Dena Lester on Debbie

Debbie had a small group of very close girlfriends – I am honored to have been one of them and that is why I am making this speech.

We met in Israel 29 years ago at breakfast in my kitchen by accident.  I saw this tall, beautiful, skinny and tanned girl with a head of thick shiny black hair, an enormous even white smile and dark burning eyes.  I was immediately fearful that my husband, Jonathan would fall in love with her.

Thus in that spirit of challenge, began our adventurous and exciting friendship.

I have been privileged to witness Debbie in many forms:

Debbie the wild and independent young woman – investigative, ambitious, tumultuous and excessively interesting.

Debbie the new wife  – keeping an orderly apartment and tight budget in Agrippas Street, Jerusalem while taming her frenetic husband Jack who kept us all doubled up in laughter with his crazy antics.

The struggling writer - Punching out words on a noisy typewriter, looking hard for the content of the stories she was so driven to tell.

Debbie the mother – nurturing her children as babies, toddlers and youngsters in the best way she could.  I can still see her pregnant – glowing and shiny, ripe and feminine.

Some of my happiest years were those that we shared raising our six children.  The chaos and laughter and even craziness of that atmosphere has etched itself permanently in our children’s psyche’s and on mine.  I miss those days so much. 

The Shabbat dinners with Debbie, Jack, my late husband Jonathan and I – our kids running wild as Jack terrified them with his psychotic chasing game called Stalker which would all end in hysterical laughter (and sometimes tears…).

I loved our discourse, it was never boring.  We raised our children while talking philosophy, theology, psychology, politics and mysticism.  Rare were our conversations about nappies, the best schools, other people or what we wanted to buy next.

In our 30’s we were both drawn on different paths into mysticism.  As her books describe, hers was a deep enquiry whose gifts of knowledge were not endowed without cost.

On her path of fire Debbie immersed herself in a fury of learning – how to daven, how to read classical Hebrew, Aramaic and Rabbinical commentaries.  I was astonished as I had learnt Hebrew and prayer at a religious school and even was frum as a teen, but she had it all wrapped up in a short number of years.  Her intelligence and intellect were simply hard to grasp.  She indeed had a very great mind.

As if under a spell, she was on a mission to penetrate the depths of the deeper meaning of our heritage – a task that consumed and absorbed her.

Her mission was not always pretty – nothing comes from nothing and it was necessary to enter the darkest of spaces and experiences to find the light, to create the alchemical gold from the burning of her base metals.

While all of that drama was going on, the house was kept in order, the children attended school, the dogs were walked around the park daily and the sun kept rising in the safe and comfortable suburb of Caulfield with its contemporary post holocaust renaissance architecture as we would joke.

I have thus come to believe that the greatest stories emerge from the most mundane environments.

It was in these years of internal turbulence that she found her purpose as a teacher of Torah – not just the Torah of words, but the Torah of the heart.  The Torah of self transformation, the Torah of correct behavior, the Torah of conscious living, the Torah of Acceptance and the Torah of truth.

This is the Torah that belongs to the world and that is why she had a following of so many people from so many backgrounds and even different religions.

Then out of the blue she got sick.

I can still remember every detail of that phone call.

Over the past 4 and a half years since that call, Debbie has been dealing with the cancers that eventually ended her life last week.

This final chapter of her story,  painful as it is, represents the time where her personality evolved and transformed in a most unbelievable way.

As the cancer grew and spread, any negative view of the world and people that she may have held, started to diminish.  She came to understand almost everyone and judge almost no one – a huge achievement for any human being. 

After a couple of years she could even clearly sit present in the moment – forgetting her predicament – a goal that sounds so simple but is almost impossible, honestly, for most of us to attain.

She became so compassionate – as spoken in her close friend Sari’s words last night – despite her pain and suffering, she became more concerned with the pain and suffering of others.

As her body became less mobile and energetic her heart opened wider letting all of our vulnerabilities become rendered irrelevant.

I loved the way she enjoyed listening to my problems, totally immersed in the trivial details of my daily issues and grievances as if they were as important as her own serious trials.

As the disease in her body, mutated and morphed into all kinds of horrible sicknesses, I began to call her Job – to her face of course – because she just seemed to receive more and more – enduring  the suffering with acceptance and resignation.  Mostly peaceful in her powerlessness.

She told me many times that she was ready to die and not afraid.

There are two moments in our friendship that will always be burned in my memory.

One was when my husband Jonathan was laying in a sudden coma in hospital.  We, two naturally non-demonstrative friends who rarely hugged or emoted in public were on the balcony near the intensive care unit.  We were entwined in each other’s arms, on our knees, tears pouring out of our eyes, crying out loud to Hashem and petitioning Him with prayer.  Please, we wailed, please make Jonathan better; we will do anything you ask…  But because it was his time the answer was silence, however, I will never forget that moment of union with her and how deeply she cared.

The second was on the day she was admitted into hospital a few weeks ago – I held her hand and she squeezed my finger looking directly into my eyes with a mixture of trepidation and sweet compassion – her eyes were saying I am sorry, but I have to do the job of dying now.  I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

I am so very grateful for Debbie and I will always love her very much.

As much as I will miss her though, I am relieved that she has finally been freed from the bondage of that body.

I offer thanks to Doug and her other close friends who were so present for her in the way that she needed over the past years.  May you be blessed and showered with light.

I pray that all of her family, especially her beautiful children David, Booji and Benny will grow strong and great through the adversity of the untimely loss of their mother, sister and daughter. 

She would want nothing more than to see you all live lives of purpose, usefulness and integrity in which ever fields you choose.  I know well that you all will.

Right now in my fantasies – Debbie is looking down from up high in flowing white robes with an after life body glowing with spirit.  Maybe even right now Jonathan has joined her and they are having a chuckle at my expense as the tears stream down my face in the world of the living.

—Dena Lester

Posted on August 1, 2011 .