Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ, 5781
At some point in life you no longer wish to say, “My old friend,” lest someone think that means that you, yourself are old. Instead you say, “My friend of longstanding.” So, I bumped into my friend of longstanding, Andy Iventosch, a Tucson artist, an outstanding potter, and all-around mensch at Trader Joe’s last week. After wishing each other L’shana Tova and catching up a bit, he shared that recently his cousin, Marilee Asher, had passed away. I expressed condolences, but remembered that she was over 100 years old, which is certainly something amazing, and she was an artist of fine reputation herself. Her sculptures are in the Smithsonian and in other art museums. Actually, Marilee Asher was 107 years old when she died away, in part from complications of Coronavirus.
It turns out that the tale is much more complicated and, well, amazing than that. Because Merilee Asher is also one of the very few people to have contracted both the Spanish flu and the novel Coronavirus, exactly one century apart. And very likely the only person to remember both from quite personal experience.
OK, now that’s not something you hear every day—or any day: someone who survived Spanish Flu and Coronavirus 102 years apart.
The story goes that way back in 1918, when she was about 6 years old, Marilee contracted the Spanish flu, an extremely deadly strain of influenza that is estimated to have killed at least 30 million people worldwide at a time when there were fewer than 2 billion people on the planet. By contrast, our current COVID-19 pandemic has killed about 1,000,000 people—a disastrous situation, but 1/30th of what the Spanish flu killed in a world with nearly four times as many people. Imagine the horrors of that epidemic. Only Marilee didn’t have to imagine them, since she lived through that, too.
“She remembers being sick upstairs and coming downstairs and seeing her father, whom she adored, and knowing that if she saw her father everything would be OK,” her daughter, Joan Shapiro said.
Fast forward a century and change: last spring Asher contracted the new coronavirus, which is particularly lethal for older people. She wound up spending five days in the hospital and undergoing a course of antibiotic treatment. She thought it was the end, but she was never put on a ventilator, and fortunately, she recovered, before being sent home her senior living community in Washington, D.C.
Merilee had quite a life. Born into the family of wealthy junk dealer in Chicago—that has always been a Jewish profession—she studied sculpture, and then took up painting when she moved to Washington, DC in 1943, during World War II, with her first husband, Bernard Shapiro. She was on the art committee of her synagogue in DC and had individual shows of her sculpture. Later, when sculpture became too demanding physically for her, she moved to digital photography.
Her first husband died in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, at the age of 80, Marilee remarried, to childhood friend Robert Asher. He, too died, in 2008. But Marliee kept on going, creating, living fully.
My friend Andy expressed that Marilee was a great discovery for him when she came to visit his own mother here in Tucson when his cousin was a sprightly 91 years old, and they became close friends, as fellow artists and fellow lovers of Judaism. It was Marilee who helped him find more about his Jewish roots on his mother’s side, he would visit her each year in DC to go museum visiting together, and he loved the wonderful Shabbos dinners they shared. He visited her last year, in fact, when she was 106 years old, and they went to the museum together.
In 2015, Marilee Asher published a memoir, “Dancing in the Wonder for 102 Years,” in which she writes: “Dear God, I don’t know who you are or where you are or if you are. But I do want to thank you for my life and all the perks I have enjoyed. I want to thank you also for 30 more years than are usually allotted according to your Bible. I hope I have not overstayed my welcome. Sincerely, Marilee.”
She did not overstay her welcome. She must have really been something, no? My friend Andy, who is a pretty good judge of people, certainly thought so. But what is remarkable about her story is, of course, not just that she survived Spanish Flu and Coronavirus. It is the extraordinary life she lived in between.
Isn’t that always the case, though? It’s what we do in the days and years between those punctuation points that matter. You know, like the fact that it isn’t the beginning of Yom Kippur, with Kol Nidrei, or the end of Yom Kippur, with the blowing of the Shofar at the end of our Ne’ilah service, that really matter most. It’s the way we’ve prayed, repented, committed ourselves to change over the 24 hours of Yom Kippur that really matter.
Now I’m not comparing a full experience of one day, Yom Kippur, with a rich, full human life of 107 years. But I’m pretty certain that Marilee wouldn’t be too offended by the analogy. Because just as I believe we all have a pretty good chance of weathering this particular storm of Coronavirus, of being able to share stories about the pandemic of 2020 during better years to come, I believe that we also will be able, God-willing, to express the joy of life in meaningful ways no matter what happens.
And my friends, that is really what Ne’ilah is all about. Yes, it’s the last chance we have to express our teshuvah to God on this Yom Kippur. Yes, it’s the service of the “locking of the Gates” of repentance, the final push before the long day of fasting and praying concludes. But it’s also, in its unique way, a time of uplifted spirit. We have emptied ourselves completely by now, we should be exhausted and ready for the sun to set and our lives to continue. And yet, there is always an exaltation to Ne’ilah, a wonderful spiritual energy to it that helps us rise to one last peak of religious experience in the best way.
Ne’ilah is a reminder that whatever awaits us this year, we have the energy and ability to face it with our hearts renewed and our strength, God-willing, restored by this extraordinary experience of Yom Kippur. That we, like Marilee Asher perhaps, have the capacity to live through a lot and come out the other side.
May our final prayers together on this Yom Kippur Ne’ilah help elevate you to a much better year of goodness, blessing and joy.