"What a rare find is a capable wife! Her worth is far beyond that of rubies." In traditional Jewish homes, the husband often sings "The Woman of Valor," Eyshet Hayil, twenty-two verses from Proverbs 31:10-31, to his wife just before Shabbat Kiddush. Frequently the text of choice for women's eulogies and unveiling ceremonies, it is often scorned by feminists. As a paean to the virtues of wife as tireless, devoted servant, it may ring a bit hollow to our 21st-century ears. Yet, perhaps there's good reason to revisit the text. The ritual persisted, so it must have moved Jews over the centuries. Should we toss it just because the old meaning no longer correlates to our lives? Or reclaim the poem and grant it new meaning?
I come to the problem not as a feminist scholar, but as a daughter seeking a Jewish way to make sense out of my mother's story – the story of a vibrant woman who died of stomach cancer at age 60 in 1988. I need her story to be a Jewish story of Jewish female achievement – not because her achievements can't stand on their own (they do) – but because her story takes on a different meaning and strength when grounded in a Jewish text. One of the great gifts of our tradition is the possibility of orienting ourselves, our stories, to Torah. Whenever we do that legitimately something magical happens: We become part of the transcendence of Torah – a sacred source of affirmation for those who came before us and inspiration to those who come after.
The first paragraph of the lead editorial in The Baltimore Sun, the day after Mom's death, began: "Just the other day, Lyn Meyerhoff strolled into one of Baltimore's fancier eateries…. Hatless, wigless….'I'm fighting this monster,' she remarked, and then quickly launched into an electric conversation about the Baltimore Symphony's tour of the Soviet Union (her idea), Jeane Kirkpatrick's prospects for the presidency (her idea) and the work of a think tank in Israel….(her idea)." The writer got it right. Indeed, few people who met Mom face to face got it wrong. She was a veritable steam engine – daily combusting with ideas and work. Fountains, plazas, auditoriums, gardens, interdisciplinary medical and learning centers all testify to her influence. Her take-no-prisoners style of leadership coupled with her talent for nurturing leadership in others left her imprint on a generation of civic leaders and professionals. Thirteen years after her death, people still talk about her impact on their life or the life of Baltimore. Extol her for the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the gates.
Born just before the Great Depression, Lenore Pancoe Meyerhoff was the fifth child of a well-to-do Jewish family in Wilmette, Illinois. Her father, Morris Pancoe, arrived in America as a penniless immigrant at age 7. Visits to stock up on school supplies at his wholesale business, "Standard Stationary Supply," where he greeted us like a potentate throwing open the gates of his palace, are among my favorite childhood memories. Mom inherited his dramatic flair and turned every shopping expedition into an adventure.
The occasional whimsical purchase was permitted: "What's need got to do with it?" but if we found an item we needed, we should immediately buy three in different colors and enjoy the dual windfall of a customized uniform and saved time. Outgrown clothes were stored in a room called "The Inventory" where Mom encouraged other families to "shop." Her motto: "Buy good and it lasts!" bore fruit into the next generation. I have a picture of our two older sons wearing the spring overcoats that my younger sister and I wore some 25 years earlier. They had passed through the Florida branch of the family for 15 years before returning to me. She is not worried for her household because of snow, for her whole household is dressed in crimson.
Mom claimed that she was born defiant. My guess is she was the product of benign neglect and "Hansen's Law of Ethnicity," which states that the second-generation immigrant's primary task is to separate from her immigrant roots and assimilate. The unusual circumstances of Mom's upbringing must have complicated that process. She grew up in the 1930s in one of the few Jewish families on Chicago's North Shore and also had a severely retarded older brother. My grandparents made the unusual decision to raise Uncle Earl at home. Apart from private tutors, Earl received no special consideration, and his siblings were expected to include him in their activities. So Mom and her brothers, Walt and Art, faced constant anti-Semitism as well as cruel attacks on Earl.
Alternately reckless, mischievous or courageous, Mom's defiance had a triple edge. At 10, she secretly smoked a corncob pipe stuffed with stolen tobacco. She was arrested at age 14 for driving her Aunt Minnie's car at 90 miles an hour without a license. (Her adored maternal aunt, something of a bon vivant herself, was in the car at the time.) She challenged a revered male leader at a federation board meeting for using green Israel bonds to pay his campaign pledge – a practice that no one else had the guts to expose. She confronted a prominent trial lawyer who imported illegal domestic help and paid them slave wages. He stopped. She helped women survive grueling and degrading divorces. Socially, she preferred men over women because she was attracted to power, but she was vigilant over its abuse by others and considered herself the champion of the powerless. She gives generously to the poor; her hands are stretched out to the needy.
