As we head into the second Hava Nashira Songleaders Conference without Debbie Friedman, I share a piece written last year at this time. Although last year’s program was incredibly healing, her loss is still felt among us Hava Nashir-ites. And I am sure that it will be more acute as we head into the bamidbar, the wilderness known as Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Olin Sang Ruby Institute.
A First Without a Last
by Gail F. Nalven
Usually before we have a first, we have a last. Before the first day of school, we remember the past year. We say, she’s gonna be my teacher next year, as a little gingi said to me today, assuming that even though he will change, everything else will stay the same.
Before Rosh HaShanah, we review our last year and where we’ve been. We even remember the last by throwing it in the water as bread, and watching it go down to the ocean.
Before the kick-off of the season, we review the last one. Sometimes we almost relive it, especially if that time was exceptionally glorious. We go around saying, this is gonna be a good one. Remember when he returned the kick-off for the touchdown or she caught that ball or he made that grand slam.
We don’t want to let go even when it is time to start all over again. We are nervous about the future, but we know where we’ve been, we know what the last is, so we are ready for the new first. We look for the new to keep us excited, but we so need the consistency of the past. And even when there has been no last, when it is the first first, new and fresh, there is the hope, the pregnancy, the preparation, the planning, the excitement of wonder. And if it’s the last last, even in life’s most horrible moments, there is the the huddling around the death bed, the saying of mishebeirach, the hugs, the kisses, the hope that the last last will not be coming, even when we know it will.
But this time, is different. This time, I do not know how to prepare. I did not have time to say, this is the last last. I did not know that I must hug harder, sing louder, and drink in every moment. That I must laugh more joyfully at her jokes, as if that was even possible. That I must never talk when she is talking, for there is so much to learn and I will never be able to learn from her again.
For some 200 of us we are about to enter a first first, a Hava Nashira without our beloved Debbie. Debbie, who gave me my first really big hug each year after my long journey to camp. Debbie, who welcomed me as her long lost friend, even if we had seen each other in NY. Debbie, who wasn’t on stage. Debbie, who was just, well, Debbie. Just like I am Gail. But not. For everyone knew that She was something extraordinary. Someone who could change the world for so many and someone you could sit and have a normal conversation with. Someone who could connect with you, if you were part of a large audience or if you were sitting together, just the two of you. She was the one who didn’t forget anyone.
And as difficult as this first will be for me, and every student and friend of Debbie’s, I suppose it will be harder for her colleagues. How can these extraordinary individuals do what they need to do for us, do what they do so well, while they too are still grieving, still missing. They too didn’t have a chance to say, this will be the last last. How will they plan this first first? How can they meet everyone’s expectations. The first Hava Nashira without Debbie. How is it possible to even say that or think that?
We count the omer. We count the days to Hava Nashira. We count the time until we will see one another, sing our incredible harmonies, play our special games, and fall into the routine of five short days that somehow feels like an entire year. We count and yet we know that this first, which will stand on its own as being filled with song and Torah, joy and tears, old things and new, will not be the same.
For how could it be? This is a first, without a last