Goodbye Esther

Esther left before I had a chance to say goodbye and that made me cry this week. Such a loss before I even knew she was going.

Life can be like that. People we hold dear get older while we’re off doing other things, and suddenly they’re gone too soon.

One of the reasons we were pulled back to our home called Minneapolis is the community at our synagogue. And one of the corner stones of that shul was Esther Burke. Within our first few years in Minneapolis, when we’d finished trying on synagogue communities and selected the one that fit us just right, we met Esther and Jack. We knew them as Ellen Sue’s parents because we met her first.

And they were so much more.

When Esther found out that Jacques grew up in Tangier, she immediately invited us to dinner.

“I had Moroccan friends when we lived near the air base in North Dakota, and I learned to make b’stilla,” she said, talking about the Moroccan phyllo pie filled with gorgeous chicken, herbs, and almonds.  “I want you to see if it tastes like what you remember.”

An invitation with such enthusiasm was impossible to decline, thank heavens.

We were given so many gifts by knowing the Burkes. We learned that Ellen Sue was one of five children – each one interesting, engaged in the world, and intent on creating families of their own that were knit together under the Burke banner.

From Jack, I was introduced to the deeper joys of Sukkot. He glowed when he spoke of sleeping overnight in his sukkah with his children, and then his grandchildren to truly experience the holiday.

“But it’s Minnesota. Isn’t it too cold?” I said.

“Ahh – that’s what makes it so special,” he responded with those eye twinkles of joy.

It was a Burke Sukkah that we built every year when our children were growing up – a smart structure of plumbing pipe, blue tarp walls, and wooden lattice on top.

Then there was Esther. Oh, how she loved to cook as an excuse to gather family and their friends around her table. She took such joy in presenting multiple courses to adoring consumers of her love in the form of food.

She was predictably in her seat for Shabbat services each Saturday morning, reaching out to touch offered hands and kisses over the years. And she never commented on the hour of our arrival, which was significantly after she had taken her place in Beth El. She just showed us that she was glad to see us once more.

Then during the morning Kiddush after services she would seek us out to ask how we were doing, what was going on, and how were the kids. She was part of the extended family we created in Minnesota, and a reminder that Abraham’s open tent philosophy of gathering and welcoming strangers was alive and well in the northern tundra.

And now, before I could squeeze that hand one more time and give a kiss to that dear cheek, she is gone. Thank you Esther, and Jack, for the many gifts you gave our family – the example of a life lived with an open heart, of the heart warmth that comes from family gatherings, and of course, demonstrating how love and joy can be baked into a b’stilla. 

Esther Burke