Eternal Flame: A Drash Dedicated to Irving Novick, Z”L

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By Leonard Novick; February 15, 2019

Shabbat shalom my friends. Thank you so much for allowing us to share this evening with you and to spend a few minutes with you remembering our dear Uncle Irving.

My husband Aymie and I have our own fond memories of your shul and of Rabbi Lisa. Two years ago this week we held a spiritual wedding ceremony here, a renewal of our vows, done by Rabbi Lisa with Irving as witness and participant since he was not able to be at our wedding in Amsterdam back in 2006. It was a lovely and memorable moment for all of us.

This week’s Torah portion is the kind which I always find difficult to click with. It lacks the historical and human drama of many of the Bible’s narratives. Enduring lessons for our lives in the 21 st century are not always immediately apparent.

That being said, when reading about the fashion bling of the original high priest posse, I have to share that although Irving was incredibly down to Earth and shunned extravagant clothing and fashion trends, he was very fond of his Brooks Brothers chinos and his Ralph Lauren and Lacoste polos. Especially or actually exclusively those with a single breast pocket for his little notebook and pen. In the last years we spent hours scouring the city for them as they became less and less popular. But as with so many things, usually of much more importance and significance, Irving stuck by his guns and would accept no substitute.

For me, the most salient and meaningful part of this week’s Torah portion is also it’s smallest. Before describing in great detail the high priests and their extravagant garments, the portion opens with two short verses about something else entirely: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”

Of course what is spoken of here is the Eternal Flame, the Ner Tamid in Hebrew.
Religiously, an everlasting light reminding us of God’s everlasting presence. Spiritually, a light which never dims guiding us through darkness back to the light; a light which reminds us of the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice; a steady and everlasting light reminding us of the steady and everlasting values which we should hold dear and strive towards; an everlasting light of love and devotion. And perhaps the portion opens with these two seemingly discontinuous verses about the Ner Tamid to make one of the most important points of the portion: regardless of your position of privilege, regardless of how much bling you can or could adorn yourself with, it is not that privilege nor that bling which makes the man or woman, it is the manner in which you follow the Eternal Flame and the degree to which you yourself are a Ner Tamid in the community in which you live.

And in all these ways, our Uncle Irving was a true and brightly shining Ner Tamid to many of us. Irving first let his light shine as a boy and young man of extraordinary intelligence and later professional excellence. Somehow graduating high school on his 17th birthday. Later graduating Tufts Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Taking a year off from Tufts in 1949 to wrangle himself a job on the staff of newly elected Senator Hubert Humphrey, one of the nation’s great progressive Senators, before returning to complete his B.A. at Tufts. Scoring in the 96 th percentile on his law school entrance exams. Ranking number 16 out of 5,000 participants in a national law school essay competition. Becoming one of this city’s most respected and toughest yet fairest entertainment industry labor negotiators as head of labor relations for ABC West Coast.

As amazingly bright as his academic, intellectual and professional light was, and those lights did shine with literal and figurative brilliance, Irv’s unique glow transcended those accomplishments and achievements. To me, Uncle Irving’s most profound legacy, his brightest and most enduring light if you will, was the way that he built and maintained relationships and in how he cared about and for the people in his life.

Everyone who knew Irving felt his caring, his compassion, his integrity and his friendship. Irving cared so very deeply for his siblings, two brothers now gone and his surviving sister. And he cared so deeply about his three generations of nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and great-great nieces and nephews.

Irving cared deeply about people he didn’t even know and he cared deeply about the world around him. Not only was he incredibly generous with us nephews and nieces, he also felt a responsibility to share his blessings with as many as he could. Once I started helping Irving with certain tasks, I discovered his notebook where he kept track of his annual recurring donations to charitable organizations. He cared about nearly every type of cause, well over a hundred organizations at last count: his own temple here topped the list year in and year out along with a whole slew of various Jewish organizations, general humanitarian causes, educational institutions, the arts, animal welfare, food banks, people with disabilities, research to cure illnesses, LGBT causes, environmental issues and not surprisingly progressive political causes.

To me, one of the tragedies of being a son, daughter, niece or nephew is that we only know our elders as adults. I in any case am often left very curious about the formative years of those who have helped formed me and who have been so important in my life. Thanks to Irving’s penchant to save important things for decades and decades and decades, I was able to discover that this bright, penetrating ‘deep caring’ beam of light of his has always been an integral part of who he is.

I recently came across an eloquent memo which Irving wrote to Hubert Humphrey’s legislative counsel when Irving worked for the Senator. The memo was written when Irving was only 20 years old. Although we know how modest and in many ways how private Irving could sometimes be, I somehow think he would not object to me sharing a few paragraphs with you, as I found it quite fascinating and revealing of who Irving was, and it is a unique opportunity to hear Irving’s voice and see his light:

November 10, 1949
Memo To: Max (note: Max Kampelman, Legislative counsel to Senator Hubert H Humphrey)
From: Irv

Last night I finished reading “The World Next Door” by Fritz Peters. Perhaps you have heard of this book which tells of a veteran’s experience in a Vets Administration Mental Hospital. The author himself spent some time in an institution following his discharge from the service, so that he is qualified to discuss the subject.

Aside from the disturbing questions raised as to who are the sane people in our society, those inside or outside the mental hospitals, the book indicates shocking conditions in the facilities of these hospitals. I have not been able to stop thinking about it – for if the conditions are as he describes them, we are all bastardly criminals for not protesting them and insisting on actions to change them, I have heard quite a bit about the state mental institutions and know that in many places, their facilities and personnel are even more inferior than those described in this book. But, here is the Vets Administration, an agency of the federal government, and I should think that we could do something about it.

Irving then goes on to make a proposal for legislation authorizing a wide-ranging investigation of mental health policies and practices in V.A. Facilities. After which, the memo continues:

The findings of such a committee would be of great value, not only in the possible initiation of corrective actions, but to the whole field of mental health. It could influence the state legislatures to evaluate their own mental hospitals – it could lead to increased federal grants to the colleges and hospitals for more research – and it might even lead to action for more and better free clinics so that we can take the treatment of mental disturbances outside the offices “For Mink Only” and make it available to the not so rich.

Anyway, something should be done, and I think and investigation of the Vets Administration program is a good first step. We liberals are so concerned with building a better society – more economic security, decent housing, good health, a peaceful world – that’s fine, but let’s take care of the victims of the society we are trying to better. And take care of them – not out of a great compassion, sympathy, kind humanitarian feelings – but to vindicate our guilt as members of that society which first knocks them down and then throws them outside our fold.”

I was blessed to to have been able to spend the last months of his life at his side, as his nephew, companion and friend; and in the end in my own way as his guiding light as he transitioned from this existence to whatever comes next. I am convinced that as his own light of life dimmed and was extinguished, it was the light that he had spread and shared which carried him home in such a peaceful way.

Like the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame, our Uncle Irving will shine forever bright in the hearts and souls of everyone who knew him and everyone who heard of him. The world is a poorer place without him and he will be sorely missed by so many.

Baruch dayan ha’emet. May we all be comforted with all the mourners of Zion.

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