One of the “perks” of my officiating at a funeral is that every so often, the deceased is famous, even world-famous. In this case, I can even unveil his identity, as I was honored to speak at a memorial service for the public as well as at the more private ceremony in 2012. Not only that, he wrote a memoir revealing some of the personal details of his life as a “minority within a minority”, as a Jew growing up in an African-American community. I’m speaking of Dr. Irving L. Horowitz, who wrote Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on a Harlem Childhood as well as over 25 books on sociology.
Here is an excerpt of the eulogy:
Whenever we hear stories in the news of persons overcoming adversity and living wholesome lives, we are mesmerized. We admire their courage, their perseverance, their ingenuity. How much more, then, does Dr. Horowitz’ life story inspire us. Not only did he surmount a multiplicity of obstacles, he excelled far beyond what most of us, even with childhoods one tenth as difficult, have achieved. The ways he did so is the spiritual dimension of his legacy. Understanding how he overcame evil is not merely for the record; we all benefit by emulating the resilience of others. I base these few remarks on Irving Horowitz’s autobiography called Daydreams and Nightmares.
Raised in Harlem, Irving grew up in a literally life-threatening environment on the outside, and what he himself called a loveless environment on the inside. As if that were not daunting enough, he had to cope with a series of surgical procedures for cleft palate, and he and his family had to endure incrementally rising levels of poverty.
As he explained in his book, having to make the hospital a second home ameliorated the other conditions that would have made emotional cripples of so many of us, and possibly even of him. Being in the hospital protected him from having to deal with being routinely beaten by neighborhood roughs. More significantly in the long run, his own suffering enabled him to relate deeply to the sufferings of others. Instead of reducing his humanity, suffering in his case endowed him with a precious sensitivity to the human condition. It also, as he said, made him more self-reliant and thick-skinned.
Even so, the question remains: other people in dire circumstances with comparative resources to lift themselves up do not or cannot do so. That is, what made Irving Horowitz resilient and others not? What can we learn from him that we can apply to ourselves as we struggle to free ourselves from our own demons?
Again, Irving answers this question in his own autobiography. He said Harlem taught him to be combative. Later on, he came to understand that “the spirit of combat also exists in the intellectual realm.” An apparently pivotal experience he had in high school concerned his speaking with conviction about a controversial political subject. This ended up with his peers saying “Nice going!” He had found a source of power that could be used to the good and whereby he could be respected and show his worth. And now here is the punch line of my remarks: He referred to boldly speaking this way to his teacher and peers as speaking with passion. He wrote that he had transferred the combative passion he had growing up to this academic setting. Spiritually speaking, it was then that he had his bar mitzvah. It was then that he seized upon his own internal flame that had been waiting to illuminate his life purpose and to shine forth upon all of you here and to shed a glow on the world at large.
Each of us has a flame residing within. It may be sputtering. It may be tamped down by insidious moisture. But with the unfaltering fan of passion, each of our own flames will blaze their way into a most exalted and full and bountiful panorama of light.