THE last time I saw him his health had already taken a turn for the worse. It was after another one-of-a-kind Chuck Vernoff Shabbos, permeated by his profound Torah teachings, his tear-inducing belly laughter and his spiritual, soulful melodies — all imbued with his unique, joyous charm and presence.
It was Sunday. He was now walking in his signature beret down the front yard path to his car while I was still standing at the front door. Suddenly he turned around and began walking with one foot in the air — an exaggerated limp, acting (in a word he would use) like a total “nebbish,” putting on his best and unrivaled Eastern European Yiddish accent — humorously saying something to the effect that conveyed a typical Jewish martyr type of response, “no, everything is fine . . . nothing at all is the matter, etc.,” presenting himself as if he were falling apart. It was Chuck’s way of making light of his difficult health.
As we all burst out laughing at his little show, he turned back to the car once more. But not before turning around again, this time, as tribute to the Yiddish lesson he had been giving us throughout Shabbos, teaching us about the hardest Yiddish word of all to pronounce, drilling in us how to pronounce it correctly and, in his fun filled way, getting us caught up in the joy of trying to pronounce this word, looking for his smiling approval that we finally said it right. Which, of course, we didn’t.
Read also Rabbi Hillel Goldberg's memories of Vernoff, "The soil is still moist"
“One more time, everybody!” he said in the front yard, lifting his hand in the air like a conductor, and then, we all sort of shouted on cue, “gegntn!”
Gegntn. It means neighborhood.
THAT was Chuck for you or, as we thought of this wonderful, dear friend who was greatly loved in our family, Uncle Chuck or Uncle Duck.
He was a ball of fun. And in his playful linguistic way, he used to quip about the Yiddish word play he created as he travelled by car from Iowa, where he was a professor of comparative religion at Cornell College, to his usual Shabbat pit stop in Denver on the way back to his home in LA. When he would arrive he would often joke, I come from “Eye Vay” (Iowa), where to the east is “Ill and Oy” (Illinois) and above is “Vus Ken Zein” (Wisconsin); in the northeast it’s “Gantz Meshigan” (Michigan) and underneath is “Misery” (Missouri). Somewhere in there he mentioned the state to the west, “Nebech Rascal” (Nebraska). You would never know that Chuck was a brilliant and infinitely creative scholar.
Chuck had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. He was one of Shlomo Carlebach’s earliest friends. Every time he would come, he would share a new niggun, a new melody, that he had picked up at one of the other friends he stayed with for Shabbat in Iowa or LA.
Over the years he wove a unique Shabbat cloak of melodies he brought with him every time.
The first niggun I remember him teaching us was when I was in the seventh grade. It was “Libi u-Vesari” (“My heart and my flesh”), a gem of a tune I have rarely heard since, which my brother Mattis sings at his Shabbos table to this day.
The song “Rachem” moved him so that he would sing it meditatively with his eyes closed, the palm of his hand curled on his heart. When he was done, he would exhale such an “Ahhhh!” you could sense the nourishment it gave his neshama, his soul.
CHUCK introduced me to old 1930’s songs of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. For all of his laughter, most of his favorite songs had a melancholy quality to them. He taught me about “Me and My Shadow,” “All The Things You Are,” a Civil War folksong, “Two Brothers: One Wore Blue The Other Grey,” “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and Nat King Cole’s gentle yet powerful capturing of the passage of time in “Autumn Leaves.”
Last night, after lighting a candle for Yeshaya Eliyahu ben Mishael (as he got older he more and more began identifying by his Hebrew name, signing emails this way), in tears and a trance of sadness, there was nothing I could do but listen to “Rachem,” “Like a Bridge” and “Autumn Leaves” over and over again. Chuck will be so sorely missed.
A towering intellect and spiritual man, his rich mind, heart and spirit were wide and deep in thoughts, ideas and eloquent language skills that made you sense the import, depth, playfulness or poetry of a particular thing or idea. Chuck gave it its fullest expression.
He talked of a “neshama filter,” the little kids he adored whom he had just seen with friends in (I believe) St. Louis, kids who “went from being little fudgeballs to budding talmidei chachamim” (Torah scholars). He gave encouragement, saying, “you were created, so there is a place for you in the world; you need to discover your niche, G-d has a niche for you.” Even a sip of Moscato D’asti wine that he enjoyed so much would evoke a sigh and silken phrase, “like angel’s tears.” And all this was in the span of about 60 seconds at a Shabbat meal, whose good, homecooked food he appreciated. He would ask me what spices I put in and how I might have prepared the dish. He was genuinely curious.
BUT he was also that supportive uncle, taking an interest in me and my five siblings, cultivating real relationships with each of us, at our level and with our interests.
To me, he always played up my intuition, made me understand the importance of that gift, and made me feel proud of it.
At my brother Chaim’s Bar Mitzvah he spent time with him like they were good buddies, challenging him on math, which Chaim enjoyed studying at the time, and before you knew it they shared some ‘inside jokes.’ Here was a sixty-something adult and newly minted teen shooting the breeze like nobody’s business. Somehow, Chuck knew how to bridge the gulf of age and naturally related to, and endeared himself to, children.
When Chuck would arrive it was like the door blew in this spirit — an abundance of enthusiasm, unconditional love, a deep yet mischievous
spirit who liked to tell jokes and brought so much laughter. As I said, Chuck always came armed with a new niggun and a new joke, told in character with the matching accent. (I remember the one with “My dear wife Mamie . . . ” and something about leaving one million dollars; then there was the one with Kissinger and the lion and the lamb).
