Eulogy for “Grandma” Zelda Katz (zl)

November 9, 2012; 24 Heshvan 5773


Zelda Katz testifies before the Health and Family Security Committee in 2005 to increase funding for senior nutrition programs.

Were Zelda physically here right now she would walk onto the pulpit and with a sincerity that couldn’t be missed she would say  “You light up my life, you give me the strength to carry on. “ Coming from almost anyone else it would be dismissed as cliché and platitudinous—coming from Zelda it was truth and it was profound.

Where does one begin to express the manifold blessings which are ours as a result of the life that Zelda Katz –Zelda bat Aharon Zimon u’Dvasha  shared with us.  It would be so easy to make the comparison of Zelda’s passing to this week’s Torah portion—Haye Sarah –perhaps Steve in his weekly Torah message thought the same thing.. Haye Sarah details the death of Sarah and shares with us the fact that she died at 127. That fact—the only time that a woman’s age is shared at her death led our rabbis to parse her age and to suggest that she lived her life with the purity of a 7 year old, that she lived her life with the vigor of a 20 year old and that she lived her life with the wisdom of an elder at 100 with her mind intact.   It would be so easy and indeed even appropriate to simply link the life of Zelda to this motherly paradigm of the Jewish people and our founding matriarch.   But at the end, with no disregard for Sarah, it would simply fail to capture the true essence of Zelda Katz and the life we were privileged to come to know over these past 26 years.  I say that because of the outpouring of affection and the endless stories that have been shared with me over the past 24 hours, the memories of this shul in its formative moments and in its private connections.  What I know to be true is that Zelda was a sui generis human being whose ability to find the good in the midst of struggle, the joy in the midst of sorrow, and hope in the midst of pain touched the lives of literally thousands in ways we will not ever fully be able to capture or understand.  But for those touched by her presence, intuitively you understand my words in ways that an outsider who may hear these words would simply dismiss as hyperbole.

This is what I learned once again these past 24 hours and what each of us needs to carry with us moving forward if we are sincere in wanting to honor the life and to safeguard the memory of this woman. Zelda understood Martin Buber much better than almost anyone else I know.  Buber was once asked—“where is God?’  And instead of saying that God was everywhere- that God could be found in your shuls and churches, Buber answered quite differently.  He taught us God is found in relationships–not in people, but rather  between people.  When two people are fully attuned to each other, it is God filling the space between them—so that they are fully connected and not separated.  Both love and sincere friendship are much more than simply a way of allowing us to understand that we matter to one another.  They are a way of mattering to the world in which we live (based on a passage from Kushmer, Living a Life That Matters, p.124)—bringing God’s presence into a world that would otherwise be filled with the aspirations of the self and anomie   –social alienation.

Zelda Katz would be the last person to accept that truth which I just shared.  She would say she never read a word of Buber in her life. She would say her wisdom was simple and hardly profound. But in truth,  her life was a constant theological lesson being taught about what it means to see the Divine presence in the world in which we live.   You know how I know that—because I spent the day yesterday and continuing until the start of this funeral in awe as people contacted me with story after story abut the way their life was shaped by the life that Zelda lived.  In a moment or two—(maybe three) I will share some of those thoughts—for indeed as her beloved cousins and dedicated family members Steve and Nancy, Jeff and Janice Marilyn and Tim and their kids put into the obituary—Zelda is also mourned by her Beth Jacob family—and I would add her JCC family, her Cleveland High rise family, her TT family, her sholom home west family.  But it is also important to begin by reminding ourselves that Zelda’s life was not a life of ease and comfort, was not a life of privilege and opportunity but was a life of profound courage and an uncompromising optimistic streak that refused to give into despair and refused to blame the world for the lot in life she was given.

