Yom Kippur Symposium 2780 by Tom Fish

Yom Kippur Symposium 2780 by Tom Fish

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Shana Tova.  For years, this symposium has been one of my family’s favorite High Holiday services.   I have been humbled and moved by the testaments from this bimah of amazing courage and strength of the human spirit to persevere through seemingly insurmountable life challenges.  In fact, each year, I pray more intensely at this service than at any other during the high holy days.   “Dear God, I beseech you, please may I never be a symposium speaker!” 

Thank God, I am blessed with a wonderful family, parents who are alive and with us today, fantastic colleagues that I work with, and Lily, the world’s greatest dog!  I can ask for nothing more.  So, if you are expecting a plot twist later in this talk, there really aren’t any – Kenahora!  Kenehora!

I grew up on the west side of Houston, with a lightly sprinkled Jewish upbringing, and very few Jewish friends.  Without pressure from my parents, something did compel me to become a bar mitzvah, when in 1975 at Beth Israel it wasn’t a given to do so.  Our new head rabbi who had just arrived, and we didn’t yet know very well, would bar mitzvah me.  So, the week of my ceremony, my mom wanted me to be blessed by “her rabbi” and took me to see Rabbi Schactel.  It was just the two of us in his study.  He raised his hands above my head and recited in that godly baritone voice:  “Yevharek-kha Adonay veyishmerekha.  May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  My head is bowed and I’m thinking, what’s going on here?  There’s no one here to see this, and he is blessing me anyway?”  This must be for real!  By the way, that new rabbi was Rabbi Karff, and you have no idea what a profound influence you were on me.   

I went to Westchester High School and those were great years.  I was a football playin’, girl chasin’, beer chuggin’, tobacco chewin’, huntin’ and fishin’…. Jew.  I know, there aren’t that many of us.  I stayed with religious school, kicking and screaming all along the way through confirmation…..probably because I don’t think they flunked anyone out back then.  In that hallway, there is a photo of the confirmation class of 1978 with me and my disco hair, and I’m proud to be alongside so many others who are still members of this congregation.        

I went on to The University of Texas.  College – an opportunity to push the reset button and reinvent myself.  I could have done that.  I could have left my high school buddies, joined a Jewish fraternity and surrounded myself with more Jewish people.  Instead, I stayed within my comfort zone and joined a non-Jewish fraternity.  I often get asked why I made that choice.  The honest answer is, I just didn’t have the courage to change what I had always known.  In retrospect, like so many other decisions, there were tradeoffs in my life.  I made life-long friends, but I missed out on the opportunity in those all – important college years, to form bonds with many other Jews.  And I think about that decision to this day.  However, being in a non – Jewish environment at that time had unintended consequences.  It actually awakened that part of my identity, a quiet but constant ringing in my ears that became a gravitational pull to my religion.  What may well have been encounters with anti-Semitism, instead registered to me simply as a lack of awareness and exposure to Jews and Judaism.   I felt called to become kind of a “brand ambassador” to our faith, to do my small part to dispel the myths that those who were not exposed to our religion might have grown up with.  And it made me realize that marrying within my faith was important to me.  Maybe the biggest plus of all, is that I got some of my crazies out before Shari Lewis ever really got to know me. If she had, we would have never ended up together.  Because ladies and gentlemen, there are some things you just cannot un-see.

I met her in class my sophomore year.  She was a beautiful, sweet, blond, brilliant, ZBT little sister, and Texas Cowboy Sweetheart.  And she was Jewish!,  Shari had been raised at Beth Yeshurun, sitting in services next to her grandfather.  She was so far out of my league that asking her on a date would have been like facing a Justin Verlander fastball.   So, we were just friends.  But my life changed our junior year, when she accepted my offer for a ride back to Houston.  This short road trip was my chance to try and impress her just enough for her to say yes to a date.  As reluctant as she was to date a friend, she said yes. And well, things went pretty good from there. 

Two and a half years later we were married.  Those who know us will agree – that was the day I won the lottery.  Two and a half years later, we had Stephanie, followed very quickly by Bubba and then Stacy.   Our family was complete, and we went about our lives of raising three children, juggling career and family, wondering how we pay our mortgage, and experiencing all the joys and struggles of being a young family .  Shari was “all in” as a mom, and she was always there for our kids.  Like many dads, I tried to manage my career and my own selfish indulgences, with the opposing force of being a father who was truly present.  The cell phone, the blackberry, the emails, the golf games and duck hunts, were a distraction.  As much as I had hoped to be a constantly engaged father, I let a lot of things get in the way.      

