Remembering Marty Penn

My friend Marty Penn,  known to the initiated as Rabtat,  has died. I find it difficult to write about him. We spent much of our time together indulging in activities which were not becoming  of the Rabbi Penn that he became in later years. As shepherd to a Montreal Jewish congregation, his immature, child-of-the-Sixties years were not the parts of his résumé that he would have highlighted, I’m pretty sure. To flaunt them now, would be to disrespect the person that he became, and I have no intention of doing that. Though he was one thing to me, he was something else to many other people. And I have no doubt that they loved him as a rabbi as much as I loved him as one of the few people who could outdo me in substance-fueled juvenile stupidity.

The other reason I find it difficult to write about him is guilt. I saw him only once since he fell ill 18 years ago. It was easy to rationalize: We were living on different continents (he in Canada and I in South Africa and then Israel) and I was relatively newly married with young children. Between work and family it was difficult for me to get away. But I should have visited him, I should have been there for him, and my guilt is enormous. Until this past week, I had still hoped to  make it up to him somehow, but that is now not going to happen.

We met in 1971 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We might never have met, because the location of our meeting was an 8 a.m. Jewish history seminar and neither Marty nor I were 8 a.m. people. But one fortuitous morning, we both happened to attend the seminar (the only time we both attended, as far as I can remember) and we each recognized a kindred spirit. He was a shortish, heavily-bearded guy with a kippa; I was a little taller, a lot less gifted when it came to facial hair and totally disinterested in religion. But his religiosity, it turned out, did not prevent him from participating in the Sixties-inspired activities that I considered to be essential to life in those days.

One Purim, we held a Fifties party in Marty’s apartment in Jerusalem. In preparation, he and I visited the used clothes shops in the old city for the appropriate gear. Being devoted students, we took the opportunity to learn some Arabic. Rabtat anak, it turned out, was a close approximation of bowtie in Arabic; it became the nickname we would use for each other. A few years later, when my bitch unexpectedly gave birth to puppies (I didn’t even know she was a bitch until I saw the little black turds squirming on my bloodied sheet) we named one murdafia and the other baidat; they, too, were Arabic words for Fifties-era clothing that we had learned, though I no longer remember what they mean.

The other member of our gang was Ravelli, who worked in a science lab impregnating chickens as part of a research project. Marty and I failed to see the fun in impregnation when done with test tubes, though Ravelli told us we didn’t know what we were missing. After graduation, Marty and Ravelli returned to Canada while I stayed in Israel, choosing the path of least resistance and even less money. I traveled to Montreal several times for extended stays, courtesy of Ravelli’s kindness. When Ravelli got married in Jerusalem. Marty and I were there to help him through it. When Marty got married in Montreal, Ravelli and I were pole-holders with suspiciously leaky noses. Neither of them was able to make it to my wedding in South Africa, but I forgave them. We were all in our forties by then and matrimony had clipped our wings.

Marty phoned me one night in 1995. He told me that he was in hospital, undergoing tests for excruciating headaches. We joked about it, attributing the headaches to our misspent youths. A few days later his wife, Eileen, contacted me to inform me that he had suffered a stroke while on the operating table for a suspected cerebral aneurysm (if I remember correctly.)

He spent the last 18 years of his life with aphasia – the inability to process language. It is a cruel fate for anyone, but particularly so for someone as quick and incisive with words as he was; as committed to the written word as he was. His vocabulary was reduced to a handful of words. I would phone him and hold a one-sided conversation. All he was able to say was “yeah, yeah.” I don’t know how much of what was said to him he was able to understand.

In about 2005,I spent a weekend with Marty and Eileen in Montreal. He seemed delighted to see me and I was beyond moved to be with him. I tried as hard as I could to be natural with him, but communication without language is painful. Seeing the post-stroke Marty was excruciating. After that, we spoke once or twice on the phone. I put off phoning him because I couldn’t bear hearing him but being unable to talk with him. And the less I called, the more guilty I felt.

Marty died on his 63rd birthday. When I think of him, I remember the naughty dazzle of his eyes and the brilliance of his smile. He was smart, eloquent and one of the funniest people I have ever met. For years, I was envious of his talent for repartee. He had a wild streak that I adored, especially when he was drunk, but he also had his feet on the ground. I’m sure he made a great rabbi, though I am not normally a good judge of rabbis. He was an altogether  generous and compassionate person – a wonderful guy.

