taught me how to conduct civil marriages in order to guard the covenant of love through equality and freedom. The funeral and the wedding are seeming opposites, one is life and the other, death. But both hold, in the strongest possible way, the contradiction between public and private, between the intimate and that which is exposed to all. In Isaiah, it is written, “You are my witnesses,’ saith the Lord,” and the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel), explained, “When you cease bearing witness to me, I cease being God.” Thus, in weddings, the audience not only witnesses love but also conserves it, and at the funeral, all of you who came here, from near and far, to pay my mother her last respects, all of you are witnesses to her struggle for justice, to her concrete struggle for justice. Your witness will help to conserve the substance of Shulamit Aloni, not only the name Shulamit Aloni. So long as we bear witness to her acts, she will continue to live among us.

I want to say something about the last year of her life. Many people who came to pay condolence, with the best of intentions asked me to remember her at the height of her powers and not only in her illness and her weakness. Her heroism will be told by the good and the many; I have also told, and will continue to tell it. But I would like to end with a memory of her weakness. She was so beautiful, also in her weakness. Yet we are so afraid of old age and dementia, and we don’t always know how to open our hearts to the moments when the mind fades but the heart remains open to love, like a child. When one door shuts, another one opens, and after I overcame the fear of meeting this brilliant woman in her dementia, I came closer and hugged her, and every day we’d sit together and admire together the beauty of her cypress tree and the blooming of the bougainvillea at its top. Every day we spoke about how beautiful it is, this tree. I learned that if we open our hearts to our old, we will receive a vast gift of late love.

My mother, who lived her entire life in Hebrew – the strong language, the language of the sovereign – at the end of her days began to speak in Yiddish, the language of exile, the language of the weak one who misses his mother. And so we sang “Reizele” (a well-known Yiddish song), which Grandma Ida and Grandpa David, who are buried here next to her, used to sing to us at night.

Yonatan Shapira, the “refusenik” former Israel Air Force pilot my mother supported, wrote me: “Dear beloved Udi, I found a violin in a secondhand shop here in freezing Maine, and I recorded Reizele on my telephone for you so that it will be there to accompany you, even though it’s a bit off-key.”

“I’ll ask you, Dovidl, 
Don’t whistle anymore.
You hear - he’s whistling again - says mother.
She’s pious, and it upsets her.
Whistling is not for Jewish boys.
Simply give a sign in Yiddish
One, two, three.
Simply call out in our mother tongue: Kum kum kum [Come, come, come, in Yiddish]

And here is the Shekhina [the feminine aspect of God], who, even if we don’t believe in her, still calls my mother to her Pardes, the Pardes of the great mother. She calls out in our mother tongue: Kum kum kum, come come come.

President Shimon Peres laying a wreath at the grave of Shulamit Aloni at Kfar Shmaryahu on Sunday, January 26, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shulamit Aloni.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum