This article continues from Part One, remembering Ellen, my precious wife of 20 years, the love of my life, as I share these thoughts with my family of American Spectator readers. Ellen passed away last week at age 64, living a zestful and dynamic life to the end, despite a glioblastoma diagnosis in the summer of 2017. My second wife, we had 20 amazing years. She was the love of my life, my “partner in crime,” and the reason and encouragement that motivated me to return to writing, to teaching law, and to serve again as a congregational rabbi after a prior career of 10 years in the pulpit.
For several years, even before retirement, Ellen would wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m. Pacific Time so that she would have time to daven (pray) the entire weekday morning prayer service that Orthodox Jews recite and also have time to “Facetime” with her 98-year-old Dad (may he live to 120!), who is at a Seniors’ Kosher Retirement Home in Massachusetts and thus is on Eastern Time, three hours later than California. Ellen wanted to catch him just before or after his group breakfast time, before he was off for a day of Bingo and Beyond, so she had to awake daily before dawn. She oversaw her Dad’s needs, regularly called the Home to check in with the main nurse, and every motz’ei Shabbat (Saturday night, as the Jewish Sabbath would end), her first order of business would be to phone the Jewish Home to check that her Dad was all right, since she could not phone in that Saturday morning because of the rules of Shabbat observance.
She loved her work like crazy as a fraud examiner, but she also found that she loved being retired from that 31-year career to become a full-time Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife), and she loved no longer needing to drive the daily four-hour round-trip commute on the 405 Freeway, which she called “the Error 405” because it is worse than any computer Error 404. She already had been established in her professional position in Los Angeles when I was offered a rabbinical pulpit position in Orange County. If she had told me that the commute to L.A. from “the OC” would be untenable, I would not have taken it. But she told me to do whatever would give me happiness, and she would make it work from her end. Her wonderful boss helped make my career move and her sanity possible by allowing her to “telecommute” one day weekly, to work online from her home office on Fridays, the day she would need to leave work early anyway to be home on time to light candles ushering in the Sabbath. As a result she actually started getting more work done on Fridays than she had in the past, bypassing the four lost hours on the Error 405.
With me, Ellen looked forward to several annual visits we ritually would receive from special people in our lives. Once a year or so, we would be visited by the Hon. Danny J. Boggs, United States Court of Appeals judge, for whom I had clerked in the federal Sixth Circuit after law school. Once a year we would be visited by Peter Ku, a top-flight prominent attorney in Seattle whose parents hailed from Taiwan and who began his law career at the same time I did in the Los Angeles offices of Jones Day. Both Peter and I went through a very nasty phase in that office, both having been assigned in our very first year to work primarily for a very vicious litigation partner who also played a role in driving another new associate among us to suicide. By surviving that experience, Peter and I were bound for life. Every year, usually in September, Peter would fly in for the weekend and spend Shabbat and Sunday with us and would take us out to dinner on Saturday night at the nearest kosher restaurant, “Shiloh,” a 50-minute drive away. We would use that annual visit to review how each of our lives had unfolded during the prior 12 months, the professional challenges and setbacks we had encountered, the advances and breakthroughs we had enjoyed, and the lessons we had learned. Those discussions would make a great three-act play. Last year we realized that we all finally had reached career pinnacles of success, and now we could start aggravating instead about our grown children and the challenges they were facing. One year, Peter also took us to a local sports bar on Sunday morning so that we could experience what that was, while he would watch his Seattle Seahawks football team contend. (Ever since the Colin Kaepernick garbage spread beyond that one guy, I have stopped watching NFL football.) Unknown to Peter, 20 years earlier Ellen once had brought me to a sports bar, too, in the year 2000 when we first were seeing each other seriously, because she knew I was an intense New York baseball fan, and the Yankees and Mets were contending that fall against each other in the World Series.
