So, my still-in-process thoughts about William Straus, a man of character, contradictions, compassion and continuity.
What was Billís character? The first things that come to my mind are strength, followed quickly by courage and constancy. Bill was a man of deep convictions and he had the strength and courage to pursue these, even in the face of incredible adversity. As a result, he achieved a remarkable constancy, both in the little day-to-day aspects of life, and in the big things as well. We all remember the little things that Bill did every day - the egg in the cup every morning, instant coffee, his seat at the table just so, or by the reading lamp gazing out at his beloved Tomales Bay, reading the NY Times every morning, the mid-day mail run. And we remember his constancy in the big things, too - his constant devotion to the farm, to the land, to his cows, to the life he chose and so wonderfully crafted.
Bill was a man a contradictions, of anachronisms and ironies. Consider just a few:
Farmer --- Environmentalist
Democrat --- West Marin farmer
Father and Lover --- Loner
Observant Jew --- Maverick Jew
Jew --- Pig-valve Recipient
Only Child --- Consumate Family Man with an Enormous Family
Man of the Past --- Man of the Present
Cynic --- Idealistic Optimist
In these contradictions we see much of the man, much of his character. And perhaps most significantly, we recall that Bill moved forward in a very straight line towards his ideals, in spite of these contradictions, in the face of these ironies. And this path was not a faltering one, held back by the uncertainties that such contradictions can engender, nor was it a crooked path buffeted by countervailing forces.
Take, for example, the last contradiction on my list - cynic and idealistic optimist. Bill lived, in a way, very much in a world apart, a world of ideas and ideals, of dreams and visions. These sprung from his readings, his close friends and family members, and, in a very significant way, from a charmed childhood in a very progressive pre-Nazi Hamburg. This idealized world of Billís mind was the source both of his eternal optimism - how the world could be, a world without war, without injustice, without inequality - and also of his cynicism when confronted, as we all are, with the gap between what is, in the ďrealĒ world, and what could be. Thus he was a man of compelling vision and a strand of perpetual dissatisfaction and striving. And yet in the face of this, he was a man of action, doing, building, maintaining, even growing all the time. Indeed, many have commented how much Bill continued to do and to grow even in these last 7 months following the death of his beloved Ellen.
We all know of the many wonderful things Bill created or helped create in his lifetime - a family business successful enough to move into a new century and a new world, an environmentally conscious approach to gaining sustenance from the land, a trend-setting agricultural land trust, a place for progressive ideas in West Marin. And beyond these actions in the material world, we even more compelling creations of Bill in the realm of the heart. Perhaps most enduring, for me, was simple his model of love, and how to use love to guide, motivate and energize action, even in the face of adversity. As far as I can tell, Bill fell in love but a few times in his life - with a woman and then with the family she helped him create, with a lifeís work (and he only really had one), and with a landscape - but he pursued these loves with an unflagging energy, passion and devotion that will always be there in our hearts and memories as an inspiration.
I will never lose the images of Billís efforts to meet and then court Ellen way out there on the other side of the country. Arranging to have the cows taken care of and setting off on a cross-country plane flight (not a routine matter in 1949), Billís first trip was met with failure, since Ellen had left for a trip to Holland and wasnít there to meet him. How could such an elaborate trip be pulled off by Bill, but the simple expedient of finding out whether his ďtargetĒ would be there was beyond him, Iíve often wondered. But this was an earlier era that Bill and Ellen lived in, and until they actually met under the auspices of relatives, there could be no direct communication between them. So, he took a second junket east, fell in love for the last time, and 16 days later convinced Ellen to marry him and join him in his lifeís work, in his beloved landscape.
Nor will any of us forget the image of loving the work and the landscape that compelled Bill to farm, with all of the awkwardness and unfamiliarity of a first-time dairyman. For though Billís father was trained in agriculture, which inspired Billís own interests, his father died when Bill was 4 and so passed on no tangible skills nor expertise to his son. But driven by his love, and by his singular focus, Bill succeeded as a farmer.
Iíve touched on Billís character and contradictions. Now let me speak briefly about Billís compassion, and then Iíll close with some thoughts about Bill and continuity.
