Eulogy by Rabbi Laura Geller

Eulogy for Shirley Moskowitz Gruber

[Delivered at her funeral, April 30, 2007, by Rabbi Laura Geller Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El, Beverly Hills]

Although we all knew this day would come, it’s not easy to be here. We know there will be more comfort when we celebrate Shirley’s life and her work at the opening of Shirley’s retrospective in September. It is comforting to know how much pleasure it brought to Shirley to know the exhibition would go forward. But we, here now, need comfort. So we turn to words from our tradition, words from the book of Psalms.

Psalm #23

A few weeks ago Ruth came to our home for Shabbat dinner. When my husband Rich sang the familiar words from Proverbs 31, A Woman of Valor , Ruth’s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t say it out loud, but it was clear she was thinking about Shirley.

A woman of valor, who can find?
Her worth is far above rubies.
Her husband can trust her with all his heart,
and he needs no other treasure.
She would work with wool or flax gladly, creating with her hands.
She makes sure that what she makes is beautiful;
she pours her energy into whatever she creates.
With her very own produce she plants the seeds and reaps the harvest.

She opens her hands to the poor
And extends a hand to the needy.
She is robed in strength and dignity
And cheerfully faces whatever may come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom
Her speech is full of kindness and love
She oversees the activities of her household
and never takes her living for granted. ..
Her children respect her and come forward and bless her …
Her husband praises her, saying:

Many women have done nobly
But you surpass them all
Give her the .fruit of her hands
Whenever people gather
Her work speaks her praise.

No wonder these words evoked the image of Shirley. ..She was a unique woman of valor: strong, focused, adventurous, non-judgmental, and most of all, in the words of Proverbs: “She makes sure that what she makes is beautiful; she pours her energy into whatever she creates. With her very own produce she plants the seeds and reaps the harvest. “Most of all, Shirley was an artist…who created a beautiful collage out of her life.

Shirley’s work has been described in these words: “Many of her…collages utilized a multi-layered technique in which the primary picture surface was cut in places to let images appear from underneath…”

The images for Shirley’s collage began in Houston in 1920. Her mother was a real Texan, with grandparents who had founded the first synagogue in their town. Her dad was a developer, who had begun his career surveying oil fields in West Texas. She was close to her younger brothers Charles and Herman, and embraced by a loving extended family. Most of all, she was her daddy’s girl. With her incredibly protective father, she never was allowed to ride a bike or taught to swim, and she never really learned to drive. And though her family lost much of what they had in the depression, her memories were of a happy and contented childhood.

And even as a child, she thought of herself as an artist to be taken seriously. Enamored with the movie star Nelson Eddy, when she was thirteen, Shirley did a portrait of him from magazine pictures. When he was performing near her, she skipped school to wait in the lobby of his hotel to present him with the drawing. Elbowing her way through the crowds, she managed to approach him with her gift. He promised her that he’d hang it in his den.

She graduated from Rice University and went on to Oberlin for her Masters. Her brother Charles contacted a friend near Oberlin to look after his older sister. So, that first year in Oberlin, the friend arranged for a bus to take Shirley (and any other interested Jewish students) to Simchat Torah services at the closest synagogue. Jake Gruber was on the bus, and he managed to wrangle a seat next to the beautiful new student from Texas.
Their friendship blossomed and they spent lots of time together, but each already had significant others. They would meet most every evening after study or studio time, and given that money was so tight, order one cup of tea and ask for a second cup of hot water. It wasn’t until Jake was in the army and Shirley back in Houston that she sent him what has become a famous family picture: Shirley, in shorts, looking as glamorous as any pin- up girl. Jake explains that that picture was the reason their occasional correspondence “quickened” (his words), and after he was discharged, he went to Houston to visit. The plan was just to visit, but even as they walked back to her house from the airport, a neighbor noticed that they looked so comfortable together. They talked all night, and by 2:30 in the morning, they decided to get married.

That was 61 years ago. Her connection to Jake has been the primary surface for the collage she created with her life.