Her early years were filled with sadness.  Her mother died when she was 7, her father remarried a woman who was to say it nice—hardly kind to Zelda She would essentially kick her out of her house after Zelda’s father suffered an accident and he himself went into the old sholom home.  But for her first cousin WillIam Schactman—Steve and Jeff’s and Marilyn’s father’s attention towards her— and which continued with Sylvia and her extended family as well over the years—Zelda would have been a solitary individual whose life today would not have been known.   Zelda initially worked nights in the laundry of what is now Children’s Hospital  and at her retirement some 41 years later was most proud of having risen to become a nursing assistant on children’s floors—where she would always say to kids as they were being discharged—“I don’t want to see you here again because this is not Disneyland.” Those years were years when Zelda honed her simple wisdom; learned her Buberian truths and lived a quiet and unremarkable life—save for the counsel she provided to Jeff and Steve and Marilyn in the years before and after their father’s untimely death.  Indeed had that been the sum of her life, today we would be mourning an honorable life of a person who had little but gave much.    But such is not Zelda’s full story—these past 26 years have been filled with a depth that few would believe if they indeed had not been partners in its unfolding.   This was a woman who would be recognized by WCCO as the Good Neighbor; by KARE 11 as a local hero: and who testified before the state legislature on behalf of meals on wheels and said in her testimony—“ you want old people like me to be hungry?” This was a woman who spent 14 years at Herzl Camp in Kshishim and I heard from former youth campers as far away as Israel on the profound impact Zelda’s presence had in their lives during those formative years.

And how did it all begin—the Cleveland High Rise when another woman invited Zelda to come to shul one Shabbat morning at the JCC in 1986 with her.  That first Shabbat in the fall of 1986—where maybe 35 or 40 people gathered— in walked Zelda Katz.  Over the years at the JCC she was one of the many older women who helped clean up Kiddush with Sam Saide, enduring his attempt at humors as well, and who began to connect  with the younger families who began to make up the core of the early years of the shul.  But it wasn’t until 1989 or 1990 that she became a full blown grandma.  As one young man wrote—“Grandma Zelda was not always an equal opportunist.   When I was 4 or 5 , I was not even one of GZ candy recipients.  I think Adam Ukes coined the phrase– grandma Zelda– because he was the only one who use to get candy.  I found out about this and because of her giving nature Grandma Zelda welcomed me into her club.  She use to take me and Adam Ukes into the nursery and give us a piece of bubble gum( believe it was bubblelicious and often cotton candy flavored.)  We weren’t allowed to tell anyone else about it or eat it in shul.  Then it expanded to tootsie roll pops but it was an economic hardship for her and as more and more kids found out about it it became dum dums.  I think at first it was mostly a ploy so that kids would have a conversation with her, for unless you talked with her there was no lollipop.  She must have given away 1000s of lollipops in her lifetime and no one remembers if they got fruit punch or the dreaded pina colada—but everyone remembers GZ’s kind heart and caring ways— and hundreds of kids have come through Beth Jacob and remembered a conversation they had with GZ and the way it touched their lives.

But her connections ran deeper.  She was a fifth grandparent, a second mother, a constant sister to so many folks in our shul and our community.  For twins in their early years,  she accompanied them for haircuts sitting with one as the other got clipped.  She was the grandmother every young child wanted to honor on mother’s days and the brunches were sought after weeks in advance.  She had so many yontiff invitations that her own family often felt taken aback when they called and she had to say—“sorry I always say yes to the ones who invite me first. “ I think secretly she wanted to be at  the homes where dogs might be found and she could be licked endlessly—once remarking you know their tongues are cleaner than human’s tongues.

Listen, this morning at minyan, a congregant saying kaddish for his father during the year had tears in his eyes as he told  those assembled that every year on his kids birthdays an envelope would arrive with a little something in it.  I have no idea how many birthdays Zelda kept track of and who received a special birthday card —for every kid thought they were the special one.   But here was a woman who had so little and gave so much that one young adult wrote the following:  “she spent considerably from her modest means simply to make us feel happy and worthwhile and loved. She gave every last dollar, every last ounce of energy to us.  When she fell at my brother’s bar mitzvah party and was on the ground waiting for an ambulance, I remember the only thing she could say was how upset she was that she wouldn’t be able to participate in the celebration. That was all that mattered to her—not her health; not her limited resources,; not her past or her future—only that we were happy The letter  concludes by saying—she taught us the meaning of giving– she inspired us to live our lives to the fullest. “ Another young adult  echoed those words with  these:   “Her unwavering optimism, her open heart that never stopped giving, and her relentless graciousness that made us realize that, although we were the ones getting candy, she was the one who got the most joy out of the transaction, are an inspiration and a reminder to us all that those who give endlessly of themselves are the ones who are truly happy.

