I know this sounds exaggerated, and in any case will not be understood, but when Chuck Vernoff so much as gave you directions, it came out poetry. Not poetry that makes you think or feel, but the dazzling combination of words that makes you take notice, and gives you joy for the potential of language.
And often made you laugh. When Chuck was about to go to Harvard graduate school long ago, he changed his plans for some reason. He went into computers for about six years, then he took the Graduate Record Exam. Six years out of school, he got a perfect score.
Thats when we met him, back in Boston, in 1969. It must have been at the Bostoner Rebbes shul, which Chuck, along with countless other students and seekers, frequented. We invited him for a meal for Sukkot and it was memorable, not least because the sukkah that Elaine and I were able to contrive in our small abode was about 18 inches wide and six feet long. Somehow, we made it work.
In that sukkah Chuck taught us what has become a widely known tune to Ha-Rachaman, Hu yakim lanu es sukkas Dovid ha-nofeles, the Merciful One will reerect Davids fallen sukkah. That is, G-d will restore the ancient Holy Temple. Chuck sang that song with such yearning; this was when we learned that Chuck could sing beautifully. Music was part of his soul, the same part that yielded poetry without even trying. And so, a lifelong friendship began.
II. Ford Mustang
Chuck had so many sides. Back in those days he went through difficult soul-searching about whether to return to graduate school, to earn a doctorate and become a professor. No doubt he could, but it was a long road ahead, and Chuck would have to do it alone. He was unattached.
Even that, though, wasnt the main struggle. Rather, what would he write on? Religion of course, but the problem was that his embrace was almost as wide as, well, religion. In graduate school, one specializes. Chucks specialties (the way his incomparably large mind worked) ran something like this: The Roles that Different Religions Play in the Human Anthropology, or Judaisms, Christianitys and Islam’s Understanding of Submission to G-d, or The Spiritual Roots of America [or Mexico, or Europe or Asia].
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When you think that big, its tough to make a choice; not to mention, to bring to your side a dissertation adviser who, of necessity, must focus on a narrow, manageable topic for original research.
Chuck worked up his courage and went to study with Raimon Pannikar, who also thought big, out in California.
We remember when Chuck left, all of his worldly possessions stuffed into a small Ford Mustang, pulling away from in front of our apartment in Allston, Mass.
We went off to Israel soon thereafter, to our own lives. But we had created a bond, and made it a point to cross paths. Chuck was always traveling and it was not too long before he got some kind of fellowship and appeared in Jerusalem. We had a wonderful reunion.
III. Divine Providence
Ive left out the most important part. There was not a step Chuck took in which he did not see the complicated workings of the Hashgachah, of Divine Providence, putting together every manner of unlikely occurrence, just to make things work out for him.
How I wish Id taken notes, just once, of his recitation of seemingly unrelated events, and how they conspired to benefit him and advance his progress toward the next step in his life, and ultimately toward making a major contribution to human understanding.
No, the details of the Hashgachah I do not remember, but I cannot forget the various places It took him. There was, for example, his friendship with Mother Miriam. When he first told us about it, we didnt get it. Chuck was Sabbath-observant, Yiddish-loving, Carlebach-tune singing, Bostoner-Rebbe-shul praying, and here he was, with this relationship with a Catholic nun. Not to mention, I didnt think Catholic nuns had relationships of any kind, let alone with Jewish seekers.
But one time he took us to the convent somewhere in New England. We didnt go in, but there he was, speaking through a wall or a screen or something. Somehow, Mother Miriam understood something about spirituality that Chuck found positive in his large constructs of the human spiritual search.
The thing that always amazed me about Chuck was that as he penetrated to the essence of Catholicism, or Buddhism or Aztec religion, and he pieced them together, his Judaism generally and the Hashgachah that guided him particularly not only remained intact but also pure, unalloyed with foreign teachings.
Chuck had a way of entering into the spiritual worlds of others Sufi mystics, Catholic nuns without compromising his Jewish feeling, understanding or observance. His was an embracing soul, reminding me of a famous line by the first chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham I. Kuk: Expanses, expanses my soul craves . . .
IV. Mordechai Kaplan
When Chuck died a couple of months ago on the last day of Adar, these and other memories came flooding back.
