In our lives, if we’re lucky, there are special people, unique people, people who become a part of us. In the life of a community, if it’s a thriving community, there are special people, unique people, people who are not only active in the community and not only symbolize and represent the community but are, in a very real sense, the community.
Ethel Litt was a special person, a unique person who became a part of many of us. In the life of Temple Beth Sholom, she certainly holds a special place. I don’t only mean that you see so much of someone that you become accustomed to her face, her voice, her manner. I mean that the person becomes part of the way you feel and you think. You know all her stories because you’ve heard all of them several times and you get tested on a regular basis as to whether you remember every detail.
Since there is a lot to say about Ethel from the perspective of our shul, I want to talk first about her in the midst of her first family.
Ethel Shore was born in Fall River Massachusetts where her grandparents lived. I can’t tell you when she was born because that’s a big point of issue, but I can tell you that she was alive when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1918 and she lived long enough to see the Red Sox pull off a miracle and win for what will be the last time in 2004. She grew up on Beacon Hill in Boston with her two brothers Leo and Melvin, whom we remember with affection and respect today. We’re happy that Leo’s daughter Beverly molt and Melvin’s daughter Amy Dorfman are here today. We also note her beloved Cousin Harris Kline, whose wedding Ethel held on to dance at recently.
Ethel was born 40 years before her time. She had the drive and the will and the skills to be an executive.
She was one of the original women’s libbers. In the 20s she went to the beach in a 2-piece bathing suit and was escorted off the beach.
She graduated high school and went to work. A salesman named Jack Litt from Burlington Vermont wooed her, but she kept trying to pass him onto her friends. Thank G-d, he just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
They were married for 52 years. Cliff was born on their 3rd anniversary and then came Ellen and Mike. They moved to Connecticut, which didn’t have the proper shopping for her at the time.
As the kids grew up, she was very pleased with her family,
with Ellen who just became closer and closer to her as the years went on
with Cliff and Margaret
with Meredith, Jeffrey, Heather and Amber.
with Mike and Arlene and their Jacob and Rachel.
She worked at the Federation for 20 years. One of the reasons she knew everybody and everything was from those years.
But Ethel’s real career was to be a Professional Volunteer. While her focus was Temple Beth Sholom, she was active in more organizations than I can list. She was a member of Hadassah, of Women’s League, of Ort, etc. She was a Hamden Notable in 2002 and was honored for her service to the general community as well. She knitted for premees at Yale-New Haven. She worked for years in the Hamden school system, as a lunch aide at the Church Street school. She raised money for cancer. The list goes on and on.
I didn’t even know, for instance, that she was active in ARMDI until I got interested in that organization. And every time she came back from a meeting, of whatever kind, she always had news of some sort. I have gone to very few meetings of this kind over these years because Ethel was there and we didn’t need duplication. We knew what was going on from her.
We all have Ethel stories. I have many stories that I’m fond of. I just want to tell you a few today that I think say something about her and her life..
I’m a new young rabbi and there is a Board meeting at which Ethel is on the losing side of a big vote. Our President at the time, Henry Cohen, comes to me and asks me to call Ethel the next day because he’s worried that she’ll be upset. When I call her the next morning, and I tell her I’m worried about her, she says, “Oh, you win some you lose some.’
Since this is a completely candid eulogy, I will tell you that Ethel lost more battles than anyone. She lost on issues like the Gift Shop and Show Buses and so on.
But I can’t talk about her as if she were a meek passive victim. She gave as good as she got. She could be a real pain-in-the-neck. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Well, she had lots of love-hate relationships, emotional relationships. But one way or the other, she was not indifferent to you and you could not be indifferent to her.
And if I’m going to be candid, I have to say that Ethel was not only controversial; she loved controversy. She loved “He said, she said.”
But it was her feistiness, her spunk that made her tick and propelled her into countless acts of goodness for people.
She was, as Mike puts it, a great mitzvah-maker. She has been a volunteer in our shul equal to anyone else. She has done countless mitzvahs. At the Shul, every Friday night, even in the snow, she opened the door and closed the place. She was on the Mitzvah Committee at the Arden House and it was poignant that she wound up sitting at the table as a resident.
At the Soup Kitchen, she poured the juice.
She wanted to be on every committee. No job was too small or trivial. She was a mainstay of all Adult Education and Sisterhood events, of minyans and shiva minyans and the Hebrew School.
