This is a sad time for us, but it is also a time to reflect on a remarkable person who led an extraordinary life. I want to thank everyone who came here to pay tribute to my sweet child Sarah; especially those whom I do not know who obviously love her and who came to remember her with her family. The fact that we are all here together, albeit united in grief, is something that would have made Sarah happy.
I want to first take a moment to thank Elissa, whose passionate and lifelong devotion to her children (and now to her grandchildren) has inspired in them a love for family and others that is as manifest in every one of their lives, as it was in Sarah’s. For me the most painful and necessary and important lesson of Sarah’s leaving is that we must all learn to appreciate each other more. And we must all love each other more. This is what Sarah would want from us.
I never knew a kinder person with a bigger heart than my sweet Sarah. All of us begin life with streaks of selfishness and sometimes meanness. Sarah came into this world without such a gene in her body. Frustrations she had; anger yes. But I never saw her be unkind to anyone; or to any living creature. When she was in the fourth grade to take just a characteristic example, her class had a rabbit named Wumpy who needed to be adopted when the term came to an end. No one in the class stepped forward to take Wumpy. And so Sarah brought Wumpy home. It was so Sarah to do.
Sarah was the most uncomplaining person I have ever known, from the day she was born until the day she left us. When she was no more than four or five, we took the children to the Oakland Zoo and made a stop at the ice cream stand. For some reason I could not possibly explain now, except as instance of the absurdity of fathers, I decided to make the ice cream stop a life lesson. It’s important to try new things, I said to her; broaden your horizons. Instead of vanilla or chocolate, why don’t you try the sour apple flavor? Without hesitating – she was always such a dutiful child -- she took my advice and we went on our way. Fifteen minutes later I noticed that the cone she was carrying had received no more than a lick. So I took it and tasted it myself. It was awful. A surge of guilt swept over me, but we were too far away from the stand to go back and get her another. Sarah had not uttered a word of complaint or reproach. I have carried my guilt from that day to this. Of course when I brought it up to her after she had become an adult herself she just laughed.
As a child she was undemanding. There are few beings needier than children. They are constantly asking for something, often more than it would be good to have. I’m sure Sarah did as well, but I don’t have a recollection of it. Whatever her need, she generally had to be asked what it was, or it would stay with her. From that day to this. No one in the family knows if her medical problems had worsened in the weeks before the end, if she was suffering more than usual, or in tell-tale pain. We may berate ourselves for this; but we all know that there was nothing that could have been done. Sarah insisted on her independence, and fiercely resisted attempts to pry – as she would regard it – into her state of health or any other problem she was encountering. She would deal with it. That’s who she was. When her mind was made up, and she was determined, there was no way to shake her from her course
All her life Sarah faced great odds, and not only because of her small stature, which caused many to underestimate her, and forced her to have to exert herself to be taken seriously. From the day she was born she was beset with medical problems which hampered her ability to cope. She had a kinked aorta which doctors feared would shorten her life. And possibly did. She was hard of hearing, eventually almost to the point of deafness in a way that could not be corrected by technological aids. In her first years she had difficulty even forming words and then putting them together in sentences. Yet despite these challenges, she became a gifted writer of poetry and prose, with a stunning ear for the language. After she was gone an interview with her was published on Next Book, an Internet website which features writers such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. She was pleased when I told her I was jealous, which I was. In addition to mastering her own language in a way few people do, she made herself learn Hebrew in order to pursue her faith, which she would have referred to as her spiritual path. She was a fount of knowledge about Judaism and gave Sabbath lectures on sacred texts.
She was near-sighted and had a poor sense of direction and was never able to drive. She could walk only with difficulty and pain, which grew worse as she grew older. Yet every week and sometimes more than once a week she walked two miles to shul and back, in fair weather and foul.
Many people would have been depressed and then overwhelmed by the difficulties Sarah faced in the ordinary business of her life; the medical procedures she was put through, which often did not work; the impaired mobility which constricted her horizon and made every common task from going to the grocery store for food to taking the bus downtown to service her computer a burden; the near-sightedness which made her favorite vocations, reading and writing, even more arduous than they normally are; the single life which she did not want; the limited financial resources, which made her count pennies; the tiny apartment, which could barely hold her books and belongings. But Sarah was not overwhelmed by these frustrations and disappointmentss; she packed more interests and more travels, more experiences and more learning, more friends, and more projects, more people that she touched in her brief lifetime than most people do in earthly journeys that are twice as long. And she left a greater vacancy behind.
A born candidate for dependency, Sarah never allowed herself to become anyone’s burden but her own. She moved out of the house when she went to college, and never looked back. She was unalterably determined to make her own way in the world; never mind the difficulties she might encounter.
