Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z"l) - A Myriad Threads – Re-Reading the Notes of Our Ongoing Conversation
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
This piece was written for a memorial evening to my teacher, Rabbi Sheila, at Leo Baeck College on 22nd November 2019. As Sheila continues to be with me, I thought I would share this words here.
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'Ok kinder, let's go.'
This is how you would begin our classes, Sheila – or once you said, ‘'We can't start the class until I've found a lighter'. So 'ok kinder, let's go.'
You wrote a piece, Sheila, that I use all the time at times of bereavements. You said we are all worlds, ‘unique, irreplaceable, populated worlds’ which are linked to a myriad threads to other such worlds. You said when we die there is a rent in the universe but that like a star vanishing, that world leaves ineradicable traces in us as a star does in space’. ‘And we know there will be a living trace of that person in our consciousness always.’
This speaks to deeply to me - the rent in our shared universe - as well as making me giggle that even through these words, five years after your death, you are teaching through and about the English language as I have eventually worked out how to say, ‘ineradicable.’ Always teaching, always challenging.
‘Come on honey’ you’d say.
Right – a myriad threads – 100s of post-it notes stuck in my reading of life and living. In compiling these threads that link me to your teachings, and to our shared universe, they keep emerging. I am finding and re-finding them and being surprised by them. As a line in the Mishnah says, appearing again and again when students are talking to their rabbi and reminding them of their own teachings - לֹא לִמַּדְתָּנוּ, רַבֵּנוּ - ‘Didn’t you teach us, our rabbi?’
In the complexities of being a community rabbi, and being the first female rabbi in Manchester, fully realising only now what it means to be a woman in this world, your teachings appear and a new Mishnah has emerged:
Didn’t you teach us, our Rabbi? In the name of Rabbi Sheila Shulman, in the name of Ursula Le Guin, in the name of Shevek, ‘You can go home again ….so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.'
Manchester – home – newness – it speaks to me. I feel torn, I’m in the struggle. I think our new Mishnah means that everything changes and belonging is elusive. You’d say, as you used to in class, 'is that what it said to you bubbe?' You’d also say something unexpected given this is a conversation with only my memories of snapshots of you. It’s complicated being a community rabbi and I’d love your take on it though I do know what you might say. As you’ve said before, for example, ‘don’t become a square’.
I remember going to your smoke-filled flat with our class to talk about social justice. Like a Rebbe we sat at your feet and I made notes of what you said, knowing this was a moment in time to be captured. ‘If you are not outraged you are not paying attention.’ ‘If not with others, how?’ ‘Who says Judaism is comfortable?!’ ‘Politics and the spiritual are the same’. ‘You need to make compromises but not at cost of integrity.’
You’d probably sit with me and, I’d ask ‘didn’t you teach us rabbi?’ that being a radical lesbian feminist which you were/are is to be an insider outsider. I’d say I feel I am an insider outsider too in that world and in mine now. I now understand better what that means to work as a woman in the patriarchy. You’d talk about being unheimlich, not at home, about living in the struggle, being starved Jews and resisting and fighting from within. You’d say, ‘religion should be resistance.’ You’d then get a Russian classic novel off the shelf and shout at me that I’ve still not read them.
On the steps of the college, for my interview, I met you smoking. You told me what books I should read – sitting and annotating essays that I should read. We’d bond over hot flushes of pregnancy and from becoming older. You’d ask me, in the interview, what I thought critical thinking was. I can give a better answer now.
In a moment of anger at the patriarchy I re-read your article ‘Worldy Jewish Women’ and I re-heard your call for a dialogic movement of women prophets, and it helps. You said you had a hedgehogish preoccupation with the importance of dialogue and the frustration between the world as it should be and the world as it is. I’m wearing that hedgehog symbol badge today (bought by my chavruta on your article) to remind me of all of this – wondering how we can use the hedgehog as a symbol for the revolution. It represents something of you – spiky, small, considered and important.
As you reflected in that article when remembering an encounter with a Bendictine nun –
‘When I told her, many years ago, about what it meant for me to be a lesbian, and a radical feminist, when I said, in effect, ‘We have to change the world,’ she told me that I was in a ‘prophetic position’. I was so surprised I thought she said that I was ‘in a pathetic condition.’ Once I got over the shock of what she really said, it stayed with me, though I did not then know what to do with it.’
I am slowly stepping away from feeling pathetic to acting prophetic. Ready to take your call to be in a band of prophets who, in moments of time, with others, are able to work together for redemption and the promised land.
I learnt about an approach to death through watching yours. You asked for help, you were surrounded at the end with words, relationships and music, as a Chasidic Rebbe, though so so different.
Rabbi Janet told me that you said there should be space around your death bed in your flat so you could continue to teach your students. You are still teaching – this is the power of our tradition, of words, of radical, transformative, dialogic, relational teaching of the living traces, the myriad threads.
Sheila you said there is a rent when someone dies. And there is. So much so that the Shulchan Aruch which Rabbi Mark Solomon brought to comfort us as we came back to college after you died, says, that for a teacher we rip our clothes over our hearts as we do for our parents. There is a rent, Sheila, but there is also a fullness. So many teachings, so many threads, an ongoing conversation one of dialogue, relationship, challenge, Yiddish, and reprimands – moments of remembering and saying – ‘didn’t you teach us rabbi?’.
I can’t remember Sheila whether you told me about this passage or whether I found it indirectly through you and my introduction to feminist science fiction (I’m still hooked) but I want to end with a reading from the ‘Earthsea Quartet’ by Ursula Le Guin. It speaks to the living trace, the myriad threads, the fullness, the ongoing conversation, your being and words.
‘I think’ Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, ‘that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lost yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.’