A daughter-in-law's eulogy for San Diego's Idell Neumann
By Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann
PALO ALTO, California — My husband, George, and I were spending the weekend celebrating the wedding of our friends’ daughter when we learned that Idell Neumann—Baba in our household—had taken a turn for the worse. Eight days later, a Sunday night, I was officiating at a wedding when she died.
The intersection of weddings and funerals, in an odd way, is fitting. It’s fitting Jewishly—as the Song of Songs teaches, “Set me for a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is strong as death. Many waters cannot quench love.” (8:6) It’s fitting personally—Idell came into my life because I married her son. And it’s fitting for how Idell lived—as we were trying to decide whether to come to San Diego immediately or whether to attend the wedding first, my cousin, herself no stranger to sorrow and more or less a contemporary of Idell’s, said, “You came for a simcha, you deserve a simcha.” Idell would have said the same thing—in her life, she focused more on simchas than on sadness.
And in this recent period of decline, when people often reveal their essence, Idell was sweet and generous, grateful and affectionate. She lived with those qualities in evidence for over eight decades.
It must be said, because every one of us here feels it. This is only the last in a long string of goodbyes to Idell Neumann (b. June 7, 1928; d. Aug 1, 2010). How painful it has been to see a woman so supremely competent, with so much agency, blessed with such a sense of self and concern for others, lose those qualities of mind and action. But somehow, she never lost the quality of heart.
She was aware at the start of the Alzheimer’s Disease how much she was losing. She told me that she had been so good with numbers and now she couldn’t calculate how much to leave for a tip when the check arrived. She resisted the recommendations of the social worker from Jewish Family Service. She thought of Letty Matulac, who even then, was taking exquisite care of her, as her friend, and they were two happy women going out to lunch, or to the market. She so valued Letty’s companionship, and as we all know, being her companion became more and more challenging as the disease progressed. What is remarkable is that Letty always treated her with the same respect, the same upbeat attitude, the same expression of joy and delight in her company as she had when Idell was still “herself”. I don’t think we can thank Letty enough for being the kind, attentive, thoughtful caregiver that she is. As a fellow clergy person, it is clear to me that the attentive, loving care that Letty lavished on Baba was a ministry. Letty provided a Divine caress every time she would moisten Baba’s lips or a Holy word, when she would call out to her so sweetly, “Idell? Idell? Your family is here to see you.”
George commented that Letty became Idell’s second nervous system, was as connected as if through an umbilical cord, and I think we all marveled at how long she lived past the medical predictions, and we knew it was because of Letty. Even in the last week, as she lay dying, she remained warm and pink and so well groomed in the warm embrace of Letty and Eddie’s home. Letty, you affirm the biblical truth that love is stronger than death.
When the siblings started to reminisce about their mother, the first image they all had was of Idell, the cook. Making gefilte fish from scratch. Her inability to make matzah balls that were sinkers, her floaters were so exquisite. Sidney Neumann’s comment that she had “taam”—you’d take a recipe, give it to someone else or give it to Mom. In the first case, the recipe came out like individual ingredients. For Mom, it came out greater than the sum of the parts. Linda Terriere said Mom and Lynette Terriere Schreiber cooked together—the two of them were in the kitchen and had their special time. Chana Karlin-Neumann, too, said that her earliest memories were of cooking with Baba and being in the kitchen with her. She was always my first call when I was trying to cook something new—matzah balls, turkey, her delicious zucchini crepes. Linda, Benita Neumann and I each treasure some of her recipes. And I’ve just learned that Lynette has the recipe for her famous, multi-layered mocha chip cake.
Linda described the day when Mom decided she was going to make Grandma Rose Neumann’s rugalach. “We got out a nice big bowl and Grandma said, “It’s not big enough”. So Mom bought that huge bowl that she made gefilte fish in. The recipe also called for a pinch of this, a pinch of that—we had to figure out how much a pinch is. In that big bowl, she made a gigantic recipe– she used 5 pounds of flour, sugar. But let me tell you how many cookies that was! So, she adapted the recipe. And Grandma Rose approved—she said they were perfect.”
In thinking about Idell the cook, I couldn’t help but think about how she has adapted her own recipes for life. So as I was listening to the siblings, I typed a note to myself: Idell’s recipe for life.
And as I typed that in, without my intending to; my fingers managed to make a happy face emoticon—And I don’t actually know how to make an emoticon! It was as if Idell was directing the keyboard…and I thought, “how appropriate.” Her recipe for life was unfailingly sunny. She nurtured orchids and children, friendships and family.
