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Monday, March 6, 2017

Toba Levinson: What I learned about God and Doughnuts

We buried Toba Levinson on a sunny day in late-January, just days after I realized that she had changed my understanding of God.

Those of you who shop at the King Soopers on Table Mesa in Boulder might have known Toba. Or at least seen her. She bagged groceries in the store about 12 years ago.

Toba and her husband Joel moved to Colorado when she was 66. She had owned a  book store back east. It was a cozy nook of a store. Regulars would stop by to get a cup a coffee, catch up on the local gossip and visit with Toba.  I think books may have been beside the point. The point was Toba – always there with a keen observation, a listening ear, a wide-open heart and an even open wider open mind.  

When Toba moved to Boulder to be closer to her children and grandchildren, she found it difficult to meet people. One day the manager at King Soopers offered her a job, “Not everyone knows to put the eggs on top, and I see you do,” he said watching her bag her own groceries.

So she went to work there, not for the money - she had plenty of money - but to meet people.

That is how I came to know Toba. It was a Friday afternoon and I was running through the store with a challah and a toddler and rotisserie chicken and apples. Toba, a petite, sparky lady, bagged my groceries, and tossed in a comment or two about being Jewish and the joy she remembered of sharing Shabbat with her toddlers.

That day forward I always picked Toba’s check-out line. Our conversations were short, sweet, engaging. Occasionally she would call me, perhaps summon me, to go out for coffee at Vic's (later Qs,) which I always did. I’m not claiming her as a close friend –  and that is important to know - but we had tender moments through the years.

Three weeks ago, her son Jeff called me, “Toba is dying and she is asking for you.”

I have spent much of the last month by her bedside. I told her stories  – she loved my stories – and she would share bits of Toba wisdom. Were I to distill them to their essence they would read something like, “Never judge someone by their title,” and “Collect people, not experiences,” and  “Always have something baking in the oven and the front door open to whomever needs an open door,” and "Never under estimate the deliciousness of the simple doughnut," and “Eat dessert first.”

I have walked many people toward their death, but never before have I been with someone who was so clear-headed as she approached her final days.

One day she said, “I’m getting tired now so you hold my hand and I’ll go to sleep.”  She fell asleep quickly and we sat that way for long time, me holding her hand listening to her breathe. The thing -- as you know -- about holding someone’s hand is that if you are holding theirs it means they are also holding yours. Until they are not.

One day about a week before she died, her four (adult) children and I were sitting in her bedroom  and I said, “Toba, I need you to know that you changed what I believe about  God.”  She looked surprised, pleased, curious.

I continued, “I used to believe what Martin Buber taught, that God is found in what he called I-Thou relationships, relationships in which you connect with the essence of someone, when you know them deeply and encounter them at the deepest level.  But now I realize, that is simply humanity.  Those are the relationships we as humans seek out naturally.”

I continued, “But God, God I believe is experienced in the opposite – in interactions in which we don’t really know the other person, what Buber wrote off as I-It relationships. When we engage with kindness in the more superficial, even transactional relationships with the person who bags your groceries, or pours your coffee or does your taxes and come out feeling tapped into the connection of all being. That  feeling of connection is God. Buber had it reversed.”

Toba smiled, “That’s why you’re my Rabbi,”  she said, and squeezed my hand.

Toba’s funeral was immense. The number of people who knew Toba and came out to celebrate her and say good-bye, stunned me. She knew people from all walks of life.
It was a windy day out in the graveyard in North Boulder and we huddled together both to stay warm and to seek comfort.  I cried my way through the eulogy, but no one minded.

Toba’s been gone a few weeks now and I think of her, and her smile, and the feeling of her hand in mine. Her son has gone back east and we text now and then. I try to focus, as Toba instructed me to, on finding meaning in the little things and of course on some days now, I eat dessert first.

Rabbi Jamie Korngold, Adventure Rabbi