On Friday, May 9, 2008, our friend, Ben’s, 16 year old son, died. (The gentler phrases, “took his last breath” or “passed into the next world” drift into my mind now, but each betrays a theology and reality that may exist only in my imagination). On that erev-Shabbat, Zalman Katz, a boy who, in the words of one friend, “lived life with a passion, like he was scooping it up with a spoon,” died, and, in his place, remained questions, silence, fear, anger, dread.
On Shabbat morning, I awoke with the heaviness of realization pressing down on my eyelids. The Katz family lived in the hills of Topanga; most of our community and friends lived in the city or the San Fernando Valley; I lived on Venice Beach. There was no obvious place to go. Our friend, Ben, and his immediate family were soaking in the finality of silence and weren’t interested (yet) in a buzz of community descending upon their sanctuary of grief. I was too angry to go to shul; I found myself repelled by the possibility of meeting God in a cozy abode of His creation.
I thought to create art: I pulled magazines, scissors, and glue sticks from their canvas bag and began an almost frantic search for images, words, symbols with which to express my outrage, my grief on the page. I found phrases like “if you can read this, you’re dead” and “what’s your real risk?” to paste alongside serene photos of parents cradling their children and a gingerbread man with a blindfold over his eyes.
When the page was full, I walked outside my patio onto the Venice boardwalk, in my pajamas. Homeless street musicians pounded on drums and leaned into microphones plugged into portable, battery operated amplifiers. The white pavement beneath my feet was blanketed with canvasses of paint splattered emotionality; framed and impressively displayed amateur photography; and fabrics imported from far-flung lands shaped into women’s clothing, hats, handbags, and jewelry.
Though most Shabbatot, I was leaning into a more traditional Sabbath observance (not spending money, not frequenting restaurants, etc.), I wandered toward the Candle Cafe as if propelled by a Force beyond my control. The dreadlocked, pregnant, scantily clad waitress took my order: a large pear cider and a California omelette with hash browns. The sun relentlessly pressed its rays of brightness through the rainbow teared umbrella beside me as Abraham, my favorite homeless artist and musician began belting a raspy chorus into the microphone resting against his parched lips: “OLD MAN”… “YOUNG MAN”… “OLD MAN”… “YOUNG MAN.” His eyes were squished tightly shut and his black, wrinkled face looked oddly serene. “OLD MAN”… “YOUNG MAN”… “OLD MAN”… He shrieked into the mic. And then, as if God Himself wanted a word, he softened, ending the ballad with the words, “PEOPLE WITH NO TEETH.” I might have snorted. The unexpected change in lyric was somehow perfect. Perfectly out of place. Perfectly out of sync. Perfectly wrong. I loved it. After I finished my cider and left half my omelette, I hugged Abraham and gave him a $20. Yes, on Shabbat. I thought about calling Ben, who, in other circumstances, might have loved the story, loved the song, loved how perfectly crazy and perfectly insightful it was. The absurdity of it seemed to echo my sense of injustice while playing with the reality that, old or young, we are all vulnerable, soft, creatures (sometimes with, sometimes without teeth).
Old Man. Young Man. One alive. One dead. Life, in all its complexity, unfairness, uncertainty, and (mis)fortune, goes on. Here, on Venice Beach. Was Abraham (this incarnation of God) a prophet? Were his words inspired liturgy? Was he channeling his music from Above? Either way, I felt gratitude wash into my aching heart.
As I meandered back toward home, I thought of the oft repeated phrase uttered to mourners in the Jewish tradition: HaMakom Yinachem Etchem… HaMakom, the place, the divine: may it comfort you. And I thought of *my* place, this crazy place resting precariously on the edge of the continent. And how it comforted me. Only on Venice Beach would Truth arrive in the form of a homeless street musician downloading ridiculous lyrics from Heaven and belting them without irony into a microphone. Venice Beach. My Makom. I had chosen to live there, amidst homelessness and hope, dreams of art and blaring sun, in the precise location where water meets land. Venice Beach had called to me years before (without my realizing why) with the whisper of a promise of home. A crazy, seemingly haphazard, Divinely inspired, sun drenched home where sanity co-mingles with reality like salt dissolves into the sea.
I now believe that we must work to create a place – a Makom – where we will find comfort when the inevitable (and yet wholly unexpected and traumatic) occurs. HaMakom Yinachem Etchem isn’t just something we ought say to mourners; it should be a daily reminder to ourselves that our work now is to create a Makom – a place – where we can retreat into the familiar oddities of home when those moments arrive.