Stacey Zisook Robinson, 59, Poet Who Was Fulfilling A Lifelong Dream To Become A Rabbi
(JTA) — Every Friday afternoon, an email would show up in Sue Horowitz’s inbox with a pre-Shabbat greeting. Some weeks it would be just a few words of prayer or inspiration. Other times there would be a lengthier original poem. This went on for years.
The sender was Stacey Zisook Robinson, a Jewish poet who Horowitz befriended about a decade ago at Hava Nashira, a Reform movement conference to train song leaders.
“I think everybody thought that she was sending it just to them,” Horowitz said. “I think she sent this out to tons of people. It was her way of connecting.”
Robinson’s unique Friday ritual was a recurrent theme of the remembrances that flooded Facebook after her death on Monday of complications due to COVID-19. She was 59 and had been in ill health for several years.
In one of her last Facebook posts, dated March 3, Robinson announced that she would be moving to an assisted living facility in April because she was no longer capable of living on her own. Two days later, her final post announced that she had contracted COVID-19.
“How blessed am I, to have medicines and doctors and love and light,” she wrote. “Giving thanks to the creator of compassion and pain, of glory and goodness.”
Robinson was a published poet who gave workshops at synagogues across the country and was deeply involved in the musical life of her home congregation, Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, Illinois. She was the author of three books, all published in the past six years. The most recent, “In the Beginning: A Poet’s View of Genesis,” was published in September.
“I’ve used her poetry when I’ve taught classes, I’ve used her poetry sometimes even in my own personal prayer,” said Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, one of the many friends Robinson made at Jewish music conferences. “Sometimes she’s able to articulate in a new way, or sometimes in a way that I need right now in this moment. Obviously I pray in Hebrew, but sometimes I also want to reflect in the English since that’s my first language. And sometimes I will sit and really contemplate one of her interpretations of a traditional prayer. She was just remarkable.”
Some of the friends Robinson made at Jewish gatherings wound up becoming collaborators. Robinson would send her poetry to some of the musicians she befriended, asking, “Do you think it sings?” Some would turn those words into music.
“She dove into text in the most brilliant way,” said Horowitz, who composed a number of songs for Robinson’s poetry. “She really was a person who wrestled with text and created things that were unique and beautiful out of that wrestling.”
Chava Mirel, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter, met Robinson at a 2016 conference and shortly after got a message asking if she wanted to collaborate on a song. Robinson sent her the words for what would become Mirel’s most popular song, “Come,” which was based on the Barchu prayer and which Mirel performed at the 2019 Union for Reform Judaism biennial.<section class=”post-embed”> </section>
“I think that there was a kind of universal way or lens that she was looking at our traditional liturgy and texts, and the vulnerability and kind of humanity that she saw in the prayers,” Mirel said. “She saw it as a way that we welcome each other into the space of gratitude. And it’s been a guiding statement of my own personal relationship with prayer. It’s the defining song of my writing. People associate me with that song and that message of welcoming and seeing each other across whatever boundaries separate us.”
Robinson was raised in the Chicago suburbs. In her 2015 book “Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand,” a mixture of poetry and memoir, she recalls how she declared her intention to become a rabbi at her bat mitzvah. By age 15, she had decided that Judaism was nonsense and had little connection to her faith until her 40s.
“Today, I choose faith,” she wrote. “Today, I choose doubt. Today, I choose to struggle and question and learn and sing and pray. Today, I choose to dance in the palm of God’s hand.”
Robinson would later return to her childhood dream of the rabbinate, enrolling at the Hebrew Seminary rabbinical school in Skokie, Illinois.
Despite her mounting infirmities, Robinson continued to attend Jewish musical gatherings even after she began needing to use a wheelchair. One video posted to Facebook on Monday showed her in a chair surrounded by circling dancers, her hands waving in the air as she sang.
As word spread of her death late Monday, many of those she befriended at those gatherings began posting Robinson’s poetry online as they worked through their own grief.
“Those were poems that she wrote about grief and finding a love in people that you’ve lost,” said Sara Goodman, the musical director at Congregation Hakafa and a close friend. “She is actually offering people comfort over her own passing.”
Robinson is survived by her son, Nate; her father, Sheldon Zisook; and a brother, Mark Zisook.
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