She was a master mitzvah maker, but she could also make a pretty good ruckus with very little material. She was in charge of many things and she fought tenaciously over what she saw as her turf.
Once she got into a terrible fight at a Board meeting with another very active member of the shul. That Friday night after services, she was talking happily to that same member. A third person came up to them and said how surprised she was to see the two of them talking in such a friendly manner. Ethel said, “Oh, that? That was a meeting.”
My point is that Ethel had the right attitude. Fight and then forget it. A shul is a family. We fight and squabble and play our roles but never forget that we’re family.
And if I’m going to be candid, I have to tell you that she didn’t have the greatest singing voice. At a party we had when I celebrated 18 years at the synagogue, she was given one line to sing. Not only did she blow the line, but after studying and rewinding the tape, I still have no idea what she was saying.
She may not have been the best driver, as a matter of fact I’m sure that she was not the best driver, but she drove all over the place doing the best things.
She won every award that I can think of, including the President’s Award. One time we were going to honor her with a special Aliyah on our holiday of Simchat Torah. She came to me quietly and admitted that because she was the product of a generation that didn’t count women, she had never had an Aliyah before and that she didn’t know the blessings. So quietly, she learned the blessings with me and had her first Aliyah. That was a very special moment.
To me she was a throwback to a generation of hearty people who were never self-indulgent, who knew that life is tough and that you are going to have heartache and pain and sorrow and that you just keep moving. If life is throwing knives at you, be a moving target. Whatever happens, keep moving.
I’ll never forget what she was like after Jack died. He died all of a sudden and we were all shocked. Ethel was in the kitchen working a short time later and someone told her to go home. She made it crystal clear that she did not want to go home and that she knew what she needed. And she was right.
Every community has information systems. Ethel was our information system.
If you told her something she didn’t know, she’d always say, “No fooling.” She was genuinely surprised that she didn’t already know.
The only time she ever really got mad at me was when she wasn’t the first person to hear that my daughter Rachel was engaged. When she went after me for failing to let her know first, she said, “What am I chopped liver?” I thought that she was kidding. She was not kidding. She was mad.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Arden House to see her and played Bingo with her. I had to share her one bingo card and I was determined to help her win a prize. We raced each other to place the marker on the spots as the numbers were called and I have to admit that she beat me half the time. I could take that. What I couldn’t take is that we didn’t win one time and most of the other people were asleep. I had to go but Ethel kept playing without me. She called Bobbi later to say that after I had left, she had won twice. I was embarrassed. She was quite pleased about the whole thing.
She did it by herself. She loved to be independent.
I recently had pneumonia. Ethel called me every day to see how I was. After a few days of self-indulgence, I looked in the mirror, thought about Ethel and said, “It’s just enough. Put on your roller skates and get going.” My sickness basically disappeared. That’s the kind of inspiration she’ll always be to me.
I will think about Ethel and Strawberry Ice Cream Sundaes, Ethel and Egg Creams, Ethel and eating in general. I will think about her schlepping to the Crown.
I will think about Ethel dancing. She loved to dance. At receptions, she would be in the middle of the dancing, in the middle of all of the photographs.
I will hear her saying, “So what’s going on?”
What I want to know is: Who’s going to make me Gribenes now?
To Ellen and Cliff and Margaret and Mike and Arlene, I want to say two things. First, you guys have been fantastic during this long ordeal. You gave your mother the chance to go out her way. Thank you for your sacrifices and devotion. Thank you for your nights and your days.
Second, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for arranging things so that I could be here at Ethel’s funeral. You have been incredibly kind to me and I will never be able to repay my debt to you.
If a statistical study would be conducted on motions made at Temple Beth Sholom Board meetings, it could be proved that Ethel seconded approximately 85% of those motions. It didn’t matter what the motion was about, she seconded it. She might vote against it later on, but she seconded it when it was proposed. Still, she comes in second to none in our hearts.
Our synagogue is Temple Beth Sholom. Sometimes we get mail addressed to Mrs. Beth Sholom. There are some children who have grown up thinking that Ethel owned the building, that she was the woman named Beth, that Ethel was that lady. Yes, Shoshana, there was a Mrs. Beth Sholom. Except her first name wasn’t Beth. It was Ethel.