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A Name Remembered, a Life Imagined

Over the years, on my desk there has been one object which remains constant. A visual reminder about life and self perception and the ability to laugh. It’s a yahrzeit card.

Every year I make my way back to one particular synagogue, so I can hear the name read out loud. I watch the Rabbi – whoever is leading services that day – very closely as they read. I’m looking for a sign. A smirk, a smile, the slightest catch of the voice. Most years, I get more – a reddening of the face, a long pause and even a few nervous sounds from the congregation. The name I’m listening for?

“Lulu I. Woodle”

Lulu was not my grandmother or aunt or cousin. She wasn’t a close family friend. I was not connected to Mrs. Woodle in any way. In fact, I never met her. The card on my desk tells me that she was born on October 17, 1876, and passed away on February 2, 1953.

Lulu was not always a Woodle. She married a Woodle. Morris Woodle, to be exact. or “Mo’ Woodle” as I like to think of him. He predeceased her by 7 years. She lived out her days after that as a lone Woodle. Assuming she didn’t have any children – the card doesn’t say and nobody at the synagogue where her name is read have ever met them. Her husband made an “in perpetuity” donation many years ago, and for that they gained the benefit of the yearly remembrance.

So why do I have the card? Why do I return to hear her name read each year?

The first time I heard Lulu’s name, and the congregational response (muffled laughter along with scandalized looks) my imagination was completely engaged. I tried to find out as much as I could about this woman. As Rabbi Moshe Adler pointed out this past week, our job is to raise others up and laugh at ourselves, not the other way around. I didn’t want her name to remain a punchline, the real world equivalent of the grade school gag “Ima Dork”.

Without any real data, I worried about a woman who lived her life cringing in frustrated anticipation of the next time her name was called out loud – at the pharmacist, renewing her driver’s license, at parent-teacher conferences. I didn’t want to believe in someone embittered in that way.

But, as I said, nobody that I spoke to ever knew her. I was (and still am) left with more questions than answers.

The Midrashic tradition of Judaism allows for the teller to create a “tikkun” – a repair – in a story where either the details are missing or when they fail to provide a resolution that helps the listener. In that spirit, I feel I’m justified in offering my tikkun for Lulu I. Woodle:

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In my imagination, Lulu Isadore Schwartz was a caring, loving, generous soul. She had a ready smile and an infectious laugh. When she met Morris – a quiet man nursing a glass of punch –  standing at the periphery of a social mixer hosted by her aunt, she fell instantly in love. Her personality supplemented and complemented his in so many ways it soon became difficult to describe where Lulu ended and Mo picked up. They were true b’shert, destined for each other. When she found out his last name (which he half muttered to the pretty and vivacious girl who was inexplicably standing in front of him) she laughed not in derision, but in obvious delight. They were married a mere 3 months after that merry May meeting, on August 28. 1901. Morris was 37 years old at the time.

Lulu was a favorite at the grade school where she taught. From that summer wedding in 1901 onward, she loved every first day of school, when the children could never quite contain themselves as they entered her room. She would stand at the door to greet each and every child, who would invariably mutter “Hullo Missus Woodle”, followed by a quick clapping of hands over their mouth to try to stop from guffawing. She would foil them by grabbing that same hand and shaking it solemnly, telling then that she was very, very pleased to make their acquaintance. By the middle of the first morning every student would know her full name, and would have laughed about it at least 3 or 4 times. Openly and with her approval.

Because in her heart, Lulu loved happy people. The fact that the mere mention of her name created laughter was one of the greatest joys of her life. She used her own name to teach that not only could names never hurt you, they could also heal, if you let them. To the people who superstitiously said that “words, especially names, had power” she would agree but add “but not always the way you think.”

And after Lulu’s effusive soul departed for Olam Ha-ba’a – the World to Come – I imagine she looked (and continues to look) down from her heavenly place each year to see if her name held the power to provide a moment of mirth even during the solemn recitation of the departed.

Rabbi Simeon said : “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name excels them.”

In my imagination, if nowhere else, Lulu wore her crown proudly, loudly and to her ongoing credit.

To Lulu I. Woodle – Zichron L’vrachah – May her memory be for a blessing.

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