Rabbi's Eulogy for Harvey Towers, Chayim ben Moshe v'Chaya Sheinah


Chayim ben Moshe v’Chaya Sheinah

Died December 11, 2015                   29 Kislev 5776

Funeral December 14, 2015    2 Tevet 5776

Marine Corps tribute, “Taps” and presentation of the flag

Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night”

There are many reasons that we can feel angry about Harvey’s passing. He died at 65, too young. No one wanted to see him go the way he did. But Harvey was unable to live the life he desired, confined to his bed and dependent on dialysis three times a week a condition that he endured for three years as his health worsened In addition, Harvey’s death brings up buried anger over the Vietnam War, anger over our country’s dismissive treatment of veterans, and anger over our society’s inadequate care for the mentally ill. We can all be angry today for Harvey’s sake.

But Harvey was not angry—at least most of the time. He lived with his disabilities. He found ways to make life meaningful despite so many setbacks. If he were here now, he would be laughing, telling us not to take things so seriously, doing his best to lift our spirits.

Harvey loved his family, though they were sometimes few and far between:

We invoke divine comfort for all of you who knew him as a brother or uncle or cousin:

His brother Richard Towers and his wife Judy in Virginia, his sister Roberta Levinbaum in California, who could not make the trip to be here. Richard’s daughters Karin, Adrienne, and Rachel. Roberta’s children Randy and Barry. His 8 grandnieces and nephews, especially Karin’s son Jaxon who adored Harvey. A week or so ago, Jaxon, who is four, was asking for stories about Uncle Harvey. Karin told him Uncle Harvey was “Silly, and he used to sing silly songs when she was little.” Even little 4 year old loved Uncle Harvey and asked about him.

And many cousins, especially Linda Yaloff and Sylvia Medley who kept inclose touch with Harvey.

Karin pointed out that Harvey cherished his family. He remembered everyone’s birthdays, called nieces and nephews on their birthdays, left birthday messages, and would always sing Happy Birthday over the phone.

And of course, Harvey’s many, many friends. Many of you are listed on p.98 in Harvey’s memoirs. You were all his lifeline, the people he called when he was lonely or in pain or really, really hungry. I can’t mention all of you, but I want to make special mention of the two greatest mensches in Harvey’s life, Steve and Nancy Kellerman.

In addition to friendship, music was Harvey’s other lifeline. So it is most fitting that his friends Christine and Bruce will sing a song that they had written and was one of his favorites.

Whether we knew him as Harvey T, Harvey T Rabbit, Uncle Harvey, or DJ Rabbit, we all remember Harvey for his youthful enthusiasm, unbounded generosity and passion for life.

I want to thank Harvey for making this eulogy easier to write. Who hasn’t read Rabbi Droppings: Autobiography of a Wabbit? Harvey self-published his collection of “off-beat poetry, humor and memoirs of a baby-boomer” in 2004. Not a big best-seller, it was worth it just for the cd of jazz music and Harvey’s original poetry, a bridge between late beat poetry and early rap music that opened a window into Harvey’s creative, thrill-seeking soul.

Harvey was born in Mattapan in 1950, which means he turned 65 in his last year. Two years before Harvey came along, his mother Jean had married Harvey’s father Morris. Jean’s first husband had died of heart disease, leaving her a single mom raising Roberta and Richard. When Harvey was young, his family moved to the same West Roxbury home where he died on Thursday night. Harvey graduated from Boston Latin, where he developed his passion for music. After trying out the piano and bass, he settled on the trombone, and played in the BLS orchestra, marching band and jazz band.

Harvey’s life changed forever when a college friend had joined the Marines and was killed in Vietnam. That affected Harvey deeply in ways we may never understand. He dropped out of college and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He even requested to be sent to Vietnam. Harvey served in Vietnam with the same independence and joie de vivre that he brought to the rest of his life. Fortunately, he didn’t engage in heavy combat, and even more fortunately, he was given an honorable discharge. As he said, in an interview cited at the beginning of his book, he didn’t come home from Vietnam with a purple heart, he came home with a speeding ticket. Who comes back from Vietnam with a sense of humor? Harvey T, that’s who.

But it appears that Harvey also came home with mental illness. Though he was never officially diagnosed with PTSD, when Harvey returned from Vietnam his adventures and misadventures began. He tried a lot of things, (most of them I won’t mention), going back to college (a few times until he completed his degree in 1988), Vista volunteers, odd jobs that he never really suited him. He did find some jobs that stuck with him: among them, driving—he drove the 5-college bus in Amherst, drove cabs, drove an international tour bus in Israel, a school bus in Dorchester, and later drove a limo for Mark Green.

Harvey also loved deejaying. He got his start on the campus radio at UMass Amherst, and was a regular for 12 years on WMFO in Medford. Karin remembers the excitement of going up to the studio with her sister. Harvey would put them on the air.

Harvey’s music gave him life-long pleasure. Through music, Harvey expressed his best self. He was at Woodstock, natch, and “saw Jimi Hendrix play the Star Speckled Banana at dawn.” He enrolled at Berklee and honed his chops on trombone. Landing a spectacular work-study job at the Berklee Performance Center, Harvey rubbed elbows with some of the greats: Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, B.B.King and many others. He developed an interest in audio recording that led to his famed recording studio in the basement of his West Roxbury home.

Israel was another love of his. For many years, Harvey would start a conversation with me in Hebrew, longing to use the language that carried so many memories for him. In 1973, after the Yom Kippur war, he was rambling around UC Berkeley and stopped at a table where they were seeking volunteers for Israel. Harvey got in his car, drove back to Boston and flew to Israel. He spent the year there. In Israel, Harvey worked on kibbutz, traveled the least traveled roads, and learned to speak Hebrew fluently. He returned to Israel for a year in 1977. Sadly, he had to come home from that adventure after spending time in yet another psychiatric institution.