Truth be told, regardless of any joke told or not, Chuck’s laughter alone, his burst of pure loud uninterrupted wall shaking from the belly crescendoing laughter, was enough to generate more laughter. How I wish I had a recording of Chuck’s laughter. Between you and me, once or twice I was scared he would collapse right then and there, on the spot.
THIS is how it went on for years, even up until the final time I spent with him. But in recent years a tinge of vulnerability began showing itself. Chuck never married or had any children. His parents and his only brother died years ago. Even though he didn’t show it often, he must have been, or was, wrestling with deep loneliness.
When his beloved and devoted student Tiffany Clark of Cedar Rapids turned to him and asked, “will you be my adopted grandfather?” it absolutely just stole his heart. “Call me Zaidy,” he said.
Chuck shared how, at his final class before he retired, he was teaching and Tiffany turned to him and said, “you know, this is the last test I am taking with you. I’m glad I am graduating because I wouldn't want to be in the Religion Department without you.” These moments, and Tiffany’s initiative in founding the “Chuck Vernoff Fan Club” at Cornell College, came at a particularly difficult time, when Chuck was preparing to leave that teaching era and his his many decades in Iowa. In his words, “it was like a cloud lifted and I was taken over this terrifying bump by the hand of Hashem.”
Aside from the love in students that Chuck, or Professor Vernoff, inspired, this also illustrates his simple, natural faith. For above all else, Chuck was a chasid. A lifelong surrendering servant of Hashem, the likes of which is so authentic and so very rare. It is not often in life you get to be a part of such a true seeker’s journey.
AND what a mindful spiritual journey is Chuck travelled. From an early age he was exposed to various religions. He was always searching. Ultimately, he found his home in traditional observant Torah Judaism. But he never stopped seeking. He plunged the depths of the text and came up with new ways of looking at rituals.
Take Shabbos, for example. In his usual Socratic method way of thinking and teaching, step by step, he explored the deeper meaning of the day. He would ask, “what is time” (not, how is time is divided, but what is time in human experience), and “what is the greatest action taking place at any given moment?” and so forth until he reached, “so, what is Shabbos?”
I remember one of the analogies he gave for refraining from melacha, from labor on Shabbos. It was from Ernst Simon. Melacha/labor is like a curtain with 100 hooks, blocking the light source. If you undo all the hooks but two — one hook at each end of the curtain — it still blocks the light because the curtain is still hanging. The only way to see the light source is when all the hooks are down. In other words, melacha on Shabbos is a veil blocking the light source. And giving up melacha is a detailed system, a venture, in order to access the light source. You have to refrain from all of the melachas, otherwise the curtain is still blocking the light. He would quote Heschel: “To build a temple in time, you need to give up all that you need to build a temple in space.”
Chuck developed a robust philosophic idea about the meaning of Shabbos. Later he found that one of the features of his complex thought process was already cited by the medieval codifier, the Tur. This brought Chuck great joy.
One thing I remember is that he could bring the common phrases, mitzvot asei, affirmative commandments, and mitzvot lo-ta’ase, to a philosophic and sublime level. He explained these two types Shabbos commandments as reflecting two aspects of time.
“What are they? Simple. Instantaneity, the fleeting moment, the lived moment. And duration, as is often said, the only time actually lived is in the present moment, the only time actually alive is in the now, so duration results from memory and anticipation. In other words, past exists in our memory and future in our anticipation, so that is what gives a timeline a past, present and future.”
This, my dear reader, is just a smattering of the kind of conversation around the Shabbat table with beloved Chuck Vernoff of blessed memory, who passed away peacefully — but too early! — this week.
You can imagine what I mean when I tell you how privileged and humbled I feel to have been a part of Chuck’s journey.
ASIDE from all the creative thought he developed on the meaning and idea of Shabbos, as well as on the books of Ecclesiastes and Ezekiel, he was on a parallel journey to understand American history. That work, his magnum opus, which I pray will be published, was about Western America. His dream was to name this book with a phrase from the book of Joshua that struck a chord for him. It is: “[Derech] Mevo Hashemesh.” Normally, it would be translated as “at the entering of [the setting of] the sun.” Chuck, however, in his poetic and remarkably, linguistically sensitive way, translated it as “Heirs of the Sunset.”
He had literally thousands of these creative translations and formulations, ranging across not only all aspects and texts of Judaism, but of other religions and nations, too.
As I near the end of this column, which I wrote in a stream of consciousness, it is Chuck’s words and ideas and poetic sense, strung together across the decades of his life, that provide the healing, the comfort.
Those of us lucky enough to count ourselves among Chuck’s lifelong friends were his gegntn, his neighborhood, so to speak. Chuck built this neighborhood of dear friends all across the Midwest and Western part of America, as well as around the world, from Israel to Mexico, and, in Israel, from Jerusalem to Safed. We were Chuck’s neighborhood. In a sense, all of us who are part of Chuck’s neighborhood are all related: his unconventional family.
And so together, we, with the angels, are in tears, are in mourning. We are be-derech mevo hashemesh, heirs of a blazing sunset. A great light has gone out. A curtain is hanging, the hooks veil the light, drifting away.
And yet, Chuck has left us with a legacy of great light that lives on. Much of his original scholarship is written and stamped, yet not yet published, waiting for the world to discover.
If you want to connect with the beautiful soul of Charles Chuck Vernoff, Yeshaya Eliyahu ben Mishael, perhaps take a look at Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World,” an American painter whom Chuck believed was of utmost importance. Maybe listen to the melancholy sense of loss in “Autumn Leaves,” or what he felt was a crucial American song, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
Or put your fist on your heart as you listen to Shweky’s “Rachem.” Tell a good joke. Roll over in laughter. Even if you do it just this once, light Shabbat candles at sunset on Friday for Chuck.
Now one last time everyone: gegntn!
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News