Reading Reed Martin’s reminiscence of helping Isaac Bashevis Singer’s widow go through his things took me back to an afternoon in 2007 when I went to the home of Abraham Joshua Heschel and his wife, Sylvia Heschel, to try to help their only child sort through many decades’ worth of their belongings. Mrs. Heschel had just died, and when I heard that Susannah, who had become a friend, would be clearing out her parents’ place on her own, I offered to help. My own parents were both dead too, and I remembered the surreal experience of dealing with their things. However, I had been fortunate to have the company of my two intelligent and competent siblings.
Many people came to help Susannah, along with her good-natured husband, Jim, the day I stopped by. It felt strange to be in the house where my hero had lived and worked so many years, to see the books (thousands of them, lining every room) that now Susannah had to painstakingly comb through, making a decision about each and every volume. Scholars (Rabbi Sol Berman, for instance, and Elliott Wolfson) dropped by to give Susannah opinions about the collection. Her mother’s housekeeper worked untiringly at Susannah’s side and made us a frittata lunch.
Late in the afternoon, Susannah asked Jim and me to take a big load of clothes to the Goodwill store. We staggered down to their car with boxes of Mrs. Heschel’s dresses as well as two complete suits belonging to her husband. I handled these gingerly and with an accelerated heartbeat. Heschel’s suits! Susannah has written that her father always dressed carefully and somewhat formally, and these suits did seem, even more than 30 years after his death, to retain something of his dignity.
Jim and I found a parking spot, only to discover that the Goodwill store proprietor had stepped out briefly. What to do? We couldn’t take all those clothes back to the house. We decided to leave them on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. As I looked at Heschel’s two suits, I experienced a painful pang. The physical frame of the theologian I admired so much was so clearly implied by those neat jackets and trousers, I found it hard to walk away and abandon them.
“Jim,” I said. “I’m not sure I can leave these suits here. It feels wrong, somehow.” Jim smiled and said, “Good thinking, Gibby! I tell you what: You take one and I’ll take one. And I hope you got the one he walked to Selma in, and you’ll hope I got the one he walked to Selma in!”
So, we each draped a suit over our arms and took them home.
That evening, I hung mine up on the wall, still on its hanger. There it remains to this day. Of course, I tried the jacket on, but it doesn’t remotely fit, not even in an Annie Hall-ish way. A couple of times I’ve wanted to put it on to comfort me, or to use as a kind of tallit on High Holy Days, but I haven’t. It just doesn’t work.
That first night I discovered, while getting ready for bed, that I was physically incapable of undressing in front of the suit. I laughed at myself and then gave up and went into the bathroom to put on my nightgown.