It was not that she was not a family person. Quite the contrary. There was no one in the family more passionate or persistent than she was to keep it from following the centripetal forces to which every family is prone. When she died she was planning a seder that would be a family reunion. Instead it is her funeral that brings us together. “What will I do without Sarah? Elissa asked when she was gone, knowing there was no answer; “she was my companion and all the goodness in the world.”
Not long ago, I picked up the phone to call her at 8:30 in the evening, looking for the answer to a question. I located her riding a bus back from San Francisco State where she was taking a masters degree that would help her in teaching special needs children. It was her second masters -- one she added to the Fine Arts degree she had received from the University of San Francisco a few years before, writing a novel to complete her thesis. It was also, as I discovered, the third bus she had taken that night, which meant six buses for the round-trip to school. She followed this routine for three years, working an eight hour job during the days and going to school at night. But it was I, not she who was unsettled by these travails. On the phone, she was her cheerful self, happy that her father had sought her out with a question. It was an attitude that was as integral to her personality as her beautiful honey-colored tresses were to her physical appearance. It was also one of her most inspiring qualities, setting an example to the rest of us, in how to confront the difficulties we faced in our own lives. She probably never realized what a profound and uplifting impact she had on everyone who knew her.
Sarah was self-effacing about her talents as well. When she was thirteen and she stepped up to the Bimah for her Bat Mitzvah service, she was so short you could barely see her face above the Torah she was reading. Sitting in the congregation, her mother and I held our collective breath. Would she be able to pull it off? Would she stumble over the complexities of the ancient Hebrew? Would her cantilation falter because of her impaired hearing? And then her lips parted and there poured forth into the silence the purest and most true and lovely sound, perfectly articulated, beautifully sung, and continuing like that to the end of her reading.
I had a similar experience when I went to an evening event in San Francisco, where she was one of several poets performing at the Paradise Lounge. And there was the same thrill as she stepped to the microphone, in a black velvet chapeau, chandelier earrings, cocktail dress with black over-the-elbow opera gloves and an impish grin, and began reading her witty and accomplished texts.
Every time I turned to her for help on a point of scripture or tradition, whether it was to ask about Jewish messianic hopes, or the concept of tikkun olam, or rabbinical views of the after-life, I was impressed again with what a serious student of Judaism my daughter was. It was always a carefully considered and richly informed response that came back. I will miss her knowledge and counsel when I write my next book, as I will miss her knowledge and counsel in my life.
Sarah also had a feisty and combative side. It was a Horowitz family trait. But her battles were always the flip side of the coin of her kindness, and of her compassionate involvement with others. The first family row that really announced this side of her personality took place when she was in her teens. She was protesting the apparent approval – or at least the failure to disapprove -- the Randy Newman song “Short People” which she felt denigrated those of diminutive stature. Her siblings were naturally amused by this distress over a popular song, and attempted to belittle her protest. But outnumbered as she was, Sarah remained undaunted and stood her ground. It was something she would be doing for the rest of her all too brief life.
This episode was defining in another sense, in that her battles to come would always be on behalf of little people -- those who were poor and those who were powerless and those who needed a champion to represent them. She took up the cause of Turner Syndrome children who were regularly referred to by a lazy media as retarded. Sarah herself was a Turner child, which shows just how ludicrous the characterization was. As a journalist, writing for the San Francisco Weekly she wrote a ground-breaking article on people who were born hermaphrodites and whose gender was then defined surgically at birth by doctors who of course could not consult the infants whose lives they were determining, and who didn’t seem to care.
She crusaded for the equality of all people, for racial and sexual minorities, and for women in Judaism and beyond. She was an opponent of war, while recognizing that there is evil in the world and sometimes nations are forced to defend themselves. She protested against capital punishment, standing vigil outside the gates of San Quentin, in the bitter cold Bay Area nights, whenever an execution took place, believing that even though the condemned had committed heinous crimes it was wrong for the state to take a human life.
Every month, for years, she got on a bus to go cross town to feed the homeless at Hamilton House, an obligation her congregation at Beth Shalom had undertaken, and which she organized. Every month she cooked a meal for sixty homeless people, learning how to make meat dishes on the Internet even though she was a vegetarian, because that was what the people she was there to serve wanted.
