Dear Rabbi Lowenbraun and Family,
It was 1984 and we had just moved to Baltimore from Madison, Wisconsin. Avrum was standing in a bank line a few days before Rosh Hashanah, and before he knew it, he was in conversation with the man in front of him, who happened to be an amiable rabbi named Lowenbraun. In hindsight, it is no great surprise that the conversation led, on the spot, to an invitation to a Yontif meal. I do not remember a lot about that evening, but I do recall feeling warmly welcomed amidst a slew of kids, our three boys included, and a table that seemed to sparkle with china and steaming hot and delicious food. There was an exuberance of energy in the air, much chatter in every room, and a little uncertainty as to how this evening would unfold. I can now say that, for us, it opened a door into a world that I desired but was unaccustomed to: a world of history and family, of traditions that dated back centuries, a personal clarity about who you were and what your life purpose was, a richness of spirit and wisdom, and melodies that were captivating and haunting. The life force that set everything into motion, that created connections and initiated dialogues, the life force that pulled it all together, the life force that stepped back rather than taking center stage – that life force was, without a doubt, Miriam Lowenbraun.
Who was this woman, who would become, through the years, one of my dearest and closest of friends? Miriam was a thinker, an initiator, a wise and sage spokesperson for what was happening with children, with disenfranchised teens, with struggling parents and isolated singles. She seemed to have her finger on the pulse of what needed our attention and action. Miriam was not shy about stating her opinion and shaking the bushes of our Jewish community. Her Shabbos table came alive with controversial subjects and lively debates. As much as she raised issues and gave her specific opinion, she also wanted to hear from you and the person sitting next to you and the 10-year-old across the table and the quiet gentleman at the end. All thoughts, all opinions were encouraged to be spoken. Each and every person who made his or her way to the Lowenbraun table caught Miriam’s interest and attention. When she was talking to you, you felt her undivided focus. She cared what you had to say, what you liked to eat, what you learned at school, how your brother, mother, or sister was doing. And she asked you with a full heart and a genuine interest.
Miriam Lowenbraun was one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met. I felt her kindness, her generosity of spirit, her humanity, and her refined integrity. She loved me, and I loved her. Her sensitivity to our family was amazing! She included us, with great care and thoughtfulness, inviting us to Shabbos meals, the second night of Sukkos, Pesach seders, Shavuos night with her signature cheese pie, and, before her own family grew into the dozens, Simchas Torah afternoon with the soup flowing and the kugels finding their way to the multiple tables set up in her two large dining rooms. Miriam created the ambiance, directed the food coming out of the oven, and paid attention to the big picture as well as to the minute details – always giving notice to the people and how this whole joyous experience fit together. How did she do it? How did she pull it off? So many different types of Jews: all interesting to her, all special, all feeling that they were especially invited and how important it was that they showed up. She had the capacity to expand her love and commitment to so many that we never took into account that there were so many others who were just as important as we thought we were in her life.
Before and after Avrum and I moved thousands of miles away to Eretz Yisrael, Miriam made it her business to reach out to our four sons, who each lived independently. She had all of their phone numbers and insisted on calling them individually with an invitation for a Shabbos or Yontif meal. She could have said, “Invite your boys” or tell one brother to invite another, but she didn’t. She made contact with each one. Our boys weren’t always so good about getting back to her, but that didn’t deter Miriam; she persisted in calling until she reached them to say, “Nu? Are you coming?” I will always remember that and appreciate it greatly.
I can’t continue to mention Miriam without mentioning Itchie. The two of you created a rhythm, a duet, a partnership, a love bond that was marvelously evident every time we sat at your table. You were in tune and in sync with one another, respectfully adding to the other’s commentaries. You modeled deference and a call for connection. Your children were getting a firsthand lesson in derech eretz – and so were all of us. Humor and laughter lightened any differences in thought and created such a sweetness that emulated the lovely experience we were all having. I was immensely fortunate to be given the honored seat next to Miriam, but she naturally wheeled her chair aside Itchie’s, a fitting place for her to sit.
