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Remembering Sarah Horowitz

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Mar 24, 2008, 11:29:24 AM3/24/08

Remembering Sarah

By David Horowitz | 3/14/2008

This is a sad time for us, but it is also a time to reflect on a
remarkable person who led an extraordinary life. I want to thank
everyone who came here to pay tribute to my sweet child Sarah;
especially those whom I do not know who obviously love her and who
came to remember her with her family. The fact that we are all here
together, albeit united in grief, is something that would have made
Sarah happy.

I want to first take a moment to thank Elissa, whose passionate and
lifelong devotion to her children (and now to her grandchildren) has
inspired in them a love for family and others that is as manifest in
every one of their lives, as it was in Sarah's. For me the most
painful and necessary and important lesson of Sarah's leaving is that
we must all learn to appreciate each other more. And we must all love
each other more. This is what Sarah would want from us.

I never knew a kinder person with a bigger heart than my sweet Sarah.
All of us begin life with streaks of selfishness and sometimes
meanness. Sarah came into this world without such a gene in her body.
Frustrations she had; anger yes. But I never saw her be unkind to
anyone; or to any living creature. When she was in the fourth grade to
take just a characteristic example, her class had a rabbit named Wumpy
who needed to be adopted when the term came to an end. No one in the
class stepped forward to take Wumpy. And so Sarah brought Wumpy home.
It was so Sarah to do.

Sarah was the most uncomplaining person I have ever known, from the
day she was born until the day she left us. When she was no more than
four or five, we took the children to the Oakland Zoo and made a stop
at the ice cream stand. For some reason I could not possibly explain
now, except as instance of the absurdity of fathers, I decided to make
the ice cream stop a life lesson. It's important to try new things, I
said to her; broaden your horizons. Instead of vanilla or chocolate,
why don't you try the sour apple flavor? Without hesitating - she was
always such a dutiful child -- she took my advice and we went on our
way. Fifteen minutes later I noticed that the cone she was carrying
had received no more than a lick. So I took it and tasted it myself.
It was awful. A surge of guilt swept over me, but we were too far away
from the stand to go back and get her another. Sarah had not uttered a
word of complaint or reproach. I have carried my guilt from that day
to this. Of course when I brought it up to her after she had become an
adult herself she just laughed.

As a child she was undemanding. There are few beings needier than
children. They are constantly asking for something, often more than it
would be good to have. I'm sure Sarah did as well, but I don't have a
recollection of it. Whatever her need, she generally had to be asked
what it was, or it would stay with her. From that day to this. No one
in the family knows if her medical problems had worsened in the weeks
before the end, if she was suffering more than usual, or in tell-tale
pain. We may berate ourselves for this; but we all know that there was
nothing that could have been done. Sarah insisted on her independence,
and fiercely resisted attempts to pry - as she would regard it - into
her state of health or any other problem she was encountering. She
would deal with it. That's who she was. When her mind was made up, and
she was determined, there was no way to shake her from her course

All her life Sarah faced great odds, and not only because of her small
stature, which caused many to underestimate her, and forced her to
have to exert herself to be taken seriously. From the day she was born
she was beset with medical problems which hampered her ability to
cope. She had a kinked aorta which doctors feared would shorten her
life. And possibly did. She was hard of hearing, eventually almost to
the point of deafness in a way that could not be corrected by
technological aids. In her first years she had difficulty even forming
words and then putting them together in sentences. Yet despite these
challenges, she became a gifted writer of poetry and prose, with a
stunning ear for the language. After she was gone an interview with
her was published on Next Book, an Internet website which features
writers such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. She was pleased when I
told her I was jealous, which I was. In addition to mastering her own
language in a way few people do, she made herself learn Hebrew in
order to pursue her faith, which she would have referred to as her
spiritual path. She was a fount of knowledge about Judaism and gave
Sabbath lectures on sacred texts.

She was near-sighted and had a poor sense of direction and was never
able to drive. She could walk only with difficulty and pain, which
grew worse as she grew older. Yet every week and sometimes more than
once a week she walked two miles to shul and back, in fair weather and

Many people would have been depressed and then overwhelmed by the
difficulties Sarah faced in the ordinary business of her life; the
medical procedures she was put through, which often did not work; the
impaired mobility which constricted her horizon and made every common
task from going to the grocery store for food to taking the bus
downtown to service her computer a burden; the near-sightedness which
made her favorite vocations, reading and writing, even more arduous
than they normally are; the single life which she did not want; the
limited financial resources, which made her count pennies; the tiny
apartment, which could barely hold her books and belongings. But Sarah
was not overwhelmed by these frustrations and disappointmentss; she
packed more interests and more travels, more experiences and more
learning, more friends, and more projects, more people that she
touched in her brief lifetime than most people do in earthly journeys
that are twice as long. And she left a greater vacancy behind.