Although not always front and center, Judaism was a presence in our family.  My dad would tell me what his father told him: “Your religion is like a comfortable, old pair of shoes.  It feels really good to wear, and it’s always there for you .”  Well, I wanted to wear those shoes more, so I got involved with the Jewish community, and you know what?  Dad was right.  It felt really good.  To this day, I am grateful to people like Barry, Bobby, Stan, and my Uncle Elliott, who are blessings to our community and who unknowingly inspired me to get involved.  In some small way, I tried to make up for lost time and establish those Jewish connections that I missed out on earlier in my life.  Shari went back to school part time and got her masters in counseling, which she has used to help so many.    

As a junior in high school, and after several years of carrying a heavy secret, our son Bubba came out as gay to his friends and family.  What? Wait a minute, I don’t understand…I’m a duck huntin’, golf playin’, tequila drinkin’ Longhorn frat boy. I gotta dog named Hank and a son named Bubba.  How can he be gay!   Accepting someone else who is gay? …No problem.  But this was my son! I really struggled with this and, in typically Jewish fashion, I blamed myself. “Maybe if I had been a better father…” How could I possibly muster up the courage to deal with this in my world?  The answer of course, was hiding in plain sight.  If I could only be half as brave Bubba was to deal with it in his world.   

Fortunately, I was surrounded by my wife, my family, my friends, and our Rabbi Lyon, all of whom had the wisdom to get to the right answer before I could.  Shari was a constant reminder that love is unconditional, and my children an example of how enlightened their generation is.  My friends were still my friends, and, lo and behold, I wasn’t the only father of a gay child.  My Rabbi and my Judaism were there to help me know that this was not Bubba’s issue, it was my issue.  Of all the things I wrestled with, I didn’t have to reconcile who he was with our religious beliefs.  As Reform Jews, we have led the way in embracing all our children as God’s gifts to us. I thank God this happened when it did and where it did, at a time when our society is so much more accepting, and in this great city of Houston, which is truly a beacon of diversity and tolerance.   But still, to fully accept what was not part of my plan, was a journey that took me far longer than it should have.  As a knucklehead, I can tell you it takes a while to quit being a knucklehead.   In 2018, Rabbi Lyon officiated when Bubba married his partner Aaron Liebermann, who is a great son to us and who we are so fortunate to have in our lives.  It was a cathartic moment for me, as it was the destination of my journey of acceptance.  It’s both a humbling and grateful experience when those around you help to bring you to a place that you might not have been able to get to on your own. To quote my favorite high holy day prayer, “Birth is a Beginning”….. “From foolishness to discretion, and then perhaps, to wisdom.” 

Seven months later, Rabbi Lyon officiated when Stephanie married her love Jeff Eisenbaum, a local Bellaire boy and a great guy from a loving family.  And again, we are so lucky that they found each other.  Shari and I laughed when we talked about their “lovely wedding, a nice Emery Weiner Jewish girl marries a nice Bellaire Jewish boy”.  It seemed so ……so easy!   

Our youngest, Stacy, is in a committed relationship with Conor Callahan, an Irish Catholic, true gentleman and die – hard Yankees fan.  No stranger to our faith, Conor was raised in the midst of a Jewish community in New York, and he was a Sammy at Cornell.  Conor and I are kindred spirits – he tells me that I drink like I’m Irish.   

I’m in my mid 50’s now, and I’m discovering the mixed blessing of being middle aged.  The aches and pains that used to come from worrying about what’s not truly important or what I cannot control, now emanate from my muscles and joints.  I guess that’s a pretty fair trade. It is both regretful and comforting to accept that my perspective is different from the Tom Fish of 10 years ago.  To quote the same high holy day prayer – “From ignorance to knowing, from offense to forgiveness.”

For 35 years, Shari has been my best friend, my true north, and the lighthouse of our family.  Our most important achievement is that we sit at a dinner table together with our children and their significant others, laughing, joking, ribbing each other, arguing about politics and sports, and everyone truly likes each other.   By all measures, my cup runneth over.  

I cannot stand here before you today and tell you what a good, observant Jew I have been.  However, I can attest to that quiet, steady gravitational force that Judaism has been in my life.  It took me until my mid 40’s, sitting in this sanctuary, hearing once again the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, when it FINALLY dawned on me.  This was the only explanation for me to understand how this small, gifted and persecuted group of people could have possibly survived for so long. 

Like Dad says, that old pair of shoes we call Judaism has always been there for me, even when I wasn’t attentive to it.  And I am indebted to so many who gave it to me, and taught me to be proud to wear it.  I have learned to forgive myself for my shortcomings of living a Jewish life, and to be grateful for the moments of comfort and warmth that being a part of this community has given to me.  As assimilated as our society is today, and as accustomed as I am to being in a non-Jewish world, there are still moments when feel like I don’t quite fit in.   And you know, that’s OK.  Because being of a common faith may just be the most powerful human bond that exists.  While as much as I hope for the world to transcend our differences, I also respect and embrace that divergence of beliefs.  For that is what makes a day like today, a place like Beth Israel, and the people within it, so special to me.  

Shana Tova.