Miriam was the ultimate mother. She was a lioness when it came to her children. She was loving and tender, opinionated and protective, soothing and encouraging, a fierce advocate and a staunch champion. The role of motherhood came to her naturally, and she assumed that position with her nieces and nephews as well as with the children of other mothers. If you were one of those children, perhaps, struggling with your own parents or Yiddishkeit or school or your wounded soul, meeting Miriam was like striking gold. She became your safe harbor to sort out, share, grapple with, and be seen, heard, and understood. If a child was hurting, a piece of Miriam was hurting too.
When you were fortunate enough to be included in the simchas of the Lowenbraun and Twerski families, you truly got a front row seat into a dynasty, an unbroken chain of Torah scholars, brilliant educators, healing mentors, and life-affirming, passionate orators, who committed themselves to repairing the world. When you were in the presence of Itchie and Miriam you were in awe of their greatness and at the very same time distinctively aware of their humble humanity. They were giants and also common folk. What a gift they gave to all of us!
Miriam…..why didn’t you tell me you were sick? Your illness was never, ever part of our friendship. It was never discussed; it was never known. When I would ask you how you were doing, you would say, “You know we’re all getting old with our aches and pains.” Your focus and concern was away from yourself and onto someone else. You must have been significantly ill when you insisted I stay with you when I was in Baltimore around Chanukah time, and I was more than delighted to take you up on your offer. You didn’t miss a beat with your graciousness. Why did I miss the boat? Was I supposed to miss the boat? If I had been told, let in on the secret, would our relationship have changed? Would it have been uncomfortable for you? Would I have focused my attention on you in ways you would not have wanted? I will never know for sure. I only wish that I would have had more time to have said all that I wanted to convey. I hope you knew that I cherished our friendship. I hope you knew that I would have done just about anything for you. I hope you knew that I admired your strength and your courage, your perseverance and tenacity, your warmth and abundant generosity. You championed causes, but, more importantly, you championed people. No one in your sphere was marginal or less than, you saw the true essence and good in all who crossed your path. You treated the kooky, the eccentric, the way out, the strange and odd ones with complete respect, elevating their souls to a level of dignity and distinction. You did it without trying; it just flowed from your very being. The gesture was never lost on me, and I strived to emulate it in my own life.
Living so far away makes it all the more unbelievably difficult to wrap my mind around the reality and enormity of our loss. Part of me is, and wants to be, in denial – wanting to believe that when I, b”H, return to Baltimore, you will be there and we will pick up where we left off, that I will, once again, take my favored seat at your Shabbos table, that we will laugh together and engage in meaningful conversations, that we will agree to disagree and move on, that we will share triumphs and struggles of our children and talk about our latest projects. We will talk about the next time we will see each other and look forward to it. This, however, is not to be. Our connection in this world has, beyond regrettably, come to an end, or I’d rather view it as a “pause.” Your impact, the lessons and love that you left with me, will never depart and will remain in my heart forever. I don’t pretend to know much about the next world, but in my imagination, you were heralded in with great triumphant spirit; a shake-up occurred, and the neshamas gathered to recognize the passing befitting a queen. The honor is a well-deserved one; however, you bargained a different plan, a more humble and quietly dignified entrance. You had work to do and couldn’t be distracted by all the attention. I bet you persuaded and won.
As in everything else in your life, you taught us how to die. When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, you captured your emuna in such a fearless way by simply saying, “Hashem doesn’t take you one day before He needs you or one day after He needs you.” What an affirmation of trust and pure, sincere belief! I suspect that was your way of telling me that you were prepared to leave this world. I just wasn’t ready to let you go.
As I close, I am imagining all of you coming together, comforting each other, trying to sort out how you will move on without your beloved wife, your beloved mother. I have no doubt that you will find a way, albeit with deep sorrow in your hearts and a tremendous loss that is irreplaceable. Your dear wife and beloved mother left you a blueprint, an instructional template of how to move forward. I know she will be guiding you and all of us from her honored place in Shamayim.
“May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.”
Avrum joins me in sending our heartfelt support and love.
The Shloshim for Miriam Lowenbraun will be held, iy”H, on June 19 at Bnos Yisroel. Mincha at 7:30, hespedim at 7:50. Speakers will be Rabbi Aaron Twerski; Rabbi Noson Westreich, about his NCSY experience; Rabbi Labe Twerski, on behalf of the cousins; and Rabbi Yosi Lowenbraun, on behalf of children. Maariv will take place following the program.