A born candidate for dependency, Sarah never allowed herself to become
anyone's burden but her own. She moved out of the house when she went
to college, and never looked back. She was unalterably determined to
make her own way in the world; never mind the difficulties she might

It was not that she was not a family person. Quite the contrary. There
was no one in the family more passionate or persistent than she was to
keep it from following the centripetal forces to which every family is
prone. When she died she was planning a seder that would be a family
reunion. Instead it is her funeral that brings us together. "What will
I do without Sarah? Elissa asked when she was gone, knowing there was
no answer; "she was my companion and all the goodness in the world."

Not long ago, I picked up the phone to call her at 8:30 in the
evening, looking for the answer to a question. I located her riding a
bus back from San Francisco State where she was taking a masters
degree that would help her in teaching special needs children. It was
her second masters -- one she added to the Fine Arts degree she had
received from the University of San Francisco a few years before,
writing a novel to complete her thesis. It was also, as I discovered,
the third bus she had taken that night, which meant six buses for the
round-trip to school. She followed this routine for three years,
working an eight hour job during the days and going to school at
night. But it was I, not she who was unsettled by these travails. On
the phone, she was her cheerful self, happy that her father had sought
her out with a question. It was an attitude that was as integral to
her personality as her beautiful honey-colored tresses were to her
physical appearance. It was also one of her most inspiring qualities,
setting an example to the rest of us, in how to confront the
difficulties we faced in our own lives. She probably never realized
what a profound and uplifting impact she had on everyone who knew her.

Sarah was self-effacing about her talents as well. When she was
thirteen and she stepped up to the Bimah for her Bat Mitzvah service,
she was so short you could barely see her face above the Torah she was
reading. Sitting in the congregation, her mother and I held our
collective breath. Would she be able to pull it off? Would she stumble
over the complexities of the ancient Hebrew? Would her cantilation
falter because of her impaired hearing? And then her lips parted and
there poured forth into the silence the purest and most true and
lovely sound, perfectly articulated, beautifully sung, and continuing
like that to the end of her reading.

I had a similar experience when I went to an evening event in San
Francisco, where she was one of several poets performing at the
Paradise Lounge. And there was the same thrill as she stepped to the
microphone, in a black velvet chapeau, chandelier earrings, cocktail
dress with black over-the-elbow opera gloves and an impish grin, and
began reading her witty and accomplished texts.

Every time I turned to her for help on a point of scripture or
tradition, whether it was to ask about Jewish messianic hopes, or the
concept of tikkun olam, or rabbinical views of the after-life, I was
impressed again with what a serious student of Judaism my daughter
was. It was always a carefully considered and richly informed response
that came back. I will miss her knowledge and counsel when I write my
next book, as I will miss her knowledge and counsel in my life.

Sarah also had a feisty and combative side. It was a Horowitz family
trait. But her battles were always the flip side of the coin of her
kindness, and of her compassionate involvement with others. The first
family row that really announced this side of her personality took
place when she was in her teens. She was protesting the apparent
approval - or at least the failure to disapprove -- the Randy Newman
song "Short People" which she felt denigrated those of diminutive
stature. Her siblings were naturally amused by this distress over a
popular song, and attempted to belittle her protest. But outnumbered
as she was, Sarah remained undaunted and stood her ground. It was
something she would be doing for the rest of her all too brief life.

This episode was defining in another sense, in that her battles to
come would always be on behalf of little people -- those who were poor
and those who were powerless and those who needed a champion to
represent them. She took up the cause of Turner Syndrome children who
were regularly referred to by a lazy media as retarded. Sarah herself
was a Turner child, which shows just how ludicrous the
characterization was. As a journalist, writing for the San Francisco
Weekly she wrote a ground-breaking article on people who were born
hermaphrodites and whose gender was then defined surgically at birth
by doctors who of course could not consult the infants whose lives
they were determining, and who didn't seem to care.

She crusaded for the equality of all people, for racial and sexual
minorities, and for women in Judaism and beyond. She was an opponent
of war, while recognizing that there is evil in the world and
sometimes nations are forced to defend themselves. She protested
against capital punishment, standing vigil outside the gates of San
Quentin, in the bitter cold Bay Area nights, whenever an execution
took place, believing that even though the condemned had committed
heinous crimes it was wrong for the state to take a human life.

Every month, for years, she got on a bus to go cross town to feed the
homeless at Hamilton House, an obligation her congregation at Beth
Shalom had undertaken, and which she organized. Every month she cooked
a meal for sixty homeless people, learning how to make meat dishes on
the Internet even though she was a vegetarian, because that was what
the people she was there to serve wanted.