People could have taken her lot in life as a tale of struggle—one way to tell her story is that she had a husband whose war wounds troubled him throughout his life and many people she loved were fighting illnesses, but that’s not how she chose to see things. Her recipe for life, like the happy face emoticon, was sunny.
So here are a few of Idell’s recipes for a good life, modeled on the Pesach dinner she prepared so lavishly.
- Eggs: Celebrate the new and be adventuresome.
She never regretted trying new things—even when she tried to lick the fence in one of those cold Manitoba winters and got her tongue stuck on it and they had to throw hot water on her to get it unstuck.
At 19, she left home and by all accounts a happy childhood with her dog and joined her brothers, to explore a new country, a new future, and ultimately, make a new life for herself in Southern California.
When Linda and George were in school, she went back to graduate school herself, to become a research psychologist. And then, she became an indispensible contributor to the Naval Personnel Research and Development Center (NPRDC). Her ability to balance her professional responsibilities and her domestic commitments with seeming flawlessness was a source of great inspiration for many of the cousins, particularly the young women in the family who were trying to figure out how to have in their lives both love and a livelihood.
She even, according to some friends, had a bit of a wild streak. She got a kick out of men flirting with her in restaurants and once, at a work party, she had some wine, climbed up on the top of a picnic table and danced!
- Gefilte Fish: Know what you are made of.
Idell was just a kid when she met Sidney. He was eleven years older than she was, divorced, already a father and wounded from the war. But she told Becky Hetter that it took just a few days and she knew he was the one. He had great admiration, even reverence for his mother, and he offered those to her in abundance. But her parents didn’t approve, and her father called her back to Canada. She obliged him, but before going, on February 8, 1949, she secretly married Sidney, with their friend Jordy Saunders and others as witnesses before a Justice of the Peace. Then, they got married again with a rabbi in March, when they “did it right.” As much as she respected her parents and honored them, Idell followed her own star.
George says that his mother had simple needs. Simple not in sense of unsophisticated; she certainly was sophisticated, well-educated and “with it”—she had a computer before her kids did—in fact, her introductory letter to my parents began, “Forgive me for typing this letter, but I’m committed body and soul to my computer!”; but simple in the sense that there was relatively little that she desired. And what she did desire, she had—love, a growing and loving family who appreciated her, meaningful work, friends, a garden, Padres games with Jack Neumann, her dogs—the Sabra dynasty and others, Sunday dinners with Marilyn and Arthur Neumann, contentment and travel with Sidney, lunch with her friends, great music, a home she loved, a well-equipped kitchen, philanthropic commitments and appreciation for her contributions, and while she may not have desired this, we all admired it—beautiful white hair!
- Matzah ball soup: The pot is large: live generously
Baba took great pride in finding and offering gifts. Zev Karlin-Neumann remembers that she never missed a birthday, and invariably picked out something “detective-y” for him. Chana remembers wonderful boxes of clothes from Nordstroms. I remember that for their bat and bar mitzvahs, she gave them each a tallit—but she wanted for them to pick it out, so they’d be happy wearing them throughout their lives.
Jack returned to the family in a somewhat abrupt fashion—he remembers it like it was yesterday. From 1948-1961 he hadn’t seen his Dad, when he and a couple of friends drove down to Tijuana from UCLA; He had just turned 18 and was deliberating: Should he call? How would he be received? Well, he looked in the phone book for Sidney Neumann and took a leap. He called—at the ungodly hour of 6:30 or 7 a.m. and shortly after appeared at the door. He said that it was a wonderful experience—he was greeted with Mom’s trademark warmth, making him immediately part of the family.
Benita’s experience was somewhat less of a surprise—but no less welcoming. Her first welcome was in abstentia—when she was Jack’s girlfriend in 1969. The folks were in Europe, but Baba left a gift—a box of stationary, which to her conveyed, “Please stay in touch.” And when she returned in 1994 to become part of the family, Baba was most gracious, taking her around to introduce Benita to her friends, sending her beautiful bouquets of flowers on her birthday, with impeccable social graces and generosity.
- The main meal: Enjoy what is well prepared, hearty and substantial
The siblings agreed that Mom had this amazing ability to do things so excellently, perfectly—whether it be cooking, gardening, sewing, knitting, embroidery or playing piano and she had a beautiful writing hand. With her diverse talents, George said she reminded him of the Chinese attribution of “Master of the 5 Excellences”— she was the epitome of femininity and competence.
The orchids she grew and the attention she gave her garden was legendary. George said that gardening was her yoga—it renewed her.