His father’s death in 1982 set Harvey back. That was when he moved in with his mother, which was a life-long gift to them both. Though he took vacations from time to time—most notably a week in Amsterdam in 2001—he never left Boston again, committed to being with his aging mother.

Back in West Roxbury, Harvey’s deep connection to Judaism and his love of music came together, to our great fortune, at his home congregation. Harvey had grown up at Beth Torah, now Hillel B’nai Torah, where his parents Jean and Morris had been founders. As his health stabilized, he came into his own in the 1990s and he was a fixture through the early 2000s. Harvey and Toby Gutwill z”l (who passed away last summer) were behind the tremendously fun and successful Klezfest. This annual klezmer concert brought together some of the best Klezmer musicians in Boston and raised thousands of dollars for the temple. Harvey and was celebrated for the Klezfests, that he produced for seven years.

Harvey was asked to join the temple board and was instrumental in bridging the generation gap between the founders and the younger members in the 1990s that kept our temple alive. Marvin Rosenkrantz remembers that it was Harvey who called him late one night call and asked him in his meaningful way to represent the new group of young people coming into the Temple. It was the way he expressed the need of these members to have someone on their side for a change. Marv says, “They turned my life around as far as the temple was concerned.”

Later, he took the place of the temple’s beloved Shammas, Haskell Altman, whom he revered. Harvey was one of the best shofar blowers the temple ever had. Once I visited him in a rehab and brought a shofar. When I tried to blow it, all I got was a sputter. With his trombone embouchure, Harvey picked it up and blew it so hard it woke up the whole nursing home.

But he will be remembered best for the years he was committed to leading the daily minyan.

Harvey did not just lead minyan, he made it happen. Like a real community organizer, Harvey reached out to members, calling every night to ensure that we had our ten adults present so mourners could say kaddish. Many people have written about Harvey’s presence and the love and determination he put into the minyan.

Nina Kallen recalled how much she really liked the minyans he led. Especially the prayer for healing.  “I can still hear him sing it.  His voice was strong and powerful and easy to join in.  When he would speak the in part in English, about Moses praying to God to heal Miriam, he had a sincerity that each time made me think that he could completely relate to what Moses was going through.”

Susannah Sirkin remembers him coming to her house for her mother’s shiva. He was in a wheelchair at the time, and couldn’t climb the steps to enter her home. So he waited outside while the prayers went on. He had brought a photo of Susannah and her mother that he had found at home, and gave it to her as a gift, which she still treasures as a memory of her Mom and now of Harvey too.

Mark Horenstein described how Harvey welcomed him to minyan after Mark’s parents died, though they were not yet temple members. Mark had played alongside Harvey in the Klozet Klezmer band, and was a new neighbor to the temple. One year, Mark recalls, Harvey insisted on holding minyan on the Thursday of Thanksgiving, arguably the least likely day of the year to assemble ten congregants. Without telling him ahead of time, Mark managed to convince his entire extended family to trot over to HBT for Ma’ariv.  A very surprised but happy Harvey (and the one other person who had showed up) greeted the crowd of twelve. Mark remembers fondly the delight in Harvey’s face as he began the service. Mark said, “That was simply…who he was.”

In one of his poem/raps, Harvey declared “Love is the only freedom in the world.”

That sums up the essence of Harvey. He loved freely and generously. Whether family or friend, everyone agrees that Harvey had a big heart. As Karin remarked, “he would always be willing to give whatever he had for other people, though he had little to give.”

Harvey undoubtedly learned how to love from his mother, Jean, a compassionate and kind woman who understood Harvey’s limitations and loved him with all her heart and soul. Jean did all she could to care and provide for him while she was alive, and to ensure that he would be taken care of after she was gone. Every time I visited Jean, she would tell me how she worried about Harvey. And though they didn’t always see eye to eye Harvey appreciated her tremendous patience,

Jean registered for the two-year Me’ah class with Harvey partly so that she could continue learning, and partly to give Harvey an incentive to take the class as well. Jean willed herself to stay alive, and died in 2006 at 96. After that, Harvey often talked about his mom with sadness. Harvey missed her terribly. He told me just a year ago how she never gave up on him and how she forgave him so much. Remembering her gave him strength to go on.

Three years ago, Harvey’s health took a serious turn for the worse. His arthritis became so bad he could no longer play the piano. When it became clear that Harvey would be needing dialysis, he decided it would not be worth it. He called a list of fifty people to say good bye, because he planned to stop all of his meds. Fortunately for all of us, within a few days he changed his mind, and he gave us all another three years of friendship, laughter, and music.

In many ways, Harvey was alone, but he kept from being lonely. In good times or in trouble, he reached out to his extensive network. He was not shy.

Though we might have thought him obstinate, Harvey stubbornly clung to those things that gave him life:  home, music, friends, food, and the self-medication that enabled him to bear his burdens, physical and emotional.

He didn’t complain. He didn’t dwell on negative. He made the best of everything.

Many of you made Harvey‘s life richer by bringing him the food he loved, even if it wasn’t the healthiest choice. It gave him pleasure. One Purim I brought him hamantashen and on what would be his last day I brought him latkes and applesauce, which he devoured voraciously. That day many of you stopped by to be with him, to play music, to schmooze, or simply to be with him so that he was not alone even up until his last breath. You returned the generosity that he shared, and through you, the memory of this lusty, funny, strong-willed, creative, caring, and passionate man will continue to live on.

Yehi zichrooa baruch. May his memory be blessed.

Posted on December 17, 2015 .