Bill was a deeply principled and compassionate man. His speeches, which I just started to peruse, are suffused with caring - about oppressed minorities, beleaguered Palestinians, spurned Jewish immigrants. His compassion gave rise to an incredible generosity. He sponsored a great many immigrants to the US, and sent many care packages to European friends and family members after World War II which contained, for many of the recipients, the only food they had to eat. Indeed, Iím told that among the letters in the house are many to Bill thanking him and Ellen for ďsaving our lives.Ē I wouldnít be surprised if there arenít several people in the group here today that feel this way about Bill, or who remember Bill for another form of his generosity and compassion - his dedication to being a mentor. This was a role Bill really cherished, to take each of us on in one-on-one conversation, establishing a supportive and nurturing relationship, giving advice and encouragement.
Finally, about Bill and continuity - continuity of community, of faith, and of family. Bill wove an incredible community, emanating from the desk, the telephone, the kitchen table at the house on Tomales Bay and stretching to the four corners of the globe. He was a consummate correspondent - a letter writer and phone caller - and hosted countless visits - short and long - by relatives and friends both new and old. He was keenly aware of the importance of community, of sustaining connections over time. Indeed, the outpouring of love and generosity weíve received after the passing of Ellen and now Bill is but one small testament to the enduring nature of these bonds and we thank you all for being part of this community and for sharing so much love and support.
Bill was very much a man of history and saw himself in a historical perspective. Much of this centered around his faith, Judaism. He was incredibly proud of his familyís Jewish past, which stretches back in documented form at least 6 centuries. We heard many stories about the two Baíal Shems in his family, highly revered rabbiís who touched the lives of many and left lasting legacies and stories that our own children now listen to. Some of his forbearers played a pivotal role in helping immigrant Jews in the 1400ís cope with difficult times in Europe, one of many traditions he carried on in his own life. His speeches, again, are rich in history, placing himself very humbly in this flow of character, compassion and convictions. He created a Jewish life for himself and his family that was both touched with contradictions - home-grown in the face of Judaismís rejoinder to be communal - yet powerful and singular in action. The enduring nature of Billís faith can be judged, among other ways, by the continuity he achieved in the active embrace of the faith by all 4 of his children. This defies that odds, at least as far as my experience with American Jewish families and their children goes.
I want now to say something about the continuity and continuation of character and compassion in Billís family, in his four children and four grandchildren that I so dearly love and admire. In each of them Bill left a legacy, in their very fiber and in the ways he nurtured them.
Albert Ö you were adored by your father. He depended upon you and was tremendously proud of you and how youíve carried on and, in his mind, transcended him in the work of farming and protecting the land. He often referred to himself as the hyphen between two great men, between two Alberts, his father and son. Fortunately, you have his strength and courage, and his ability to focus and persevere, allowing you to continue his legacy with tremendous success at home and at work. And with your loving wife Jeanne, it is clear that you are bringing forth in your wonderful son Reuben these same things.
Vivien Ö you have a touch of your fatherís worldliness and sophistication. You also have his sarcasm and his sense of humor, perhaps most notably, in the ability to laugh at yourself and at the crazy contradictions in the world. You both enjoy the ironies of life and of your own shortcomings. In fact, you went so far as to write and be the soul actor in a comedic play about yourself. And in the last 7 months, you had a new relationship with your father - part peer, part spouse, part respected daughter at last - that both of you cherished and that can be a lasting memory for you. You never gave up on him nor on your relationship with him, demonstrating your own version of the Straus tenacity and perseverance.
Miriam Ö you share your fatherís dreaminess and idealism, and no small measure of his dissatisfaction with the world as it is. But you also share his unabiding warmth and optimism, the twinkle in the eye and smile that makes everyone around you smile. And you have a good dose of his ability to act on his convictions, pursuing a marriage with a man far from your home and building a wonderful life with wonderful children and friends in a new land.
Michael Ö you hadnít quite gotten there in building the adult, mutual relationship with your father that you strived for, but your were almost there. I hope youíll continue to grow your relationship with him even after his death. Indeed, his entire relationship with his own father was posthumous. You share your fatherís penchant for communicating, for networking and building communities near and far. One of your friends came from across the country to be with you and us today. You have tremendous connections with people around the world, and have, like your father, built a nurturing and inspiring community of friends and family that we all benefit from.
In closing, I want to remember an idea that Bill shared with us, one that for me is an enduring, positive and life-affirming symbol of continuity. In several of his speeches, including the one he gave on the occasion of Miriam and my wedding, Bill spoke of the light, the flame, that each of us has within us. He encouraged us to seek it out in each other and in ourselves, to tend it, nurture it, fan it, to build and rejoice in its warmth and light. He personified such a flame and its image and spark within us will guide us into the future. I want to say thank you, Bill, for this and all the gifts you gave us.
Alan R. Berkowitz