There is a reason I choose Pesach as the quintessential meal for Idell’s recipes for life. She would knock herself out to have the family reunion around that most difficult and challenging culinary event, and she’d do it as if she were expertly commanding a military campaign, planning in advance what needed to be done, labeling every bowl and plate for what should go into it. Her copious organizational skills were nowhere more apparent on the home-front than during Pesach.
She made gefilte fish from scratch. I’d never met anyone who did that until I entered the Neumann family. George was legendary among our friends and community for his annual ritual of making gefilte fish from scratch, a ritual, of course, that he learned from and shared with his mother. For years, she got fish in San Diego, and when her fish market closed, she arranged for us to send her fish from Phil’s Fish Market in Los Angeles. When we moved away, we arranged our own courier system—preparing it in dry ice and shipping it on the Greyhound Bus from LA to San Diego. I recently found an email from her—from 2000—when Phil’s closed. Mind you, we were already living in Northern California for a decade by this point.
Ran into a little (!) snag the other day. The wonderful Phil’s Poultry and Fish Market in L.A. seems to be out of business. How could they do that to me after being a loyal customer for 15 years?
With your L.A. contacts do you think someone could find a market that would be willing to prepare and ship an order to San Diego? If it is possible for you to get me a name and phone number, I will certainly do the rest. Hate to trouble you with such a request, but I really don’t know how else to proceed.”
Well, we did manage to keep her—and George—in whitefish and pike so the tradition of handmade gefilte fish could continue. Now that’s commitment! But it was not only Pesach that she prepared so carefully and with such organizational prowess.
I used to regard it as excessive that her linen closets were labeled—until Chana and I bought the same blue Jersey sheets—she has a double bed and ours is a queen—and I finally realized that Baba was not obsessive, but smart—all her sheets were white, so it made sense to know which was for a twin and which was for a king!
Becky commented on how principled she was. She had an unfailing work ethic and was utterly reliable—and prompt—much to the shame of some of her co-workers, who abandoned their old ways out of respect for her virtue. She worked with utter discipline, civility and discretion. She was utterly invaluable and trusted implicitly in her work, both at NPRDC and later as a volunteer for the Technion.
5. Afikomen: The meal concludes
When Idell retired from NPRDC, she insisted that she didn’t want a big retirement banquet. Rather, she wanted one of the more common pizza lunches with cheap wine at the beach, often held for someone’s birthday. But everyone wanted to be at Idell’s retirement lunch—the list grew from 60 to 80 to 100 people. There were so many pizzas, that they wouldn’t fit in a car. They had to be delivered in a truck!
She didn’t want speeches, didn’t want anything formal. What she did want, though, was a picture. There used to be a cartoonist who worked at NPRDC and when people retired, he made wonderful caricatures of people. The only thing she was disappointed about was that he no longer worked there. But Idell wasn’t the only crackerjack researcher in the place—Becky put her research skills to work and managed to find the guy.
Now, as you probably know, Idell was NOT a PC. She was a Mac. When everyone else went to PCs, she held out. She didn’t want a PC. So Becky found a gigantic PC box, and she wrapped the wonderful cartoon of Idell sitting with all the computers done by the artist and put it in the PC box.
When it was time to present the gift, Becky said. “I know you have been fighting against getting a PC for years. But you shouldn’t be behind the times. So we got this for you. She could tell that Idell hated it. But, as always, she was gracious and polite. She said, “Well I don’t know, you shouldn’t have….” And, then she opened the box. When she saw that what was in it was not a computer, but her picture, she laughed and laughed. “This is the thing I wanted…”
I love the image of Idell laughing at a joke on herself. She was never “behind the times.” She was always ahead, and now she is ahead of us all in saying goodbye, in gathering together the people she loved, and feeding them—pizza or Fairouz’s middle eastern food or Pesach dinner. But every delicious meal comes to an end, replete with the aroma of good food and the memories of delicious tastes and animated conversation. Now we are to find the afikomen, the symbol of the end of the meal. Rabbi David Zeller, a teacher of mine who also left us too soon, taught, “At the end of the Pesach meal, children look for the hidden afikoman and return the afikomen to us because children return the lost parts of ourselves to us. Baba loved the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that she was blessed with. And in their lives, we see the vitality, the love, the brilliance, the organization, the heart that Idell offered to all of us in such abundance. Because of them, and all of us gathered here today, the taste of the afikoman—and the recipes of Idell’s life, will always be with us. Zecher tzodeket l’bracha. May the memory of this righteous woman always be for us, a blessing. B’teavon—hearty appetite!
Graveside funeral services were held on Aug 3, 2010 at Home of Peace Cemetery (3668 Imperial Ave, S.D.) by Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Sr. Assoc. Dean for religious Life at Stanford University, and daughter-in-law to Idell.
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=9205