In Memory of a Beloved Character

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation, Ann Arbor, Michigan on Shabbat Parashat Hukkat, June 15, 2013. It was our annual t-shirt Shabbat, a time of relaxation and informality. It is a “quirky” tradition and I thought it deserved a “quirky” but very serious sermon.

This morning, my sermon will be in the form of a eulogy. But, this eulogy is different. It is a eulogy for a fictional character. In one sense, the eulogy should have been given at the time of the character’s death in 1980. But, I wasn’t a Rabbi at the time and I doubt that I could have spoken as passionately and as emotionally then. With age comes maturity and historical perspective, and so, when the individual who portrayed this character died just a couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was my opportunity to eulogize the woman who was arguably the most universally beloved character in television situation comedy history.

         And with that in mind, let me share words this morning in memory of our beloved teacher, Edith Bunker, zichronah livracha, may her memory be for a blessing.

         The 31st chapter of the book of Proverbs includes the section known as the Eshet Hayil, the woman of valor. While we all have known real life women of valor and while fictional television characters are not nearly as important in our lives, they still can be teachers and they merit our respect, admiration and emulation.

Eshet Hayil Mi Yimtza, “a Woman of valor, who can find?” Her worth is far above rubies. No one could argue that Edith was not a woman of strength. She put up with the constant abuse that her husband Archie heaped upon her, faced and then either tolerated or fully embraced the changes her daughter and son in law brought into her world, and fulfilled her chosen role as a housewife and a mother and grandmother with joy, enthusiasm and such love.

         Eshet Hayil continues: Batach Lev Baalah v’shalal lo echsar, The heart of her husband trusts in her and nothing shall he lack.

         Through thick and through thin, through good times and bad, Edith stood by her husband. She was uncomfortable with his bigotry but she stood by him nonetheless. She packed his lunch every day, including of course, a Twinkie, brought him his can of beer when he demanded it and made sure his white shirt was clean for work.

         But, that was only part of the story and there was so much more. When Archie was burdened with worries and concerns, she held him tight at night and stroked his hair and told him things would be all right. She often tried to sing to him but that was always a bad idea.

         And, when Gloria or Mike complained too much about Archie or spoke of him behind his back with anger or disgust, Edith pleaded with them to be a bit more patient, to be a bit more tolerant, to be a bit more compassionate and understanding.

         But, not only did others trust in her, she trusted in others and that trust was clear in so many aspects of her life as she treated everyone, as Pirke Avot instructs us to do, l’chaf z’chut, with the benefit of the doubt.

And when that trust was shattered, in two separate situations, she had the courage to confront those who disappointed her. She looked Archie in the eye when she discovered that he had been tempted to be unfaithful and uttered words which broke our hearts when we first heard them: “You were the only one I could always trust but now I can’t trust you no more”. After his eventual somewhat half hearted apology, she came back to him with love and dedication, although a bit more demanding that trust be returned.

         And, she also was a deeply religious person who found such comfort in going to church and clearly trusted in God. But, her faith was shattered when her good friend, Beverly Lasalle, was killed in a mugging, and she refused at first to go back to church. Still, she persevered asking the difficult questions, confronting the collapse of her theology and, after a struggle she returned to church, less naïve, but realizing that, like so many of us in times do in times of sadness that she was desperately in need of the spiritual support that religion and a religious community gave her.

         One of the most beautiful lines in Eshet Hayil is piha patcha bichamcha vitorat hesed al lshonah. “She opens her mouth with wisdom and her tongue is guided by kindness”. These words so beautifully describe our dear Edith.

         It goes without saying that Edith was kind. Archie called her Edith the Good and he meant it. She rarely said a bad word to anyone, opened her home to everyone regardless of race, sexual orientation, political viewpoint. She embraced every friend of Archie or the children, loved her grandson with an unlimited affection and was the epitome of fairness and justice.

         But, was she wise? Absolutely she was. You see, Edith understood people. She listened with sincerity and compassion. She never went to college but had more common sense than her graduate student son in law. In fact, one of the most brilliant scenes in the entire run of All in the Family was when Edith took Mike aside and told him that the reason Archie insulted him so often was because he was jealous of Mike. She told him that he envied the choices that Mike had in life when Archie would never be more than he was. It was a brilliant observation and the truth is that one of the underlying themes of the entire show was how much wiser Edith was than her son in law who was so busy studying for his master’s degree.

