The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Mort Heller

Morton Alvin Heller, longtime Aspen resident, died last week at his home, surrounded by family. Read the obituary here.  Yesterday Rollin and I had the honor of conducting the funeral for this beloved pillar of the Aspen community, whom we had barely gotten to know.  My eulogy is below, along with two poems that were read during the memorial service.  Rollin also sang "Fly Me to the Moon," one of Mort's favorite songs, which he used to sing to his grandchildren as "ski me to the moon..."  Although we didn't record it, you can enjoy a version of the song by clicking here.
זכרון צדיק לברכה, zichron tzadik liv'rachah
may the memory of this righteous man be a blessing in our lives.

Eulogy for Morton Alvin Heller (1920-2010)
Rabbi David Segal
November 28, 2010

   Niv-char shem mei-osher rav, mi-kesef u-mi-zahav chen tov.
   A good name is more desirable than great wealth,
   and good grace is better than silver and gold.
          ~ Proverbs 22:1

Morton Alvin Heller knew the value of a good name.  The presence of all of you here today attests to that.  The sparkle in the eye of everyone sharing a memory of Mort attests to that.  This community’s love and respect for Mort and his family attest to that.

Others will speak who knew Mort far better and longer than I.  When Rollin and I arrived in Aspen, Lita and Mort extended an open hand of welcome to us.  This, I now know, was a glimpse into the kind of man Mort was, and the kind of presence he and Lita were together.

As I sat with Mort’s family and dearest friends yesterday evening, they brought this man to life before my eyes.  The impression their stories made on me -- a shadow, I know, of the fullness of Mort’s life -- is what I want to share with you today.

They all spoke of Mort as a wonderful, genuine man.  That his most endearing quality was that he was so non-judgmental.  Friends observed that he never said a negative word, got angry, or swore.  Although Lita added, “If anybody could have brought the temper out of him, I could!”

Everyone spoke of Mort as sweet and mild.  A story was told of a time when Lita and Mort were in the car, with all the kids in the back, stopped at a red light.  When it turned green, and Mort didn’t step on the gas, Lita said, “It’s not going to get any greener.”  To which Mort replied, “Maybe if we wait a while.”

As a father, Mort earned himself a good name.  Mort and Lita’s children spoke of him as a caring and wise parent.  Of all of Lita’s suitors, they said, Mort was the only one who connected with her children.  He was very hands-on, sharing with them his love of all the sports in which he was an accomplished athlete.  But he never tried to take over or boss them around -- he was there when they needed him.  Lita’s children saw and appreciated how great he was for their mother, how happy he made her.  As Sam put it, “Mort was the Gold Standard of a stepfather.”

As a grandfather, Mort earned himself a good name.  His grandchildren spoke fondly of their time with Grandpa Morty.  Ben told of his first summer job, at the age of 12, delivering local mail on rollerblades for Grandpa Morty’s bank.  Ben went on to say that, as gregarious and generous as Morty was, there was something deeper in this -- it was not frivolous work given to a grandson, but a lesson in the value of a day’s work, and in responsibility.

Elizabeth remembered that Grandpa Morty had terrible handwriting, so bad that she couldn’t read it.  But while she was at summer camp, he wrote her a letter every day -- though she needed her mother to decipher them!  Rachael spoke of Grandpa Morty as full of surprises, always excited to see her, and always able to make her feel at home.  And the story was told of Cyrus, who was asked in school at age 7 who his best friend was.  He replied, “Grandpa Morty!”  Such was the care Mort had for his family, and the affect he had on those he loved.

As a friend, Mort earned a good name.  His business partners and colleagues rarely saw a man with more integrity and kindness.  He was trustworthy and trusting, and invested in the success of others.  He was, as one friend described, a man of “strong opinions that he voiced in a mild way.”  And his lifelong friendships are a testament to Mort’s loyalty.

As a lover of life, Mort made a name for himself.  It was said that Mort achieved the “perfect balance between work and play.”  Not only was Mort good at sports, but he was a good sport.  At an Aspen ballet performance by an African dance group, they brought Mort on stage to dance.  By all reports, he was fabulous -- and he didn’t get off the stage!  And then at a performance of the musical Hair, where the actors pull an audience member from their seat into the action, they sat on Morty’s lap, kissed his bald head, and brought him up to dance!  And yet again, at a Flamenco performance at the Greek Theater, Mort couldn’t sit still.  He was shaking the entire row with his rhythmic movements.  And to top it all off, after the show, in the parking lot he jumped onto a car and started dancing, Flamenco-style!  As Robin said, “We never had cringe moments with Dad, as silly as he was.”

