July 17, 2008
It's often hard to distinguish between one memorial and the next, especially when you're dealing with prominent members of the community. Family members, friends, colleagues and rabbis will get up and pour out their praise for the departed- recounting his or her many accomplishments and fine character traits. This is perfectly natural, and it's also a mitzvah.
Monday morning, at the standing-room-only memorial at Beth Jacob Congregation for Rabbi Levi Meier -- author, psychologist, husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, teacher, student, friend, brother, neighbor, gentleman and chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for more than 29 years -- who died July 13 at age 62 after a long illness -- things felt perfectly natural, right up until the very end.
We heard how Meier touched the lives of thousands, especially the many sick patients he gave hope to, and the many families he comforted. We heard about all the little touches of thoughtfulness felt by everyone who came into contact with him.
A colleague at the hospital talked about how Meier brought mezuzot, kosher food and synagogue services to Cedars-Sinai. Someone else, reminiscing about the rabbi's unique and gentle way with people, quoted him as follows: "With good interpersonal relationships, you can accomplish much. Without them, you need to fill out three forms to get a box of paper clips."
The rabbi's daughter talked about their nightly and very lively family dinners and explained how a young daughter of 8 could come up with the word "Jung" at Scrabble: Her rabbi-psychologist father shared many aspects of his professional life with his children.
He shared a lot more. If you expressed an interest in anything, chances are, within a few days, you'd receive an article in the mail on that subject.
When comforting patients, he shared his time, plenty of it. He seemed to always add "another five minutes," because he thought that maybe those extra minutes could make all the difference in the world. His pulpit, one of his children said, was hospital rooms.
Interestingly, the memorial, with all the well-deserved praise it showered on Meier, actually underplayed his achievements. No one mentioned the eight years of Torah classes he gave to the Avi Chai Torah Salon -- an eclectic monthly gathering of writers, artists and producers (which I often hosted), who yearned to study and debate Jewish texts. Many of the participants were at the memorial; one of them sat next to me and I could see him trying to hold back tears.
In the end, though, after all the emotional accolades for a unique and quiet force of the Los Angeles Jewish community, it was the final speaker who was the most powerful.
Right before pallbearers were asked to prepare to carry the casket, which would soon be flown to Israel, one of the rabbi's sons was asked to come up to recite a special prayer. It felt like it would be a formality; all the speakers had already spoken.
The young son got up, read the prayer, and just before stepping down, went back to the mike ... and gave up all pretense of composure.
With his voice unraveling, and surrendering to his tears, the young son said what was probably on everyone's mind -- it was "way too soon" for his father to be gone -- and then, stumbling out of his mouth came the only words I know for certain I will not forget from Rabbi Levi Meier's memorial: "I wish I would have said I love you more often."
Rabbi Levi Meier is survived by his wife, Marcie; children Chana Gelb, Malka Grebnau, Isaac and Yosef; grandchildren; and brother, Rabbi Menachem.
-- David Suissa
Johanna Cooper, Award-Winning Radio Producer, Dies at 53
Johanna Cooper, a Kennedy Award-winning radio producer whose vibrant work encompassed topics from undocumented children to "Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond," died July 10 after a three-year battle with breast cancer. She was 53.
Cooper, an active member of Temple Beth Am, was the producer of dozens of documentaries for outlets such as National Public Radio. She was drawn to broadcasting, at least in part, "because of her passion for storytelling, especially stories that preserve the intersection of family and identity," said her friend, Paula Pearlman, executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Cooper's many Jewish-themed shows included "Hanukkah: A Time for Superheroes," featuring director Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man"), and KCRW-FM's award-winning "Jewish Short Stories From the Old World to the New" hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
"[Johanna] had a wonderful sense of human about people and their foibles," said Ruth Seymour, KCRW's general manager. "Her perceptions and insights were invaluable."
Not long before her death at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Cooper had been awarded a grant to prepare a documentary about the Jews of Venice, Italy, and the ghetto in which they had been forced to live.
In her own Beverly Hills Labor Zionist childhood home, Cooper was inspired by stories of her cousin, Rosa Robata, a Holocaust heroine who was tortured and hanged after helping to blow up a crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
The young Cooper played guitar at Los Angeles-area senior citizens centers (her mother, Norma, worked as a social worker at Jewish Family Service) and eventually earned her own master's degree in social work from Columbia University, as well as a second master's in film and television from USC -- all while launching her radio career.
After she married public interest attorney Sam Jason in 1991 and moved to Pacific Palisades, she became renowned among her friends for her Jewish holiday celebrations and for being "blessed with the gift of presence," said Rabbi Naomi Levy, who officiated at Cooper's funeral at Mt. Sinai with Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am.
Just before the bar mitzvah of her son, Max, three years ago, Cooper was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and began a number of rounds of chemotherapy.