Despite the enormous difficulties she faced getting anywhere, she
traveled to far-away places -- to El Salvador to build homes for poor
Catholics and halfway across the globe to Uganda to live in a mud
floor hut without electricity or running water, to teach the
impoverished children of the Abyudaya tribe of African Jews. She took
her mother with her to India to the slums of Mombay, to seek help for
sexually abused Hindu girls. While there she became violently ill,
throwing up and dehydrating to the point that Elissa, who was a
professional nurse, became fearful for her life and insisted that a
doctor visit her bedside. But experiences like this could not dissuade
Sarah from her mission. When the end came, she was already planning
trips to distant lands to help others in need.

And of course Sarah devoted her professional life to helping autistic
children. This, too, started in her family, with her devotion to her
niece Mariah. Sarah learned sign language to better communicate with
Mariah and schooled herself in the skills necessary to help her, and
went on to become a professional dealing with the problems these
beautiful children faced.

The Jewish people and their home in Israel were great causes of her
life, and ultimately they became a bond that brought us, father and
daughter, together. It was not policy or politics that united us. It
was concern for a people who had been persecuted for thousands of
years and found themselves facing a threat of extinction once again. A
bond across our political differences was forged in conversations
about this familiar isolation and peril, and in our shared commitment
to Jewish survival.

Sarah visited Israel on several occasions with groups from her temple.
The last time she went it was in a way that was entirely
characteristic of her personality, and how she faced danger. The trip
was took place in the middle of the Second Intifada, and the violence
was intense. So that we would not worry, Sarah did not tell her mother
or me where she was going. She said that she would be on a religious
retreat on Mount Tamalpais and would not be reachable for ten days. It
was only when she returned that she told us where she had been.

It is hard for a father to learn from his children, but my daughter
taught me one of the profound lessons of my life. It began in a
conflict that could be regarded as generational, but involved the very
core of our identities and our life-missions as we understood them,
and it lasted for decades.

Sarah didn't believe in an after-life in the usual sense, but if such
a life exists, there is a special place in heaven reserved for her.
And if she is out there, I hope she will forgive me for every
contentious moment we had; for every time that we butted heads; for
every time that I failed to take her seriously enough. I hope she will
forgive me for every concession I did not make that I should have, and
for every insight she offered that I missed. I know she will forgive
me, because it was her heart to do so. Her mission in life was to
bring people together, most of all those closest to her.

I had started out in life as an idealistic young man much like Sarah,
but if I am going to be honest with myself, I lacked her generosity of
soul. Her empathy was a force of enormous power. One of Sarah's most
beautiful qualities is that she never let the fact that she was able
to overcome her disabilities affect her compassion for those who could
not conquer the difficulties they faced; she never let the fact that
she didn't complain block her feelings for those who did.

Like Sarah, I began with hope for a better world, but the limitless
extent of my expectations blinded me to realities I needed to see, and
caused me to place false faith in those I should have known to
distrust. The result was irreparable damage to innocent lives and to
my own. Consequently, when I heard the hopes expressed by my child
they worried me as a father. I did not want her to suffer the same
misfortunes I had. My life experience had made me conservative. Hence
the butting of heads.

A particular bone of our contentions was the Kabbalistic concept of a
tikkun olam, which means "repair of the world." I had come to the
conclusion that this was an impossible dream, and the refusal to
recognize this fact was the source of innumerable miseries that human
beings had inflicted on themselves since the beginning of time. Sarah
believed in a tikkun olam just as fiercely as I disbelieved, but with
nuances that I missed for a very long time.

In a book I wrote about death and the goals we should pursue in life,
which I called The End of Time, I summed up my views. I observed that
all the prophets taught us to love each other as we love ourselves and
to take the attitude that "there but for the grace of God go I." But
this was finally, I thought, imprudent advice. Is it wise, I wrote,
"to put our trust in strangers, or to love our enemies as ourselves?
Would we advise our children to do so?" Are we really one with

And then I inserted a passage to which Sarah took great exception:
"Many try to believe it, but I cannot embrace this radical faith. I
feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without
remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults
who torment small children for the sexual thrill. I suspect no decent
soul does either."

In these words, Sarah felt I was attacking her; that I was attacking
the very rationale of her life -- the mission of tikkun olam to which
she had been called.

I was unprepared for her reaction. I couldn't really understand it. I
had put what I had learned into these words; they were a statement of
the rationale of my life, the mission to which I had been called.

But our impasse was not permanent. My daughter had patience and
persistence, and a prodigious determination to pursue her mission to
the end.

Here is what Sarah wrote in an email to me just awhile ago: "My
objection is that you're confusing compassion with gullibility. I do
visit prisoners and I think it matters to make that human connection.
That doesn't mean I'd necessarily trust them with my purse. I wouldn't
let the State execute them in my name either. I don't think kinship
with people who've crossed the line blurs my own morality. In fact, it
gives it more clarity."

It was so Sarah - so to the point, so commonsensical - and I was so
relieved. Of course she was right, and now I understood. My worries
were about my illusions, not hers. If my daughter believed these
things, she didn't need my parental protectiveness. It was quite the
reverse: she had something to teach me.

