June 3, 2018
Today, Vickie and I are at the picturesque church in the village of Schulensee in northern Germany where I am preaching to the Lutheran congregation about the events on Mount Sinai and how they can speak meaningfully to Christians as well as to Jews.
Yes, our bodies are in Schulensee but our hearts are at Rita Goldberg’s funeral.
From the day I first met her in Columbia, Rita appreciated interfaith outreach, and enthusiastically encouraged my efforts in that realm. I dedicate my words today in her memory.
Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with few Jews, Rita particularly appreciated the importance of inter-religious understanding and cooperation. She took a keen interest in what Vickie and I do in Germany, and I dedicate my words today to her memory. Although Rita would be glad we are here, Vickie and I wish we were with Dick and all of you today.
Rita Zieve Goldberg … I always thought of her as Rita Z.
She was the daughter of a beloved small-town physician who made house calls. Rita inherited his wisdom and compassion.
We met in 1973. They came to Columbia and Temple Isaiah just before I arrived to begin my one-year internship with the congregation. We have been dear friends ever since.
I was first in awe of Rita when I learned she had personally known the great baseball player Richie Allen in high school. The subsequent years would yield more substantive reasons for me to be in awe of Rita.
To me she was ageless. She never seemed young, and – even when we visited her a few weeks back in hospice care—she never seemed old.
Her speech had a unique and endearing lilt, and her laugh was unmistakable. Perhaps it was Rita’s greatest triumph that she was able to laugh and smile despite the tragedy and endless list of illnesses that marked her life’s path.
The first—of many—volunteer jobs I remember Rita taking on was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to serve as a luncheon for the monthly family services Temple Isaiah began holding at Swansfield Neighborhood center.
I remember Dianne Tobin playing a toy organ, I remember the smiling faces of children, some of whom became rabbis, sitting on the floor before me as I told a Shabbat story, but the magic that makes those memories so special was Rita’s sandwiches.I
Rita wore many hats, loving wife and occasional ego deflator of Dick, devoted mother of Andy, advisor to the rabbi, confidante of Vickie, peerless hostess and dear friend to so many.
As memorable as Rita was as a hostess, she was even more memorable as a guest. When she came to your home for any social occasion, you could count on a beautifully handwritten note of thanks appearing in your mailbox the next business day.
Our lives intersected frequently at events big and small, both joyous and sad. She was a fabulous storyteller.
Her home was a favorite sleepover destination for our son Leo when he was small. Vickie was very pregnant with Sarah when we attended second night Seder at their home in 1979. We always recount how Rita’s Matzah balls that evening were the catalyst that sent Vickie into labor to give birth the following day.
Fast-forward to recent days, and it was Rita and Dick who visited out children in San Francisco to give wise council to each of them at a difficult time.
I remember Andy’s Bar Mitzvah like it was yesterday. The date was the Shabbat during Sukkot. Because I was very big on having families build Sukkot, I suggested to Andy that his family should build one. It did not take Rita long to appear in my office to share that Sukkah building was not a Goldberg family forte, and that we should think of some other way to connect Andy’s Bar Mitzvah to the festival. After we put our heads together, Rita and Andy came up with the idea of a model sukkah made out of Popsicle sticks. I can still see it in my mind.
That episode was so typical of Rita. If sukkah building was not her forte, finding equitable solutions to potential conflicts surely was.
More clearly than the miniature Sukkah, I can still see the joy Rita’s face radiated at how much Andy learned and how skillfully he taught the congregation at his Bar Mitzvah.
Inevitably my memories of Rita on that wonderful day in October 1981 scramble discordantly together in my mind with my memories of that horrible day in March of 2009 when Andy died.
There is no greater heartbreak for a mother than to lose a child, and if possible, the heartbreak is even greater when that child is your one and only, and your souls are so inextricably intertwined as are Rita and Dick’s souls with Andy’s.
And yet Rita pushed on with determination and purpose.
Miraculously she found joy in life despite the horror of losing Andy and despite the incredible list of medical issues with which she lived. Through all she endured, even on her deathbed, Rita was always smiling and always looking for ways to help others.
That is why I will always be genuinely in awe of her.
She and Dick shared a remarkable marriage of well over 50 years. Truly they were meant for each other, so much so that it is hard to imagine one without the other. No more poignant definition of the word, “Alone,” comes to my mind than Dick without Rita.
I cannot say with certainty what happens to Rita now, but my hope is that she is not alone. In my mind’s eye I see her reunited with her parents and most of all with Andy.
Together, unfettered by infirmities, they will laugh, smile and revel in each other’s company. They will look after one another, and together they will hope that we will look after Dick with the incredible love and devotion with which Dick looked after her.
That is the best way I know to insure that the memory of Rita Zieve Goldberg will be an enduring blessing!