Ellen loved to sing and to dance. Alas, for her second marriage she had married an Orthodox rabbi who not only avoids bars but also does not go dancing. During the 10-year period that I was not practicing as a congregational rabbi but as an attorney specializing in complex business litigation, I annually would conduct Passover Sedarim (Seders) at five-star hotels since I had no congregational synagogue obligations and was in high demand by Passover Hotel Program operators. The year we married in March 2001, I chose to do my Passover Seder “gig” at a five-star hotel in Hawaii, so we also could make a “Hawaii honeymoon” out of it. One night the hotel had a Hula Dance guy come in and teach everyone various Hula dances, and then a contest ensued. Ellen won the contest, hands down. She really was an amazing dancer. At weddings, at Simchat Torah (a Jewish holiday when people dance and celebrate that they all have completed another annual cycle of learning the Torah), at shul bar mitzva celebrations, and at uffruffs (celebrations of forthcoming weddings), Ellen would scoop women off their chairs and get them to dancing. She was such an absolute bundle of energy that my son, Aharon, and I often called her “the Energizer Bunny” in reference to the television commercial rabbit that just keeps on going and going. Ellen likewise had a truly lovely singing voice, loved enormously the pure joy of singing, and had been told by her high school choir teacher that she had “perfect pitch.” Because she went to public school in Binghamton, New York, where she grew up, and had been in the choir, she ended up learning all the Christmas carols. Every December at her work, the office Christmas Party included a challenging game of “Name That Lyric,” where coworkers competed to fill in the most esoteric missing words from esoteric carols. Ellen won that contest every year for more than 20 years, to the degree that her boss, who valued her so deeply, nevertheless finally moved the party one year to a non-kosher restaurant so that Ellen (whom I often called “El”) would not be able to be there and win. I consoled her by writing my own Christmas carol just for her, to mark the occasion:
At the first No-El the others did say
“Finally no Rabbi’s Wife to beat us today.”
At tables of shrimp and cheeseburgers and pork,
On that cold winter’s day, here’s all they could tawk:
No El, No El, No El, No El.
For once we don’t lose to the Queen of Israel.
Having gone to public school, Ellen also attended the local Conservative temple Hebrew School. But the Conservative temple management soon decided to move their congregation to a fancier, more expensive part of town. Ellen’s parents could not afford the increased membership dues and the Building Fund assessment on that temple’s members, so they shifted over to Beth David, Binghamton’s Orthodox shul. As a result, Ellen and her sister ended up in NCSY (the Orthodox national youth group) rather than USY (the national group for children and teens in Conservative temples). Ellen became Orthodox. She would go to her grandparents for Shabbat lunch and often would spend the duration of Shabbat day with her friends from Binghamton NCSY. After graduating second in her class in high school, Ellen went to Syracuse University, the top-tier regional university serving upstate New York. She graduated fourth in her class, and she met her prior husband there at the Orthodox Jewish Kosher Meal program. As he pursued a law career, her husband first brought Ellen to Washington, D.C., and then to Los Angeles, where he attended law school. He eventually became a mid-level TV executive. On one occasion, Ellen’s childhood friend visited from the East Coast, and they went to pick up Ellen’s husband at his NBC office in nearby Burbank. When they got there, he was finalizing a contract with George Clooney for the TV show ER. He introduced Clooney to Ellen, and in the Hollywood tradition, Clooney leaned over to kiss Ellen “hello.” At the last moment Ellen, a very modest Orthodox woman, jerked her head out of the “line of fire,” and Clooney ended up kissing Ellen’s friend instead. It was the highlight of the friend’s visit, and the incident became a highlight of Ellen’s many great stories.
Ellen had the world’s most remarkable memory. Her boss of three decades regularly commented on that in his annual formal evaluations of her. Even after many glioblastoma brain surgeries, even when in her final weeks, Ellen could sing each and every of the Shabbat zemirot (Sabbath table songs), one after another for 75 minutes straight, without having any words in front of her. (I needed the book.) During that later period, a visitor at our home saw this gorgeous photo of Ellen and me at a Hawaii beach during our honeymoon 20 years earlier. The visitor asked me who took the photo, and I confessed I did not remember; after all, it was 20 years ago! Ellen softly interjected, “It was Ted the bus driver.” And it really was. Yet, despite her picture-perfect memory, she was every husband’s dream: Ellen never once in 20 years ever reminded me of any mistake or wrong I ever had done towards her or towards anyone else. She was only positive and encouraging. No matter what may have occurred on a given day to perturb her, she never once in 20 years took it to bed. Instead, she was the most positive of people, had a wonderful sense of humor, a gorgeous smile, and the most infectious laugh. And she began every day as though this would be the happiest day in her life.
