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HomeLife In the BerkshiresRemembering Rabbi Everett...

Remembering Rabbi Everett Gendler

"You have dreams? Wonderful. Don’t abandon your dreams, simply put foundations under them."

Editor’s note: Rabbi Gendler, who made his home in the Berkshires for many years, died Friday, April 1, shortly after ushering in Shabbat. He was 93 years old.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Looking back, the morning I spent with Rabbi Everett Gendler — in late June of 2018, as his 90th birthday neared — ranks among the most profound experiences in conversation I’ve had to date. Following an extensive tour of his vegetable garden, we settled on the screened porch — proffering views of the land he and his wife Mary have cultivated for more than five decades — and dove into some rather deep and philosophical topics, hinging on the milestone of having lived through nine decades. Amidst the shrill rising and near constant squee of myriad red-winged blackbirds, what emerged most audibly were Rabbi Gendler’s keen yet humble observations on a life well-lived, one marked by gentle intention above all else. Below are excerpts of our conversation that did not make it into the August 2018 Berkshire Magazine article Ten Minutes with Rabbi Everett Gendler.

On making a home in the Berkshires:

“It was very simple: one summer, both of our daughters were enrolled at Camp Eisner. For Parents’ Weekend, we got a tent site at October Mountain State Forest, put up our canvas tent, and from there we went to [Great Barrington]. At the end of the weekend, it was beastly hot and humid, and our little house in Andover didn’t have air-conditioning. So Mary said, ‘Why don’t we just spend some time here, for a few additional days.’ I had the time off, so we did. And that’s when the land found us, and took possession of us — whatever the recorder of deeds has to say about who possesses whom. It was so beautiful, so irresistibly beautiful … [and] this was simply to be our summer place. During the year I had neither days nor weekends, because I had wonderful work … [but] no free time, except July and August.”

On his hobbies:

“I have a fairly sizable vegetable garden, although it’s shrinking as I shrink (and as my energy declines). In the summer, I am hopelessly addicted to Tanglewood. I love most of the offerings at Ozawa Hall and many, many at the shed. We do some of the events at Jacob’s Pillow, Berkshire Theater Festival, Barrington Stage, Shakespeare & Company, so that’s really full-time-plus.”

On those who have influenced his life’s journey:

“Individuals, some I’ve known physically in this life, and a couple that I never met, but who just appealed to me when I was an impressionable adolescent (in contrast to being an impressionable so-called adult). And the two that I think in many ways have shaped my outlook and my life — one of them the prophet Amos, and the other Henry David Thoreau. Now, Amos is very interesting. He’s a superb rhetorician, I like his style, I like the way he gets people’s attention: he does it by starting out denouncing all of the misdeeds of surrounding people, our enemies. In current parlance, if you identify with the mainstream rhetoric — I DO NOT, BUT — Iran, formerly North Korea, Putin … [Amos offers] scathing denunciations, he’s got the crowd cheering, and then he zooms in and [points out the truth]: you’ve stolen money from Medicare and aid for children to enrich the already excessively wealthy. And so he then zaps his listeners. As for his profession? He’s an arborist, an expert tree trimmer, and he’s very clear that he doesn’t say these things for a living, so he can’t be bought.

Scott and Helen Nearing at their home in Maine. Photo: Walden Woods Project’s Thoreau Institute Library / Down East Magazine

“And Thoreau, our neighbor, what can I tell you? He represented the appreciation of the natural surroundings, but if you read carefully, as an adolescent, he essentially affirmed dreams … [as] ideals one can realize. You have dreams? Wonderful. Don’t abandon your dreams, simply put foundations under them. So those have been two of my companions. Then, [Mary and I] were lucky enough to meet, in real life, a couple who — in their own distinctive way — embodied some of that. You may or may not have heard of Helen and Scott Nearing? Back in the ’50s, they were very much the exemplars of the back-to-the land movement.”

