February 22, 2007
Death in the Hood
The next day, a few blocks from her house, a couple hundred people jammed the premises of Aish L.A., an Orthodox synagogue and outreach center, for her memorial service.
A neighbor suggested that I attend the service. I had never met Laura or any member of her family, but they were well-known in the community. The first time I heard her name was on Simchat Torah, when someone mentioned that a group of women from the community brought a sefer Torah to her bedside at her home, where she was recuperating from cancer surgery. In her presence, they sang songs and danced.
When Laura was in the hospital, she had insisted on long, personal visits. Her husband, Shmuel, made sure to schedule the visits so that there would be plenty of time for the kind of engaging talk his wife loved. Laura once noticed that a visitor was sniffling, and she asked if her friend had a cold. When she saw that they were sniffles of sadness, Laura blurted out: "Oh no, I'll have none of that. Now tell me what's going on in your life."
Being a divorce attorney, Laura knew a lot about other people's lives. In a profession where nasty confrontation is the norm, she fought for collaboration. Sometimes she even fought for peace.
At her memorial service, her husband told the story of a man who had "had it up to here" and wanted a divorce. After listening to his story, Laura calmly explained to the man that he should try to save his marriage by getting household help. It took some coaxing and convincing, but in the end, Laura helped save her client's marriage. She nurtured her own marriage by working from home, which allowed her to be very involved with raising her two daughters, Alisa, 17, and Miriam, 9.
This is how Alisa describes her mother's parenting style: "She never told us what to do, but she never allowed us to do the wrong thing." It has been several days now since Laura's memorial service, and I'm sharing my thoughts with you because, frankly, I can't stop thinking about it.
The service was heartfelt, but it was also unsettling. There was a kind of emotional chaos in the air -- almost a reluctance to accept that a beautiful life could be taken away from someone so God-fearing and life-giving.
Ever since I moved to this neighborhood, I've gotten used to seeing order and structure in the Orthodox community -- a sense that life, with all its challenges and with God's help, is unfolding as it should.
At Laura's memorial service, you got a strange sense that life had stopped unfolding as it should.
To his credit, the head rabbi of Aish L.A., Rabbi Moshe Cohen, did not try to anaesthetize the pain. He spoke in a quivering, tear-choked voice. He talked about the only three instances in the code of Jewish law where the laws are considered "mitzvot gedolim" (great mitzvahs): To help someone who is destitute, to free a captive and to praise the departed.
He explained that what tied the three mitzvahs together was that they all covered people who couldn't help themselves.
But it was clear that the rabbi couldn't help himself either. Even though he ended on a brave note that touched on Laura's legacy to the community, his body language was saying something else: "How could this be?"
Tragedy has a way of dulling the senses. Lost in a fog of grief, how can anyone see or understand anything? I wasn't exactly lost, but all I could see was how wrong it was that Laura had died. That made me feel a little helpless, too.
Ironically, on a day when people felt somewhat helpless, they were honoring someone who was all about reaching out to those who needed help, or sometimes just a meal and company. As an example, Rabbi Cohen admitted how "most of us would prefer to choose our guests for Shabbat." Then he recounted how, over the years, Laura and her family had welcomed hundreds of guests and strangers who didn't have a place to eat on Shabbat.
Who would feel these strangers' pain now and welcome them? How could a unique soul like Laura ever be replaced? How could a family's pain ever heal?
As the rabbi spoke about Laura, I was thinking about how even a strong religious community has moments when it needs to be vulnerable and embrace its limitations. In our zeal to accept all challenges, perhaps the ultimate challenge is to accept that there are holes we can never fill and pains we can never heal.
We are grateful for our religious and communal rituals -- the prayers, the sermons, the honoring of the departed, the community support -- but deep down, the unspoken truth is that we're still helpless. The pain of human loss is too deep (as I learned after losing my father).
Rituals can add comfort and legacies can be continued, but they won't fill the hole or eliminate the pain.
This pain of loss belongs to no religion and no neighborhood.
It is a private, universal pain that speaks to the highest part of our Judaism, the one that cares about every soul in every hood.
Laura Gitlin-Petlak spent a lifetime caring about other people's pain, and in her own way, she showed us that people can never be replaced, and that there is value in that.