Everywhere You Go, Build

Oliver Keyes bio photo By Oliver Keyes

This eulogy is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write. Part of that is me. My patter is glib, flippant, aimed at imbalancing the audience with humour, not depth. I am my father’s child, after all.

Part of it, though, is that Judaism’s traditional ways of eulogising women have always been rather narrow. Men are seen as people; they are lauded for their brilliance, their knowledge, the writings or institutions they contributed to the Jewish people.

Women? The most common posthumous plaudit for a woman comes from Mishle: “Who can find a virtuous and capable woman? She is more precious than rubies”. Our analogy for a good woman is to something you own. And that’s all-too-often how women are seen: as possessions. Lauded not for brilliance or knowledge but for the support they provided the men in their lives, and the children they contributed to the Jewish people.

I’m not here to talk about that. I’m not here to remember her for who she married, but for how she had the bravery and courage to throw him out. To go it alone, a single parent in the 70s keeping four people alive on a nurse’s salary, rather than let him drag everyone down with him in the name of ‘propriety’.

I’m not here to remember how she raised her children. I’m here to remember how she waved those children off at the bus and then moved to Dallas. How she shipped herself halfway across the world, on her terms, to work as a medical practitioner. How she had the strength to move to a place where she had no community, no support network, and build a life there, improvise a community there.

And yes, I remember her as a grandmother. I remember her being loving, and caring, and all of the other things a Jewish grandmother is meant to be. But I also remember her taking me on aliyah to Israel, on her own, in her 70s. I remember Ivor Crewe - Sir Ivor Crewe - coming round to her little house in Colchester and deferring to her. I remember going to the shul in Colchester and watching them, too, defer to her, because she was the President of that shul. I remember her refusing to stop ministering to the sick and the dying, and comforting their families, until she was forced to stop.

We live in exceedingly dark times. I can’t really speak to the situation in the UK, but in the United States, everything that can go wrong, is. The President and his lackeys - who range from incompetent to malicious - scream for war. Natural disasters ravage the coasts while Neo-Nazis walk the streets with heads held high. All of this happening over the constant drumbeat of voices screaming to hate, to fear, to kill your neighbour and burn down their house for looking differently or loving differently from you.

On the days when all of this makes it difficult to get out of bed, I think of my grandmother. I think of how she never let anything stop her from going where she felt she needed to be, never let anyone tell her that she was lesser for the circumstances of her birth or the nature of her life. I think of how she never gave in to fear - how everywhere she went, she built. Always on her terms, nobody else’s.

That, ultimately, is the lesson I am taking from her life: everywhere you go, build. Do not give in to fear of the outside, fear of the Other; do not let anyone tell you who you can or can’t be, how you can or can’t live your life. Even if there are Nazis in the street, even if there is hatred on the television, let nothing stop you. Everywhere you go, build.