Despite the enormous difficulties she faced getting anywhere, she traveled to far-away places -- to El Salvador to build homes for poor Catholics and halfway across the globe to Uganda to live in a mud floor hut without electricity or running water, to teach the impoverished children of the Abyudaya tribe of African Jews. She took her mother with her to India to the slums of Mombay, to seek help for sexually abused Hindu girls. While there she became violently ill, throwing up and dehydrating to the point that Elissa, who was a professional nurse, became fearful for her life and insisted that a doctor visit her bedside. But experiences like this could not dissuade Sarah from her mission. When the end came, she was already planning trips to distant lands to help others in need.
And of course Sarah devoted her professional life to helping autistic children. This, too, started in her family, with her devotion to her niece Mariah. Sarah learned sign language to better communicate with Mariah and schooled herself in the skills necessary to help her, and went on to become a professional dealing with the problems these beautiful children faced.
The Jewish people and their home in Israel were great causes of her life, and ultimately they became a bond that brought us, father and daughter, together. It was not policy or politics that united us. It was concern for a people who had been persecuted for thousands of years and found themselves facing a threat of extinction once again. A bond across our political differences was forged in conversations about this familiar isolation and peril, and in our shared commitment to Jewish survival.
Sarah visited Israel on several occasions with groups from her temple. The last time she went it was in a way that was entirely characteristic of her personality, and how she faced danger. The trip was took place in the middle of the Second Intifada, and the violence was intense. So that we would not worry, Sarah did not tell her mother or me where she was going. She said that she would be on a religious retreat on Mount Tamalpais and would not be reachable for ten days. It was only when she returned that she told us where she had been.
It is hard for a father to learn from his children, but my daughter taught me one of the profound lessons of my life. It began in a conflict that could be regarded as generational, but involved the very core of our identities and our life-missions as we understood them, and it lasted for decades.
Sarah didn’t believe in an after-life in the usual sense, but if such a life exists, there is a special place in heaven reserved for her. And if she is out there, I hope she will forgive me for every contentious moment we had; for every time that we butted heads; for every time that I failed to take her seriously enough. I hope she will forgive me for every concession I did not make that I should have, and for every insight she offered that I missed. I know she will forgive me, because it was her heart to do so. Her mission in life was to bring people together, most of all those closest to her.
I had started out in life as an idealistic young man much like Sarah, but if I am going to be honest with myself, I lacked her generosity of soul. Her empathy was a force of enormous power. One of Sarah’s most beautiful qualities is that she never let the fact that she was able to overcome her disabilities affect her compassion for those who could not conquer the difficulties they faced; she never let the fact that she didn’t complain block her feelings for those who did.
Like Sarah, I began with hope for a better world, but the limitless extent of my expectations blinded me to realities I needed to see, and caused me to place false faith in those I should have known to distrust. The result was irreparable damage to innocent lives and to my own. Consequently, when I heard the hopes expressed by my child they worried me as a father. I did not want her to suffer the same misfortunes I had. My life experience had made me conservative. Hence the butting of heads.
A particular bone of our contentions was the Kabbalistic concept of a tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world.” I had come to the conclusion that this was an impossible dream, and the refusal to recognize this fact was the source of innumerable miseries that human beings had inflicted on themselves since the beginning of time. Sarah believed in a tikkun olam just as fiercely as I disbelieved, but with nuances that I missed for a very long time.
In a book I wrote about death and the goals we should pursue in life, which I called The End of Time, I summed up my views. I observed that all the prophets taught us to love each other as we love ourselves and to take the attitude that “there but for the grace of God go I.” But this was finally, I thought, imprudent advice. Is it wise, I wrote, “to put our trust in strangers, or to love our enemies as ourselves? Would we advise our children to do so?” Are we really one with criminals?
And then I inserted a passage to which Sarah took great exception: “Many try to believe it, but I cannot embrace this radical faith. I feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults who torment small children for the sexual thrill. I suspect no decent soul does either.”
In these words, Sarah felt I was attacking her; that I was attacking the very rationale of her life -- the mission of tikkun olam to which she had been called.
I was unprepared for her reaction. I couldn’t really understand it. I had put what I had learned into these words; they were a statement of the rationale of my life, the mission to which I had been called.
But our impasse was not permanent. My daughter had patience and persistence, and a prodigious determination to pursue her mission to the end.
Here is what Sarah wrote in an email to me just awhile ago: “My objection is that you're confusing compassion with gullibility. I do visit prisoners and I think it matters to make that human connection. That doesn't mean I'd necessarily trust them with my purse. I wouldn't let the State execute them in my name either. I don't think kinship with people who've crossed the line blurs my own morality. In fact, it gives it more clarity.”
It was so Sarah – so to the point, so commonsensical – and I was so relieved. Of course she was right, and now I understood. My worries were about my illusions, not hers. If my daughter believed these things, she didn’t need my parental protectiveness. It was quite the reverse: she had something to teach me.