Even in illness and infirmity, Mort was worthy of his good name.  His spirit did not weaken in the later stages of his life, and he continued to embrace those people and pursuits that brought him joy.  He never complained, facing weakness with his characteristic gentleness and grace.  In the words of Harlan, who was by Mort’s side for 12 years, “Mort was the humblest and most appreciative man I ever met.  When we try to be better people, we should ask ourselves, What would Mort do? and try to be more like him.”

As a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, friend -- as a man -- Mort Heller earned his good name.  That name, that legacy, more precious than wealth, lives on.

In closing, a poem by the Hebrew poet Zelda:

“Each of Us Has A Name”
By Zelda, translated by Marcia Lee Falk

Each of us has a name

given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name

given by our stature
and our smile

and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name

given by the mountains

and given by our walls

Each of us has a name

given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name

given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name

given by the sea

and given by
our death.
by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 
But make allowance for their doubting too; 
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies, 
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating, 
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master; 
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim; 
If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same; 
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken 
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, 
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone, 
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch; 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; 
If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run - 
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, 
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
It can be said with certainty that Mort Heller was not one who simply visited this world: he embraced life and left a lasting impression.  He will be missed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day in Aspen

This morning I had the honor of offering the invocation and benediction during Aspen's Veterans Day commemoration.  After the presentation of the colors and a memorial wreath, Colonel Dick Merritt and Dan Glidden led the community in the Pledge of Allegiance, words of welcome, and the lighting of a memorial candle.  Then they invited me to give the invocation, and here's what I said:

Good morning. It's an honor for me to be here with you today.
The Abraham of the Bible -- the father of three faiths -- was, at times, a man of war.  He was called by God to bring a new way of life to the world.  In the service of that call, he left his home and family, journeyed to an unfamiliar land, and there stepped into the role of general to battle hostile forces threatening what was dear to him (Gen. 14).  
But Abraham never lost sight of his calling, the transcendent purpose of his wandering and warring.  That calling had been proclaimed by God: “You shall be a blessing... And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3).
In our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln, too, became a man of war.  He was called and sworn to protect this Union, its constitution, and the universal freedom promised in its Declaration of Independence.  He despised war, but loved the union more.1  Liberty and Peace were his higher purpose; war, the unfortunate instrument to protect those ideals and the nation whose soul they breathe into life.  So it has been throughout the history of our country, when men and women have stepped forward to serve.
In that spirit, we honor and celebrate you, our veterans, today.  As we give thanks for your service and sacrifice, let us always remember:
in your courage in combat, we see your commitment to peace; 
in your bravery in battle, we sense your transcendent purpose:
to be a blessing to your families, to our nation, and to the world.
After I spoke, Dick Merritt expressed that I was their chaplain for the day, and he spoke about the proud history of chaplains in the military. He told a story about a military ship that was sinking, and the four chaplains who gave up their life preservers -- and therefore, their lives -- so that four more troops could be saved.  They were three pastors and a rabbi, a reminder that all faiths are joined in support of our country.  Then a list was read of Aspen soldiers killed in Action, and Tom Buesch read a moving poem by a young airman (I will try to obtain a copy to post here).  Jeannie Walla led us in the national anthem, and then all veterans present were called forward in order of the wars in which they served.  It was an emotional sight, to see so many of different ages and life experiences who had served our country.  Several veterans gave impromptu remarks about memories of the war, what their service means to them, and fellow soldiers lost along the way.

Finally, I was asked to offer the benediction:
Today we have celebrated, commemorated, and reflected.  In closing, I offer a blessing inspired by the ancient words of the Torah:
May God bless and keep our veterans, and those they love and protect.
May God’s face shine upon them and be gracious to them.
May God’s countenance be lifted up to us all, and grant us that most precious of gifts, peace.
And together let us say, Amen.
I am grateful that I took the time out of my day today to be reminded of the debt we owe all those who serve in the military.  To all our veterans: Thank you.