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.