Unlike Sarah, who until this election was pretty much a member of the Green Party, I am a Republican. As a result I have a unique insight into Sarah’s last campaign which I want to share with you in concluding this goodbye to my sweet child.
Of course she would be attracted to a leader who had written a book called the Audacity of Hope, and whose slogan was “yes we can;” a leader who reflected in his own biography the multicultural, multiracial mixing that was her own family; and in which she placed hopes for the future of her country and perhaps even the world. And of course she would want to support a man whose message was the coming together of all Americans across racial, political and class lines. And of course her father would be skeptical.
But through our head-butting, and through our contentiousness and because of the patience and persistence with which she maintained her point of view, and as a result of the realism that underpinned it, when she told me she was going to Iowa to campaign for Barack Obama, even though we continued to disagree about politics, I was whole-heartedly behind her.
And because she was Sarah there was no way she was going to ask for help to do what she had determined to do. So she took her meager resources and bought herself a plane ticket. She ignored the hearing problems which made even conversations with family and friends sometimes difficult, and made arrangements over the phone to get herself transported thousands of miles away; arrangements to stay in a state where she knew no one; to find Jews to pray with when the Sabbath came; and to receive her instructions and orders for the campaign. She trudged through airports on her aching, malfunctioning hip; she gritted her teeth and endured the pains of a gastro-intestinal tract ravaged by illness, and she put pressure yet again on a cardio-vascular system damaged and inadequate from birth, and on a body whose wounded state would take her so cruelly from us only two months later.
Undaunted by every discomfort and challenge, she marched into two degree weather, in the depths of a heartland winter, to knock on doors and bring out Americans she had never met to join in her campaign of hope, of yes we can. And you can bet that when she called me from Iowa to relate her progress there was a smile in her voice and not a hint of complaint about the weather or anything else.
And when the results were in and a black man had won a presidential primary in a white state and gathered the momentum to become the first black American to have the prospect of being a presidential nominee and perhaps even a president, she relished his triumph and along with it the fact that it was the first political campaign she had ever participated in – and there were many – in which her cause had won.
And in that moment, I was able to share her triumph, to walk across the bridge that we had built together through the decades of contentiousness and debate. “You can be very proud of what you have done Sarah,” I said to her when it was over. “Even if they steal the nomination from Obama; even if he wins the nomination and loses the presidency; even if he wins the presidency and fails to deliver on his promises and disappoints you, it doesn’t matter. It is already done. America has already been changed forever by this Iowa campaign. And this could not have happened without you and others like you. And what I did not say to her because she would not have wanted me to draw attention to it and would not have wanted to hear it, was that of all the people who came to Iowa to campaign for Barack Obama, none had done so having to overcome more obstacles to get there or carry it through than Sarah.
In Jewish lore there is a legend of the lamed vovniks, the thirty-six just men on whom the existence of the world depends (Sarah would have had something to say about the gender prejudice of that). According to the legend, God had become so disgusted with his creation that he was determined to destroy it. But an angel came to plead with Him and to ask for a reprieve if she could find thirty-six just men in the world. In every generation, so the legend goes, there are always thirty-six just men – the lamed vovniks on whom its continued survival depends. The lamed vovniks are not conscious of who they are. They perform their acts of compassion and love out of the purity of their hearts. And the rest of us owe the world to them.
You are a light in our lives Sarah. You are a lamed vovnik. You have set the standard that we all must strive to reach. To never give up hope. To see ourselves in others. To be always putting up candles against the dark.
I miss you terribly, my sweet child. We all miss you. We beg your forgiveness for having failed to appreciate you as much as we should have when you were here with us. We know it is a fault in all of us, and it is the fault in the world – the very fault that you struggled so mightily with your small and infirm and embattled being to repair. This was your tikkun olam. This was your mission and your faith.
If you can hear me, know that in everyone you touched you have succeeded. Know that the world has been changed by your presence. Rest in the knowledge that your task is done and the mission you set out to accomplish with your life has been completed. We, who knew you and who love you, will keep you in our hearts always; we will keep the flame of your hope burning; and we will keep the memory of your courage, and compassion, and goodness alive. And the memory of you will continue to change us and inspire us always. Rest in peace, dear Sarah, you are loved and the love you put into the world has planted seeds of hope, and has not been in vain.
Sarah in Iowa
Note: The family asks that donations be sent to the Sarah Horowitz Fund at American Jewish World Service, 45 West 36th Street, NY, NY 10018 (Attn: Joanna Kabat) to carry on the work that Sarah began.