Mom was formidable. People sometimes ask what it was like to grow up as the child of such a powerful woman. With rare exception, she used her strength wisely and carefully with us. We were her top priority, and we knew it. She was the craftsman of the artful moment, transforming birthdays, achievements, vacations, even mundane errands into the powerful memories around which the myth of family is created. At the core of our story was the fact that my parents truly loved one another. My mother was devoted to my father, and he adored her energy and vitality. Theirs was an exceptional partnership. Best friends and lovers for 41 years, they talked, teased, laughed, played (both were fine athletes) and planned together. None of us ever saw or heard them argue in anger. He was her greatest champion; she was his biggest fan, insisting that he accept the mammoth job of chairing the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in the waning months of her life. She believed he was the only person for the job. Obligation trumped personal need. Theirs was a fully shared life, and we were the cherished product of their joint venture. Her children declare her happy; her husband praises her. She is good to him, never bad all the days of her life.
Mom believed that children learn and grow best by taking physical and emotional risks. Her teaching may seem hard-hearted now, but we experienced it as liberating because she gave us the gift of confidence. When we were very little, she would perch us in trees and then walk away. If we whined, she'd tell us to stop whining and figure out how to get out of the tree if we wanted to get down so badly. Soon, we were tree monkeys. When we started skiing, she arranged for a couple of lessons, took us to the top of the mountain, grabbed our ski poles and told us she'd meet us at the bottom. Mom insisted that we take on teachers who were petty or unfair. She handled medical emergencies with the aplomb of a trained medic, teaching us that keeping our heads in a crisis was not only admirable, but life-saving. As for herself, she never once asked, "Why me?" When she developed disabling chronic pain from a disc injury, she never complained. When she learned that she had inoperable stomach cancer she did not rail against the terrible news. She had no time for self-pity, no appetite for introspection.
Mom possessed the steadfast optimism and innocence of the quintessential midwesterner. She grew teary-eyed at parades and flag raisings. Being an American was a sacred privilege; America was the greatest country on earth. It was her duty to confront injustice and defeat bullies. "We are what we do, not what we say," was a favorite maxim. In the end, she alone would be accountable for her conduct. She is clothed with strength and splendor; she looks to the future cheerfully.
Through her decades of work with the Republican party, she had personal relationships with senators, heads of major corporations, presidents, and first ladies. Wendell Wilkie's articulation of Republican philosophy first captured her imagination in 1941. His message resonated with her beliefs about good government, sound communities and individual responsibility. For her, Judaism and the liberal democratic agenda were unnatural bedfellows. She found classic Republican ideology a far better fit for the Jewish values of justice and personal responsibility she embraced. But she wasn't a die-hard party fanatic. Her favorite presidential candidate was a Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, whom she considered a brilliant statesman and orator. She admired Abba Eban for those same qualities, and for his formulation of Judaism as a civilization which gave her a framework for her deeply felt but essentially anti-religious Jewish identity. From her first federation visit to Israel in the late 1950s, she was a steadfast advocate for the infant nation and its brash people. A member of Hadassah's Society of Major Donors, she was a charter member of Israel Bonds' President's and Prime Minister's Clubs, and on a first-name basis with many of Israel's leaders, from Golda Meir to Bibi Netanyahu. During the early months of her battle with cancer, she founded the Jeane Kirkpatrick Forum at Tel Aviv University to encourage meaningful American/ Israeli dialogue about democracy. She and Jeane became great friends when Mom served as one of three presidentially appointed public delegates to the United Nations in 1983. As Jeane later remarked, "Lyn got the job because…the party was very grateful to her [and] because she was intelligent and energetic." Mom seethed at the anti-American rhetoric and anti-Semitism she encountered. As my father observed, "Soon after she took the post, she struck back in a memorable speech telling off Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria for their collective accusation that the Israel-Egyptian Camp David accords were responsible for the bloodshed that plagued Lebanon."
My mother's outspokenness could offend or delight. She meant what she said and she said what she meant. She once dismissed a plan for a new inflammatory bowel disease center with the terse statement: "Get it right. The patients need the bathrooms, not the doctors." The revised plan turned the ratio around. It also included fish tanks, uplifting photo murals, pictures of the staff, intimate seating areas, and a soothing palette – all her ideas, which set a new standard for outpatient centers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Kids of all ages were drawn to her. She could engage any kid in a conversation. Her many nieces and nephews adored her, confided in her, sought her ready ear and no-nonsense advice. Her mouth is full of wisdom. Her tongue with kindly teaching.
