By Naomi Soetendorp
This D’var Torah/sermon about the parsha Chaye Sarah has been written in honour of Professor David Shneer z"l, a renowned Jewish educator, social activist and dear friend. David died on 4th November, at the age of 48, and had been living with brain cancer for several years.
Chaye Sarah begins with the story of the death of Sarah, and details how Abraham secured a burial site for his beloved wife. The parsha then goes on to tell the story of how Isaac met Rebecca - how he marries her in Sarah’s tent and is comforted after the death of his mother. We learn how Abraham goes on to remarry and have several more children with his new wife before he also dies, and is buried at the burial site he had secured for Sarah.
Love, grief, comfort and hope interweave throughout the parsha. Life pulses deeply throughout the text.
The parsha teaches us that the actions we take in service of our loved ones can in turn protect us. Abraham is buried in the same site as Sarah. Had he not secured her burial ground, he may have been buried at the side of the road, and the location of his own final resting place would have been lost to us.
Abraham acts out of deep love for Sarah, his wife and partner of many years. Later in the parsha, Rebecca draws water for Isaac’s servant Eliezer and his animals, out of kindness love of the stranger. Eliezer had asked G!d to help him find the kindest, most generous of women to be Isaac's wife, and it is this act of drawing water that signals to Eliezer that Rebecca was the woman he was seeking.
The parsha shows us that love is something multifaceted, existing between partners of many years, but also expressed through kindness and generosity to strangers. David expressed love in multifaceted ways throughout his life: through his deep love and commitment to his parents and family, his daughter Sasha, his husband Gregg and their co-parent Caryn. And to his students, his colleagues, the strangers who posed questions in his lectures or came to chat to him after his talks.
It was this loving, willingness to go along with his audience that was so noticeable when David and I first met in 2008 at Limmud New York, at a session he gave on Yiddish song. He hadn’t planned to sing in that session, but after being coaxed by his audience, he sang. It was to be one of many times David showed me how good it is to respond to your students, to make teaching engaging. He demonstrated that a teacher’s skill and strength is shown in their adaptability, not their authority.
Later that year, Rabbi Daniel and I, working together on Limmud programming, brought David and his husband Gregg to Limmud UK. David taught at least five sessions, addressing his work as a scholar of the Holocaust, Yiddish culture and queer Jewish activitivism. One of my clearest memories of that Limmud is David standing in a full lecture theatre, telling the room he wanted to hear their stories, but 'no coming-out stories'. He wanted stories of action, stories that would empower. This was the very beginnings of Keshet UK.
David brought to that session something of the spirt of Abraham when he stood before the Hittites. He spoke with passion and deep love, but also with the confidence that comes from being certain that what he is asking for is right and just. David’s activism was of particular value and importance for the queer community. However, everyone who witnessed him speak could be inspired to take action to make positive change in the world. David wasn’t pious about this; he was in fact often deeply playful. He taught me about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, how it is always easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. How, if in doubt, don’t ask permission: act. Reflecting on the time I spent with David that year, it isn’t a surprise that it was around that time I found the courage and chutzpah to start working on Grassroots Jews.
Though David was deeply optimistic, and inclined to find the joy in what was around him (if he heard music, he’d be dancing – and if he couldn’t dance, it wasn’t his revolution). He was not naïve. David’s work as a Holocaust historian and an activist brought him into close contact with the hate that exists in this world. In my experience, he chose to meet this with love and a determination to find meaning and purpose.
David's stamina and courage helped strengthen him in his studies of the Holocaust, and challenge outmoded understandings of the subject. To be a 'path breaker' in the field. Through his Holocaust studies, he righted the misappropriation and misinterpretation of Soviet Holocaust photography – giving back to the photographers, their subjects and those who mourned them the dignity of having the truth of their stories known.
Through his project 'Art is My Weapon', on the life and works of Lin Jaldati, a Dutch-Jewish Communist star of 1930s East German Yiddish cabaret, David showed how scholarly investigation and artistic performance can work together to bring a subject and their life more fully alive. I’d like to end by sharing a video of David and his coproducer Jewlia Eisenberg performing a song from 'Art is My Weapon'. Partly because it was a project that combined so many of his passions and interests - but also, nothing can do David justice as much as David himself.