Rabbi Ken Chasen

Allan Axelrad

Stephen Axelrad

Karen Axelrad

Eve Axelrad

Joel Axelrad

Eulogy for Harriet Axelrad

Delivered by Rabbi Kenneth Chasen

Leo Baeck Temple

Our ancient rabbis taught us that days are like scrolls — we are to write on them those things that we want to be remembered — the values, the messages, the meaning of who we are, for just like written scrolls, the document of a life endures long beyond the life itself. Most of us struggle to determine exactly what we want written on those scrolls. Our values evolve. Our priorities are reshaped. The message changes with the circumstances in which we live.

Today, we remember with love Harriet Axlerad, whose message never changed, regardless of the circumstances — and who left us the scrolls…volumes and volumes of beautifully written words, some of which we’ve heard today. Harriet’s scrolls pour out a brilliant story of love, of hard-won wisdom, of life very well lived.

Harriet was born in Kansas City on a snowy, sleety January day nearly eighty-eight years ago. Hers was a large family that included not only the immediate circle, but also eight aunts and uncles on her mother’s side, and seven on her father’s side. Harriet wrote of many happy memories from her childhood, recalling her father, the wrestler turned plumbing contractor, and her mother, the avid reader and admirer of music and theater. They were something of an unusual match, and yet remained wonderfully devoted to each other. Harriet, during those early years, was an exceptionally bright and sociable young woman. She moved rapidly through her schooling to become the youngest member of her high school graduating class at the age of fifteen. But all the while, Harriet maintained a busy calendar with friends and with dating, and among the many suitors was a young man named Irving, who would ultimately win Harriet’s heart.

But before that could happen, Harriet, at the tender age of sixteen, would experience the heartbreak of her mother’s death. For years, Harriet grieved over her loss, but she also carried on, graduating from the University of Kansas City while still a teenager, and then moving to Chicago, where she pursued graduate studies and worked as a teacher so she could be with Irving, who was in law school. In June of 1938, Harriet married Irving in a small ceremony in the rabbi’s study, and the two set out to build a family together a year later in Alexandria, Virginia.

At first, Harriet worked for the Library of Congress, but soon Allan was born, and while still in Virginia, Stephen, Karen and Eve would follow, and Harriet became a very busy full-time mother. And when the family relocated to Pacific Palisades in 1952, they were joined by Joel.

Life in California allowed Irving and Harriet to fulfill so many of their dreams. They had fallen in love with Los Angeles years earlier when they had visited, and now California was home. Irving took up work at a local law firm, and Harriet became the consummate homemaker – tireless chauffeur for five children, President of the PTA both at the Junior High School and at Palisades High, and committed community activist, chairing the Palisades United Crusades and serving on the board of the Human Relations Council. It was enough for two or three people to attempt to manage, but Harriet gracefully made all of the puzzle pieces fit together. That included managing affairs at home. Harriet and Irving’s first California home was featured in House Beautiful, and when they decided to build a bigger house, it was Harriet who found the ideal parcel of land – an acre overlooking Riviera Country Club with a waterfall feeding into a pond. There, they built their dream home and enjoyed the pleasures of a loving family life.

Harriet could scarcely have expected then that her marriage to Irving would end thirty-four years after it had begun. Her divorce was the most crushing episode in her life – one from which she couldn’t imagine recovering. But Harriet did more than just recover from the shock and disappointment – she emerged as a magnificently independent and confident woman, who literally began writing the most extraordinary chapters of her life story.

At first, Harriet sought solace by taking classes at ISOMATA in ceramics and sandpainting. But just a couple of years later, she took her first course in creative writing with Norman Corwin, and in crafting her nightly assignments, Harriet truly found herself. “I am no longer the shadow of a man,” wrote Harriet, as she embarked upon a new lifetime of adventures as a poet and writer.

Harriet’s strength came to be a blessing not only to those who read her wonderful works, but to so many others, as she devoted herself to more and more meaningful ventures in her home community and throughout the world. It’s actually hard to believe how many remarkable projects Harriet left her mark upon. She was the Foreign Press representative for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and accompanied them to Oslo in 1985 when they received the Nobel Peace Award. She raised funds for the Venice Family Clinic by planning the Venice Art Walk for many years. She staffed Will Rogers Park with docents so school children could enjoy it, and wrote a small book about Will Rogers that has long been sold at the park. She taught English as a second language to adults. She labored for desegregation, for Planned Parenthood, for the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, for the environment. And she wrote and wrote and wrote, creating collections of inspiring work – some political, some philosophical, some spiritual, some very funny, and many compositions written for special moments with family members or friends.

It’s important to recognize just how much Harriet’s life was centered around her loved ones and cherished friends. If you were Harriet’s friend, you knew the blessing of total commitment and loyalty. And if you were one of Harriet’s five children and eight grandchildren, you knew that you were the absolute joy of her life. When Allan found Jill, and Stephen found Sylvia, and Karen found Manfred, they, too, discovered the wonder of being a part of Harriet’s close circle. And little Emma, Harriet’s one and only great-granddaughter, was to Harriet an especially beautiful flower of the family’s future.

Harriet gave so much of herself to those she loved. She took such pride in escorting Wendy, Emily, Joshua, Florian, Dion, Joseph and Dov each on a special trip, alone with their grandma. Alison, too, would have received that gift – Harriet certainly wanted to make it happen – but when her busy schedule of play performances made it impossible, Harriet found a different way to bond with her youngest grandchild… by attending every one of Alison’s performances that she could make. And at Harriet’s 85th birthday party, each one of her grandchildren shared a special memory that was theirs and theirs alone – each one created singly from the deeply personal care that they received from their loving grandmother.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Harriet faced the news that she would die with the grace and the eye of an artist. After all, she had devoted her entire artist’s life to sensitively observing the world and the lives around her, and to making them better. So when she learned that she had only weeks to live, Harriet was undarkened, choosing instead to savor life’s blessings to the last measure afforded her. This is when I got to know Harriet – in her longtime home in the Palisades, where she rested each day and continued to write, now aware that she was living and penning the final chapter. When I arrived in Los Angeles only months earlier to be her temple’s new rabbi, she sent me an inscribed copy of one of her poetry books, so I had already been offered a glance through the window to her soul. But when we sat together, talking about our shared childhood home of Kansas City, about the synagogue where she and I had both grown up, about her great love for her family and friends, about her tremendous gratitude for the many blessings she had known, I realized just how unusually complete a woman Harriet was. And this is why she was ready to die.

Before Harriet left this earth, she wrote the following words, as she pondered this very day that we are now sharing. She wrote:

The sands of time are running out for me
At times I do rejoice in sipping life
But there are times when I am filled with fear.
When I am gone what will they say of me?
She raised some caring progeny
She passed along some family history
She made a vase, a poem, a bamboo sketch,
She made a long commitment to the arts
Extending sight to those who wished to see.
She loved not wisely, but without regrets.
She was her children’s clearinghouse
Uniting them long after they left home.
Her children’s brood link her to time ahead.
Her special friends brought comfort and delight.
Her treasures were her books, art, souvenirs.
She kept a little earth to cultivate
Which overlooked the ocean and the hills.
She roamed the world, nor lost her quest to learn
And people, not possessions, were her main concern.

“What will they say of me?” asked Harriet. And our answer: all that you hoped for, and so much more. And so much more.

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple
1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90049