These stories go on and on. The story I received from a former congregant now living in Israel who said that  after his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in 1993 all she wanted for a present was to take grandma Zelda on a family vacation to Washington DC with them—and they did.  Or the comment from a young adult living in Brooklyn who said, “if you were the one who brought GZ to day school on special person day you were the luckiest kid in the school. “ Or the woman who wrote that her daughter whose struggle to speak was filled with its own pain and sorrow but who at 4 and ½ was finally able to stammer out grandma Zelda made it seem in her reaction to my daughter’s words-that she had just won the lottery!”   Let’s be honest. It didn’t come without a cost.  Many of the older women her age often were quite jealous of the attention heaped upon her.  She was not above letting them know that she had been invited to a bar or bat mitzvah party and so wouldn’t be  needing a ride home.   But what they could never figure out was that she was a woman for whom joy was not aspirational but rather constitutional.  One older congregant in the shul wrote these words: “Zelda had a cup with barely enough water to cover the bottom and insisted it was overflowing.”

When she came to shul on shabbas even after the move to Sholom west (which she insisted upon so as to not burden her Minneapolis family any more—though they and Jack or many others, she would wheel into the sanctuary with her walker and eyes lit up, smiles were evident on faces, and a sense of gratitude was palpable throughout the shul.  On her 90th birthday when she received an Aliyah spontaneous applause followed by joyful dancing spilled out into the open.  Tears of joy flowed  together with tears of poignancy –all of us understanding  that a life like this comes our way but once We were privileged to have known it, to have grown from it, to become responsible for sharing it forward and for  understanding the blessings which we have realized through the agency of one person’s honest and simple construct for living.

“There arose a mother in Israel”   an “Eym bysiroel “ says the Tanach in reference to Deborah the prophet .  We have no record of her having children so tradition developed the notion that she was the model of a woman who had no biological children but who raised a generation on her own.  One teenager in our shul shared the following with me on Facebook which captures that truth so beautifully.  “One specific memory that I have of her is a story that she told me when I was little. She was in the hospital after slipping on ice and her doctor gave her a memory test. The doctor asked her the date and she told him the date. He asked her the name of the president and she told him the name of the president. He asked her how many children and grandchildren she had and she replied hundreds. At first the doctor thought that she was crazy but then she explained,  ‘All you have to do was come to my shul on shabbas and see and meet them all. ‘”

The stories could go on and on and indeed if we are truly to honor her life we must continue to tell them—but we must do one thing more. We must find the strength within us to banish the propensity to self-pity and to replace it with a deep seated commitment to selfless giving and unadulterated optimism.  To live our life with a belief that it has meaning not because of what we have—but because of how we relate to one another. –How we   fill the space between another and ourselves with the divine presence through honest engagement, through profound sincerity and with a belief in the goodness of the other –in other words how Zelda encountered the world in which she lived.


I have spoken about many remarkable lives from this bema at moments like this.  But I have never known a person with ability of Zelda Katz who lived such an authentic life in the simplest encounters she ever had.  As I reflected upon her life—I suddenly understood a verse from Tanach that I had never fully appreciated before—when Yonatan says to David:  Vnifkatida ki’ypaked moshavekha—you will be missed for your seat is vacant..”   Zelda you will be missed because your seat is vacant—and it falls to you and to me and to everyone who hears a Zelda story to fill the seat next to hers with depth, with meaning, with optimism, with joy and with love.  And when we do—her life will continue to matter.  May her memory not only be for a blessing—may her memory serve as an inspiration to live life in a manner that speaks to best of what anyone of us can ever fully accomplish—being a partner in bringing God’s presence more fully into this world.  Lkhi b’shalom .  May you go in peace.  Your journey has had meaning.

-Rabbi Morris J. Allen