On environmentalism:

“One of my special interests has been the interrelation between religious outlook and religious practice, and the realm of nature — both as environmental challenge [and] as a source of religious illumination. I am immensely encouraged to see how increasingly I hear this and see this at worship; there is a lot more sensitivity to it than one, two decades ago. I think it’s important because, as people connect their interpersonal lives with the preservation of these supportive and uplifting surroundings, they’ll be more inclined to take action to preserve them. Love is still the great motivating force to the extent that we become more appreciative, more intimate of the natural surroundings — we’re readier to struggle for its preservation. And I see all kinds of evidence … I think transformations are going on among the new generations.”

On the connection between religion and spirituality:

“Obviously I am identified with religion and served as Rabbi of several temples over the decades, ranging from posts in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, and a little time in Castro’s Cuba, as well as Princeton, New Jersey. The final 25 years, before retirement, [I spent] in Lowell, and I was also a chaplain and taught Philosophy and Religious Studies at a college-preparatory school in Andover, Phillips Academy, so I certainly identified with religion. I don’t insist that all spiritual expression take place within the so-called religions, but I don’t set them at odds. So I would hope that some of what I help people discover is the expression and the illumination of the spiritual within religious tradition and practice. And when it’s not there, the cleansing of the practice and tradition, so it emerges.”

On language:

“I’m appreciative of words; I’m not schooled in them in that sense, but slowly, over time, the words do come together in a way that leaves me feeling somewhat satisfied. And you will be amused, or appalled, to know that a number of years ago, when they had the second printing of the Oxford English Dictionary, I got this 20-volume unabridged OED, and I love it! It’s on my shelf. Is it awkward to use? Very. Is it heavy? It becomes heavier with the years. I’m appreciative of words and, if at times I’m able to help them point to something important, I’m really grateful both for the words and for whatever enables them. But, if you compare anything you say with those sounds of birdsongs — oh, my, don’t we stutter and stammer compared with that!”

On longevity:

“Every tree you see here, with the exception of three that were originally here, every one of these I put in physically myself. Now they were much smaller, affordable, and I could handle them myself. I suppose the commitment to helping food grow has also contributed, and I suspect (though I didn’t begin it for health reasons), probably the vegetarian diet of now more than 55 years. Ultimately, as they say in some Christian traditions, why am I here? Grace, not merit; it’s simply a gift.”

On our progress as a nation, in protecting civil rights, and human rights, for all:

Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. Photo: Bob Fitch photography archive / ©Stanford University Libraries

“A huge question, and I don’t know the answer. Let me say briefly: there is so much still to address, so much to correct, so many questions that we don’t really have answers for. And it’s not clear what, ultimately, the ideal balance is between our integration and needs together and that impulse to be with one’s own. And I appreciate both. Now, there’s no excuse that the desire to be with one’s own be of force and entail disadvantages — economic, educational and power — for [any] particular group. So, there are tremendous strides still to be made.

“On the other hand … anyone who has had the experience of flying into Atlanta, knowing their collaborator Andrew Young is in jail, and 10 years later you fly [in] and the official sign at the airport, welcoming you to Atlanta, Georgia, is signed by Mayor Andrew Young, you know that something has changed. And if you consider Lyndon Johnson’s unbelievable shepherding, bludgeoning, of the Civil Rights Act through Congress, that is profound testimony to the genuine nonviolence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summoned and released in all parts of society. That’s eloquent testimony to what it can accomplish.

“So sure, there is a lot to do. Yes, there are still economic penalties; the hazards of being gunned down, officially, are intolerable and unacceptable for People of Color and must be continued to be dealt with. As we discover new areas, we need to work toward eliminating the problem. What’s most important is not to sit and see how far we’ve come and how far we need to go, the question is: What resources were we shown, during that period of King and company, what resources were we introduced to for making progress, and how do we reconnect with those resources and apply them? Mobilizing this resource [of nonviolence] that has become so visible in this most destructive period of human history. But that is a whole other lecture.”

NOTE: Those who wish to honor Rabbi Gendler’s memory can do so through a gift to The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts or Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

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