My life is lessened by Marty’s death. I’m certain there are many people who feel as I do.

8 replies on “Remembering Marty Penn”

Dearest Roy! Very touching piece. Summing up, one’s life, is hard especially due
to the fact that tragic turns, has taken part in Marty’s life,
cruely leaving him mute to the question, why.
A question that a Rabbi can never ask.
Still, why?!

On the contrary, Roy, this is an important piece to read especially if we didn’t know Marty. Thank you for letting us know him through your story.

Thanks for this, Roy. It tells me as much about you as it does about Marty.
I think it quite possible, being the kind of man he was, that he understood you in spite of his verbal incapacity. Friends like him teach one that living well is far more important than wasting one’s life on guilt.

that was a wonderful piece, roy. thank you. you did right by him.
and thanks jeremy for those words: ‘a blessed time of sorts’. indeed it was!

My name is Eileen Ornstein and I was married to Marty Penn for 23 years. In the past week, there have been many tributes and eulogies to Marty, mostly regarding his work with Soviet Jewry and as a pulpit rabbi (a position which he held for only three short years due to illness). In his beautiful tribute, Roy has alluded to the personal side of Marty, and I would like to add some comments of my own.

Marty loved the T.V. show M.A.S.H. He had seen every episode so many times that he could recite the entire script of an episode from just the beginning of the opening scene.

Marty loved to watch sports on T.V. He also loved baseball, and we often went to watch the Montreal Expos at the Olympic Stadium when they were the pride of our city. (He would sometimes take a book with him to read between innings – an avid reader, he had a library of thousands of books, a source of pride to him when he was healthy, and a source of anguish to him when he was unable to read them).

Marty loved to cook and entertain. He was very conscious of food presentation, and often scolded me when I didn’t put enough colours on the plate.

Marty loved his son (now 21) unconditionally. When Jeremy walked into the room, Marty’s face lit up. As a father, he was dedicated, loving and warm. He was able to convey his feelings and opinions to his son, but he longed to be a typical father who could have discussions of importance with his son, who could take him places, and teach him all the wisdom he had acquired.

Marty travelled the world for Soviet Jewry (London, Paris, Brussels, Russia, Washington, Ottawa, etc.), but he also loved to go to Plattsburgh, NY (just over the Canadian border) to buy groceries we were unable to get in Canada. He loved the warmth of Florida, and in the pre-ozone-depletion scare, Marty was the best tanner I ever knew. His inner child loved Disneyworld, and we went there a couple of times. We spent several summers in Marine Village, NY, just lolling by the lake.

Marty had a mischievous side to him. In 1969, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in” in Montreal, Marty and a friend pretended to be reporters and managed to worm their way into John and Yoko’s hotel room (I have a few seconds of film footage, from a John and Yoko movie).
Marty’s sense of humour ran the gamut – from cute jokes to pretty irreverent stuff. In the last few days, I have regaled friends with some of the latter, demonstrating that Marty was human.

Marty wasn’t a saint. He could be moody, opinionated and sometimes even rude – just like the rest of us. But he was a special man who touched many people’s lives, and who inspired people with his strength and determination (both before and after his illness).

Although I may have disappointed him in the last five years, I believe he forgave me, for he understood what people need to be happy, and he was unselfish enough that he did not try to prevent my happiness.
Roy, I hope that you will remember Marty in a positive way, without the guilt that you are not deserving of. In the early, healthy years, Marty told me many wonderful stories of his time with you (many told with a devilish smile and a twinkle in his eye). I hope that we can connect one day so that you can pass these stories on to me, and I can pass them on to Jeremy. The name “Rabtat” lives on with me, as it has been a password of mine for many years (for an on-line game that I play). Marty will also live on with me forever.

Thanks for the beautiful tribute, Eileen. My guilt will pass,but Rabtat will be with me forever. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. One meets many people over the course of a lifetime, but it’s only the really special ones who imprint themselves on the soul. Rabtat was really special. By the way, I also went to Disneyland with him, it must have been in the early Eighties, and I can vouch for the fact that we was a big baby. I can also vouch for his tanning ability. He, Ravelli and I went to Grand Cayman once. Rabtat looked like a native within a day. I burned so badly that same day that I had to spend the rest of the vacation in the shade. Take care. I definitely hope we get together some day; I’ll share the stories I was unable to put in my obit.

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