Ursula Merkin, a philanthropist who played a prominent role in various Jewish institutions, passed away on July 23. Her daughter, novelist and cultural critic Daphne Merkin, delivered the remarks below at a memorial service this week.
My mother was one of the most vivid people I’ve ever met. She was full of contrary impulses, all of which she conveyed with equal emphaticness, which makes it the more difficult to speak about her today in her absence, which is very real but also very recent. Indeed, I’m half convinced that, despite the evidence to the contrary, she is still listening somewhere with her hyper-critical ear attuned to every potential misstatement, lapse in grammar, or misperception. Daphne, I can almost hear her say, speak slowly and clearly. And remember: No one wants to hear another word about your childhood.
In fact, though, of her gifts to me, perhaps the most generous was that she tacitly gave me the right to tell my version of our complicated family life — which she allowed me to do without resisting or, as they say, guilt-tripping me. Since my mother was something of an irrevocable truthteller herself, it seems to me in keeping with her style to err on the side of realism even here.
For me I think the most important thing to be said about my mother is that she, like the poet Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. We are none of us, of course, entirely the integrated and unified personality we pass ourselves off as being to the world, but in the instance of my mother this was doubly or triply so. There were many different sides to her, sometimes depending on which day you got her. She was capable of enormous warmth and generosity, but she could also be almost chillingly objective. A legacy of her own richly textured upbringing was a deeply ingrained sense of cultural sophistication — my mother’s mother, my grandmother Jennie Breuer, received the international version of Time magazine every week in her apartment on Keren Kayemet in Tel Aviv, and my grandfather, Isaac Breuer, was as avid an appreciator of Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” as he was of Rashi’s commentary. She also had, thanks to her backgroud, an abiding investment in the aesthetics of ritual observance, what is referred to as “ hidur mitztvah .” Long before anyone heard of the word “presentation” or Martha Stewart, my mother arranged photo-worthy Purim and Pesach tables with a punctilious and unbending eye for visual detail: the silver had to be freshly polished, the flowers fresh, the napery crisp. Her Purim table was especially memorable: It featured her abiding sense of whimsy, strewn as it was with brightly colored confetti, with sparkling beveled glasses in deep shades of garnet and green next to each plate and paper dreidels hung from the dining-room chandelier. Along with her sophistication went a delight in the childlike, an almost primitive approach to the world that enabled her to bond with the very young and to successively charm most of her 21 grandchildren. If you resisted my mother’s complex allure you did so at your own peril, never sure if the problem was with you or with her.
Although she lived to all observable purposes a conventional, upper bourgeois life and was deeply committed to the Modern Orthodox, torah-im-derech eretz tradition in which she was raised in Frankfurt, on another level she harbored a rebellious, even defiant streak which showed up in any number of ways. These ranged from her curiosity about ways of life other than her own — which made her, among other things, unfailingly open to converts to Judaism, for whom she seemed to harbor a special understanding — to her ability to coolly deflate any and all illusions one might harbor about her own or other people’s motives. She was unfailingly interested in my reports from the cultural edge and one of the last pieces of my writing she read — or rather, which I read aloud to her — was a forthcoming magazine column on several new books about the erotic life and its contemporary vicissitudes — a piece that not only failed to excite her disapproval but led her to suggest that I needed more space in which to air my welter of thoughts. I think she prided herself on being unshockable, at least in theory, and although this aspect of her engendered confusion when I was growing up — there was always the possibility that the person whom my mother secretly admired or aspired to be (and thus aspired for her daughters to be) was not the wife and mother who attended shul Shabbos in and Shabbos out but someone more flamboyant or daring or simply odd. I believe it also fostered a kind of intellectual freedom in her children, a low tolerance for social pieties and a regard for straightforwardness. It was this same quality that allowed me to tell her what was on my mind, however dire, when I was a child, and also to try and call things as I see them when I write. It is, in the end, to my mother that I owe my love of literature and interest in writing, and it is her whom I blame for what I think of as my truthtelling gene.
My mother died with the same anomalous force with which she lived. She fought the dying of the light with a tenacity that Dylan Thomas himself would have appreciated and her ability to reconstitute herself after severe setbacks was quite astonishing to observe. Indeed, I think her formidable energy and ongoing wish to remain independent — even, sometimes, at cost to herself — created an indelible impression on those around her, ranging from hospital aides to family members. My mother prepared for her own death with a morbid sense of humor — she was thinking of having new carpet installed on the staircase in honor of her own shiva — and with the same high degree of organizational skill and executive functioning with which she ran her beloved Re’uth, the philanthropic organization that cared for the sick and elderly in Israel begun by her mother and Paula Barth. Yesterday my sister Dinny and I searched in the neat chest of drawers near her now-empty bed for the package of her carefully wrapped tachrichim — shrouds — that she had specially made according to German custom for both my father and herself. Over the tissue paper my mother had placed a label in her unmissable handwriting, itself a mixture of sophistication and childishness, on which she had written her initials “U.M.” in large bold print and then underneath, in smaller print, “until 120….if not sooner.”
It is difficult for me to grasp that my mother will not be around to discuss the details of her own funeral with, to gossip over who was wearing what and who said what and who failed to show up. There was a kind of glamour to her personality, as well as a core elusiveness that rendered her permanently fascinating — and essentially unknowable — for even those who were closest to her. She was a remarkable combination of impulse and restraint, and her dignity and resolve in the face of increasing pain and debilitation were quite something to behold. Indeed, my mother had little tolerance for her own vulnerabilities and, up until the very end, her own tears, rare as they were, unhinged her. “All our lives,” the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, we “choke back our tears and run/ a long way, our tears closed in, stifled in our throats.” But if, as he went on to observe in that same poem, “Death is nothing but a good cry that lasts forever,” then I hope my mother is finally indulging herself.