Their life together took them back to Ohio, to New York’s Greenwich Village, and then on to Pennsylvania where Ruth, Frank, and Sam were born. The family was very close, with Shirley and Jake taking the kids with them wherever they went, including grown-up parties, often to the chagrin of the other adults. The kids felt different because their dad was a professor and their mom was an artist who listened to the music of Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson. They always had dinner together as a family, and Sunday morning brunch was almost a religious ritual. Jake and Shirley were naturally progressive parents who didn’t talk down to their kids, believing instead that their job was to guide but not control. Jake recalled that when Shirley was pregnant with Ruth, a colleague inquired as to how she would raise her child. Shirley’s answer: “I’m just going to let her grow.”
And indeed that is what she did. As the kids grew up and went off on adventures that none of us would allow our kids to do now, like hitchhiking cross country or across Europe, Shirley’s advice always was: “If I had that opportunity, I’d be incredibly excited.
Go for it. Just be careful!”

Jake and Shirley were immensely collaborative; theirs was a genuine partnership. Shirley was wise enough to perfect an ineptness about cooking so Jake would take over…and become a very good cook! She and Jake took every opportunity they had to be adventurous, usually making life-changing decisions on the spur of a moment.

The primary surface of Shirley’s collage was illuminated by the family’s move to England for seven months in 1959. The kids were nine, six, and three at the time. They traveled by ship, and had amazing adventures that changed everyone’s lives. Other trips to Europe followed and Shirley’s art exploded, with all kinds of new images and techniques enriching the collage of her life. The sold their suburban home when Ruth went off to college and bought a brownstone in the Center City of Philadelphia when others like them were leaving the Center City. And then they moved to Italy when
Temple University asked Jake to open its Liberal Arts branch in Rome. Through all this time, Shirley stayed focused on her art, bringing the people and the experiences she encountered in small Italian towns and villages into her life’s collage.

In 1983 they bought an old farm house in Umbria, and over the years, the neighbors would know it was spring when the Grubers came back to Umbria. They were embraced by their Italian neighbors, something that doesn’t often happen when foreigners move into small Italian villages. I actually got a sense of how special she was when we visited them in Umbria some years ago. Shirley sat with a recently widowed neighbor perfecting her Italian as she taught the neighbor English. I could see that the connection between these two women was so powerful that it didn’t even need words.

The collage of Shirley’s life was fashioned from her two loves…in alphabetical order: art and family. And family embraced not just Jake and her own children, but Janet and Judy and her grandchildren Henry, Jonah, and Zoe. And all her life she stayed close to her brothers Herman and Charles, her sisters-in law Judy, Shirley, and Minette, to Jake’s family, and to all her nieces and nephews.

The essay that I quoted before continues: “She has increasingly superimposed her own life and history, incorporating images of family and friends in what otherwise might be remote…events.” For Shirley there were no remote events. There was only an unending adventure, an expansive vision, a whimsical and sometimes subversive sense of humor, a comfort with people and an ability to make people comfortable, a strong moral sense without being moralistic, and an honesty and clarity about herself and our world. Shirley immersed herself in the collage she created which reflected the light and energy of her rich and satisfying life.

I think of the words of poet Mary Oliver:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement
I was a bride groom, taking the world into my arms

When it’s over I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of myself something particular, and real
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
Or full of argument

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Shirley wasn’t a tourist in the landscapes of her life; she was, rather, the creator of the landscape…enriched with family and friends, with color and light, with energy and movement, with honesty and with clarity, with amazement and with vision.

And as her life was coming to an end, she wasn’t afraid. She knew she wasn’t alone, but rather surrounded by Jake, her children, and her wonderful caretaker Blanca. She wasn’t sentimental about her life. She didn’t wonder if she had made of her life something particular and real.. She knew she had. She knew that her collage was unique and beautiful and will forever influence the way we will all see the world.

Her children respect her and come forward and bless her …
Her husband praises her, saying:

Many women have done nobly
But you surpass them all
Give her the fruit of her hands. ..

The extraordinary collage she made of her with her life.

Whenever people gather
Her work speaks her praise.

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