In late 1999, at the time of my divorce after a very, very tough 25-year first marriage that just had been all wrong, I knew I wanted to marry again, and I wanted my then-seven-year-old son to feel “buy-in” for whomever I would marry. So I asked him for his opinion as to what kind of lady I should try to marry next. He suggested five things, all with the modesty of a respectful boy who answered only because he was asked:
On February 27, 2000, that is the lady whom I telephoned for my first time, at the suggestion of Linda Scharlin, a mutual friend in our Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I did not know Ellen, but she apparently knew me, having attended a lecture I had given as a visiting Scholar-in-Residence one Shabbat in 1990, 10 years earlier. We talked on the phone that Sunday night for close to four hours, even though we each happened to have sore throats, and we both sounded like two frogs croaking their way through a Budweiser commercial. I knew then that, if she turned out to be even relatively presentable, this was the person I would marry. I invited Ellen to join me for dinner three nights later at “Pat’s” Restaurant, the best kosher restaurant in Los Angeles at the time. This lady potentially was The One, and I was not going to risk it by taking her to a Starbucks where you can’t find a table because a bunch of kids are there with their laptops for the free Wi-Fi. I arranged for the restaurant owner to have a bud vase with two roses waiting for us at the table, something they never did before, because I wanted this night to be perfect. That night of March 1 we spent three hours at the table, sharing our life stories about two middle-aged young adults who each respectively had come from decent, honest, noble, hard-working, lower-middle-class, traditional Jewish families who love their religion and love America. At some point during those three hours, I made a reference for some reason to having once ridden on a camel, and she asked, “Was it a dromedary or a bactrian?” I never had heard either term, so I responded, “I don’t know what religion the camel was.” She laughed and taught me that one has one hump and the other has two humps. That clinched it: Any woman who not only was gorgeous, funny, Centrist Orthodox, and came from the humble, working class, self-made roots I came from — but who also could teach me stuff on a first date without making me feel shallow — I had to marry. The waiter came over at 10 p.m. and asked whether we intended to order anything at all since the kitchen was closing, and we now were on our 10th glass of water but had not yet ordered. I knew I wanted to ask Ellen that night to marry me, but I feared it would make me seem unstable. So I had to wait a few more days, but it was Love at First Sight, not merely because of mutual appearance attraction but because we each had found in the other exactly the life partner and eternal soulmate we had missed in our respective first marriages, the perfect shidduch (match). (Years later she would teach me more about animals. During a cold winter’s night driving through Vermont, we stopped at a convenience store and asked for directions. The guy told me to drive half a mile, past the Holsteins, and then to turn at the light. I said to Ellen, “Imagine, even in this small Vermont town, you can find Jews.” She asked whom I was talking about. “The Holsteins,” I said. She laughed the rest of the way through New England, teaching me that Holsteins are a breed of cow. I was afraid to ask whether they have one hump or two.) I proposed on November 22 at a beach on the Pacific, and we married on March 4, 2001, at the Shaarey Zedek sanctuary.
For the next 20 years, Ellen and I celebrated not only our wedding anniversary but also Telephone Day every February 27, First Date Day every March 1, and Proposal Day every November 22. It was hardest coming up with things to buy her for Telephone Day; the gift always had to have some connection with telephones or ringing. One year I had a kosher chocolate factory fabricate a chocolate flip phone. Another year I had a pack of Drake’s “Ring Dings” shipped from the East coast. A third year, a mug that said “Better Call Saul.” Then a plastic red British telephone booth. Then back to the factory — this time, a chocolate dial phone.
We just were finishing the fourth month of our 20th year of marriage when Ellen passed peacefully. We had so much in common beyond our brown eyes and New York State origins. She had the most reasonable rules that any child or spouse could ask for. She was such a remarkably good cook that the best-known, main kosher caterer in Orange County privately asked her for some of her recipes. She had the best sense of humor and always got our jokes. And she was so incredibly funny herself that she often brought us laughter and joy, even in moments when outside life presented challenges.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory said to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was part of JFK’s inner circle of “the best and the brightest,” that “we will never laugh again.” Moynihan responded, “Heavens, Mary. We will laugh again. It’s just that we will never be young again.” That is how I feel right now after losing the love of my life.
Thank you for being my “family” and allowing me to share.