I remembered, for example, how Chuck and I and two others, one a multifaceted searcher like Chuck and the other a yeshiva graduate with doubts, planned a special Shavuot together. We would travel to Brooklyn to the Novorodock Musar yeshiva and spend the entire night with Rabbi Yechiel Perr, a scion of and a teacher of the Musar tradition.
So we did. The spirituality, the prayer and the self-examination in the yeshiva, which still had a score or more of survivors of the Holocaust and of Siberia, were powerful and contagious. Here we were, children of a different culture and a different age, trying to fit the Musar tradition into our lives.
For some months afterward we sustained a round-robin correspondence, each of us adding something to the accumulated mix of introspective musings, critical comments and programmatic suggestions we devised to create a Musar group.
But we were all going in different directions, not least geographically, and our group never materialized.
But the friendship with Chuck stayed in place.
I was perplexed at what Chuck eventually wrote his dissertation on: Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism. Kaplan, the rationalist, the skeptic, the very opposite of a person who saw Divine Providence at each stage of his life. Besides, Kaplan was just one thinker how did Chuck ever come down to this? When I read parts of his dissertation, I guess I should not have been surprised. Vernoffs Kaplan illuminated contexts no one else would have thought relevant.
V. Joie de vivre
Other memories flooded back.
The time we were walking home from shul one Shabbos in Boston and Chuck mentioned a distinction between a metaphysical Shabbos and a social Shabbos. I wondered, wasnt every Shabbos metaphysical, a connection to the Divine? For Chuck, charming raconteur that he was, and single, Shabbos was sometimes the only intensely social experience of his week.
I remember how, when he left Boston, he took his leave of the Bostoner Rebbe. That could be intimidating because the Rebbe, ever so gentle, read ones soul. Chuck told me that after his meeting with the Rebbe he went to his car and cried like a baby.
I remember Chucks great feeling when he secured a position as an assistant professor of religion in Cornell College in Iowa.
I remember how proud he was when he was able to introduce an academic seminar on the Holocaust there; and how chagrined he was when he encountered anti-Semitism there.
Most of all I remember his frustrations at not getting his large ideas down on paper, and published.
Of course, I remember how he traversed the country by car, from Iowa to California and back between school years; and how he worked it in to attend the weddings of our daughters Temima and Riki and our son Chaims Bar Mitzvah.
Needless to say, I was not surprised when the strangers Chuck stayed with during those simchas (a) discovered all kinds of previously unknown personal connections (theres that Hashgachah again) and (b) were charmed, felled, absolutely taken with Chucks conversational powers, his tunes, his stories, his jokes, his laughter, his love of Shabbos, his joie de vivre.
Then something happened. Something with his lungs. Something that no one could cure. It wasnt cancer. But it slowed Chuck down and got progressively worse. He faced his own mortality and was able to focus on his work well, on part of it. He had so many books in his head. One was about Sukkot. Another about Shabbat. Another about the Aztecs. And one that he did manage to complete: Heirs of the Sunset: The Spiritual Roots of America and Americanism. I have just begun to read the manuscript.
Ill have to take my time to absorb the complexity and originality of Chucks ideas. But just skipping around and skimming here and there, Chucks way with words jumps out: The soil of Oklahoma is still moist from the 19th-century Cherokee Trail of Tears; The journey toward origins might in fact disclose variant forms of unity, as might likewise be uncovered on the journey toward destinies.
Somehow, we could enjoy Chuck and laugh with him and trade ideas with him and admire the same mentors and rejoice in his triumphs, such as when he secured a visiting position at Colorado College, which allowed him to spend Shabbos with us with some frequency; but we could never substantially take him to where he wanted to go: the publication of and widespread public appreciation of his ideas.
Maybe it will come posthumously.
Either way, Chuck is now on his journey toward other destinies; or, as his niece put it in the email informing us of his passing: He was ready for whatever the next world, after life, has to offer.
May Chuck be at peace there.
May he find the serenity that eluded him in this world, as he faithfully anticipated the restoration of Davids fallen sukkah.
A memorial gathering for the late Prof. Charles Vernoff will take place this Sunday in Venice, Calif.
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