         Yes, she was prone to statements which defied common sense. Who else but Edith would suggest playing a game of twenty questions to try to figure out what famous person Archie had driven in his cab that morning and then begin the game by saying, in her characteristic voice: “Living or Dead?”

         And who else but Edith would conclude her long story about the can of cling peaches- or shall we say hmmm hmmmms- in heavy syrup-that jumped out of her carriage at the market and dented a car by saying to Archie as he sat there staring at her long convoluted story: “It was a freak accident”.

         And yet, it was Edith the good who left the note on the car with her phone number. It was “Edith the good” who offered to pay the owner of the car, Father John Majeski, for the damages. And so wise was she that two minutes after he had walked into the house, Father Majeski was confessing to Edith, a life long protestant, his deep frustration with the job he had to do every day as a priest. And Edith gave him advice. And Father Majeski listened intently.

         Edith saved a man’s life by CPR, successfully fought off a would be rapist, stood firm as the only juror to vote for acquittal of a man who was eventually exonerated of murder and, in one memorable episode, convinced Archie to perform an act of what we refer to as hesed shel emet, true sincere kindness, by having a proper funeral for his freeloading uncle who had died in the Bunker home. To top it all off, when she was bored at home, she dared to defy Archie, leave the house and embrace her volunteer work at the Sunshine Home with love and dedication.

         She appeared to be simple. Her shrill voice, off key singing and awkward gait around the house which reminded one of a servant afraid of being punished if she didn’t walk quickly enough made you think she was a nothing. But, as Gloria said very clearly after insulting her once: “Ma, I’m sorry I called you a nothing. You’re really something”.

         Some of you don’t own a TV. Some of you don’t remember All in the Family. Some of you remember it and dislike it. But, most of us who remember All in the Family, loved it. And, love it still.

         All in the Family was without a question the most influential example of American popular culture in the 1970s. And, to those who question what role Edith had to play in this, look at it this way. There were many, many American women and men in 1970, the year of the show’s debut, who were not ready either to be Gloria Stivic or to be in a marriage like Gloria and Mike’s. But, as the decade moved along, and as we all watched Edith take small but critical steps to become more of an equal partner in her marriage and to impact the world outside her home as she did inside, more and more women and men warmed up to the idea that this idea of women’s demand for equality in marriage and in the world wasn’t so bad and so dangerous after all. Many learned this from those who were passionately fighting in the public arena for more respect for women. Many learned it from the simple, daring steps that Edith Bunker took as her character changed and grew through the years thanks to the superb acting of Jean Stapleton, zichronah  livracha.

         We have all known women whom we would call eshet hayil and obviously those we know in real life are more important That goes without saying. But, turning to tv, there is, I believe, one woman who stands miles above the rest for her loyalty, her love, her generosity, her cheerful attitude, her compassion and yes, her wisdom.

         May the memory of Jean Stapleton and Edith Bunker be for a blessing and an inspiration to all of us.

4 thoughts on “In Memory of a Beloved Character

  1. Laurel F.

    My favorite part was the way you quoted Edith as she really (for a fictional character) spoke, instead of correcting her grammar: “…but now I can’t trust you no more.” You didn’t assume her squeaky voice, but it sounded just like her when you said it, which made it kind of heartbreaking. I also like that you talked about her temporarily losing faith in God, which is a subject that not every religious leader would choose to bring up. Yet another one of your many classic sermons!

  2. Liesel Wardle

    Thank You, Rabbi, for the way you summed up Edith’s life and the legacy she left behind! She truly was a kindred spirit, and so are you!
    I always enjoy reading your blogs, they are so heartfelt and compassionate!
    All the best to you and your family!

  3. Joan Nappen

    What a wonderful sermon! It was forwarded to me by my daughter, Debra Klein Brownstein who recently re-connected with you through Facebook. I am the mother of Debra and Susan Klein Schwartzman.

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