Former board member George Gutmann shared these beautiful reflections of Abe a few years ago. With current political events challenging those committed to peace and justice, it helps to remember the joy and grace Abe carried through his work and life.
Thanksgiving Day 2012
The turkey is in the oven. Thus it’s an especially good time, and a pleasure, to respond to your request to remember Abe Keller the Mensch. For anyone reading this who is not familiar with this Yiddish term, ‘Mensch’ means literally a human being but ‘a Mensch’ means a fine person, a ‘real human being’.
I met Abe while in high school. I went to school with his son Lewis (Rip) and had the pleasure of spending many hours in Abe and Mignonne’s home. The food was very good, the art beautiful, the music wonderful and the conversations about politics and world events stimulating. But even better was the warmth of their home. The Keller home was a welcoming place where one could find people from all walks of life, the young to the very old, and from all corners of the globe.
Most Sunday afternoons there was an open house. No invitations were needed. Local friends, out of town guests, folks from the University, artists, musicians – everyone was welcome.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was raging. Lynn and I were engaged. She was finishing her BA and I was in LA attending graduate school. We were considering the various ways of avoiding the draft. I asked Lynn to talk with Abe about his draft counseling work with the American Friends. What about immigration to Canada? Conscientious objector? Teaching? Abe was wonderful during this very tense time. True to his scholarly nature he was a font of knowledge. More important was his warmth, caring and support. We ended up going to Brazil with the Peace Corps and Abe continued his support by mail.
Upon our return, we were back in the Keller fold. We demonstrated with Abe against Apartheid, nuclear bombs, and other horrors and injustices. We worked together for peaceful solutions to the Middle East conflict. Abe was passionate about such causes but also about the methods: non-violence, respectful action, personal commitment, research, knowledge and humor. Yes, humor. Abe could laugh about himself, could laugh with others and could use humor to deal with the absurdities and tragedies of life.
These were his enduring qualities; they lasted to the end. I recall the time when Abe survived a medical crisis. He woke up in the hospital and feared that he had lost some cognitive abilities. In the middle of the night he was alone. He couldn’t remember what day it was or what had happened to him. At last he remembered his love of Shakespeare’s sonnets and decided to recite them from memory. He later reported about the healing qualities of this endeavor. At a later date, he followed the medical advice shared it with others. What was it? Watch old Charlie Chaplin movies. Abe was a fan of Chaplin and knew that laughter was a universal cure.
A few days before Abe’s death I went to see him. I intended to tell him how important he was to me. Abe seemed to be asleep but at Rosemary’s suggestion, I sat by his bed and stroked his arm. He opened his eyes. Before I could say a word, he started to tell me some of what I had wanted to say to him. I gently cussed him out for beating me to the punch and we laughed.
I still hear his laugh and his urging me to live a good life.
Abe was ‘a Mensch’.