She was a woman of paradoxes. Resilient and independent, she defied most female stereotypes but denied being a feminist. Totally committed to her role as wife and mother, she hated to cook, preferred puppies to babies, refused to sew, and sent us to school pageants dressed in the wrong outfits. "I'll be able to see you better!" was the excuse, but the message was that conformity was a trivial pursuit. Unlike any other Jewish mother I knew, she drove a farm tractor, washed her own car, raked her own leaves, knew how to drive a truck and captain a boat. She could tame a wild raccoon, train a dog, raise chickens (and give them away as party favors), catch any fish in any kind of water, hit a ball better than most men, and thought nothing of dropping to the floor in full evening dress to challenge a fellow party-goer to a contest of one-armed push-ups. She girds herself with strength; and performs her tasks with vigor.
Long before philanthropy had become a buzzword in Jewish life, my parents were using money to encourage beauty, justice and creativity. Mom lit candles on Friday night, enjoyed gift-giving at Hanukkah and loved our annual Passover seder, but her acts of leadership and philanthropy were probably the most consistent expression – apart from her response to the Holocaust – of her Jewish identity. She was a driving force behind the highly successful National Aquarium in Baltimore and led the National Ileitis and Colitis Association to new heights as its president. The 20th century ashes-to-redemption drama was the source of her greatest pride in the Jewish people and her deepest disappointment in our country. Shamed by Roosevelt's cowardice and horrified by how little America had done to combat the Holocaust, she was one of the first people to articulate a distinctly American vision and rationale for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Governor Hughes' request, Mom chaired the most successful early communal campaign for the museum. She raised $1 million in one morning from 50 non-Jewish business leaders. She understood that people give to people and knew that her energy, commitment and conviction helped to sell the things she believed in. As Jeane Kirkpatrick put it in her eulogy: "Lyn's help was a wonderful thing…She could have run the Pentagon rather better than most who have been assigned the job…She was strong and she knew it…She believed responsibility came with wealth and power and citizenship in a free society…She believed in work, especially for those who had the opportunity to enjoy leisure." She sees that her business thrives; her lamp never goes out at night.
Although Jewish causes always had the first claim on her dollar, politics is what fired her imagination and captured her heart. She loved the networking, the intrigue, the wheeling and dealing. Dad recalls, "Lyn became a major figure in Maryland Republican politics. She was a terrific fundraiser, a great networker, and a thoughtful, persuasive policy-maker who served on the state party's executive committee." She supported the 1960 Nixon-Lodge candidacy and worked hard for the 1968 Nixon-Agnew ticket, though she later called Agnew "her greatest disappointment in politics." She served in Ford's administration on the Council of International Economic Policy, then on his executive finance committee when he ran against Carter. Later, she tried to persuade Ford to challenge Reagan for the GOP nomination. When Reagan won, she pragmatically observed that "In politics you don't get everything you believe in," and worked with his administration while continuing to support Planned Parenthood and oppose efforts to re-institute public school prayer. She clocked hours on the phone tapping into her vast network of friends and colleagues. Her address book was a goldmine of data but a mystery to anyone but Mom. Bob Dole might be under "K" for Kansas, "S" for senator or "B" for Bob but she knew exactly where to find him and didn't hesitate to use the information for a good cause. She is like a merchant fleet, bringing her food from afar.
Most of what Mom stood for has a corollary in the Eyshet Hayil. "The Woman of Valor" can be a text for our times if we make it so…with one exception. Apparently, the biblical Eyshet Hayil did not require a sense of humor, but Mom did. A terrible tease or a wry commentator, she found humor in everything. This was poignantly captured on video at a critical moment. Lying in her hospital bed three days after her stomach had been removed and holding two stuffed dogs, she offered a spontaneous riff on hospital food. The two dogs, she insisted, were originally the same size until one ate the hospital food for two days. Soon we were laughing so hard the camera was bouncing. She taught us to laugh but allowed us to cry. Laughter at the end of her life didn't heal her, but it gave her dignity and strength and helped us to find those same qualities in ourselves.
Mom's life was one long lesson in attention. Life matters, she taught. Pay attention. Do your best. May this modest drash on her life and a sacred Jewish text extend her teaching to others and help to assure that her memory will be for a blessing.
NOTE: I am indebted to Terry M. Rubenstein, my sister, and Judy Meltzer, my teacher, my father, Harvey, and my Uncle Walter Pancoe for their invaluable assistance. My deepest appreciation to Gail Twersky Reimer for giving me this wonderful opportunity and for furnishing me with Lillian D. Wald's 1915 modern midrash on Eyshet Hayil.