Unlike Sarah, who until this election was pretty much a member of the
Green Party, I am a Republican. As a result I have a unique insight
into Sarah's last campaign which I want to share with you in
concluding this goodbye to my sweet child.

Of course she would be attracted to a leader who had written a book
called the Audacity of Hope, and whose slogan was "yes we can;" a
leader who reflected in his own biography the multicultural,
multiracial mixing that was her own family; and in which she placed
hopes for the future of her country and perhaps even the world. And of
course she would want to support a man whose message was the coming
together of all Americans across racial, political and class lines.
And of course her father would be skeptical.

But through our head-butting, and through our contentiousness and
because of the patience and persistence with which she maintained her
point of view, and as a result of the realism that underpinned it,
when she told me she was going to Iowa to campaign for Barack Obama,
even though we continued to disagree about politics, I was whole-
heartedly behind her.

And because she was Sarah there was no way she was going to ask for
help to do what she had determined to do. So she took her meager
resources and bought herself a plane ticket. She ignored the hearing
problems which made even conversations with family and friends
sometimes difficult, and made arrangements over the phone to get
herself transported thousands of miles away; arrangements to stay in a
state where she knew no one; to find Jews to pray with when the
Sabbath came; and to receive her instructions and orders for the
campaign. She trudged through airports on her aching, malfunctioning
hip; she gritted her teeth and endured the pains of a gastro-
intestinal tract ravaged by illness, and she put pressure yet again on
a cardio-vascular system damaged and inadequate from birth, and on a
body whose wounded state would take her so cruelly from us only two
months later.

Undaunted by every discomfort and challenge, she marched into two
degree weather, in the depths of a heartland winter, to knock on doors
and bring out Americans she had never met to join in her campaign of
hope, of yes we can. And you can bet that when she called me from Iowa
to relate her progress there was a smile in her voice and not a hint
of complaint about the weather or anything else.

And when the results were in and a black man had won a presidential
primary in a white state and gathered the momentum to become the first
black American to have the prospect of being a presidential nominee
and perhaps even a president, she relished his triumph and along with
it the fact that it was the first political campaign she had ever
participated in - and there were many - in which her cause had won.

And in that moment, I was able to share her triumph, to walk across
the bridge that we had built together through the decades of
contentiousness and debate. "You can be very proud of what you have
done Sarah," I said to her when it was over. "Even if they steal the
nomination from Obama; even if he wins the nomination and loses the
presidency; even if he wins the presidency and fails to deliver on his
promises and disappoints you, it doesn't matter. It is already done.
America has already been changed forever by this Iowa campaign. And
this could not have happened without you and others like you. And what
I did not say to her because she would not have wanted me to draw
attention to it and would not have wanted to hear it, was that of all
the people who came to Iowa to campaign for Barack Obama, none had
done so having to overcome more obstacles to get there or carry it
through than Sarah.

In Jewish lore there is a legend of the lamed vovniks, the thirty-six
just men on whom the existence of the world depends (Sarah would have
had something to say about the gender prejudice of that). According to
the legend, God had become so disgusted with his creation that he was
determined to destroy it. But an angel came to plead with Him and to
ask for a reprieve if she could find thirty-six just men in the world.
In every generation, so the legend goes, there are always thirty-six
just men - the lamed vovniks on whom its continued survival depends.
The lamed vovniks are not conscious of who they are. They perform
their acts of compassion and love out of the purity of their hearts.
And the rest of us owe the world to them.

You are a light in our lives Sarah. You are a lamed vovnik. You have
set the standard that we all must strive to reach. To never give up
hope. To see ourselves in others. To be always putting up candles
against the dark.

I miss you terribly, my sweet child. We all miss you. We beg your
forgiveness for having failed to appreciate you as much as we should
have when you were here with us. We know it is a fault in all of us,
and it is the fault in the world - the very fault that you struggled
so mightily with your small and infirm and embattled being to repair.
This was your tikkun olam. This was your mission and your faith.

If you can hear me, know that in everyone you touched you have
succeeded. Know that the world has been changed by your presence. Rest
in the knowledge that your task is done and the mission you set out to
accomplish with your life has been completed. We, who knew you and who
love you, will keep you in our hearts always; we will keep the flame
of your hope burning; and we will keep the memory of your courage, and
compassion, and goodness alive. And the memory of you will continue to
change us and inspire us always. Rest in peace, dear Sarah, you are
loved and the love you put into the world has planted seeds of hope,
and has not been in vain.

Sarah in Iowa

Note: The family asks that donations be sent to the Sarah Horowitz
Fund at American Jewish World Service, 45 West 36th Street, NY, NY
10018 (Attn: Joanna Kabat) to carry on the work that Sarah began.

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