avek in der eybikayt

Eulogy for Ben Froman (1921-2020)

Given on June 14, 2020 by Eric A. Gordon:

I think it’s kind of appropriate that today is Flag Day. Not that I am such a super-patriot myself, but Ben Froman adopted our stars and stripes as his own. Ben was Canadian-born and served proudly in World War II as a subject of the British Crown.

After the war, maybe it was the prospect of yet another Canadian winter, Ben struck out for the Promised Land, Southern California. He met Ida, who would become Ida Froman, he joined with the secular Jewish social organization the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter
Ring which her family was involved with, and in short time became a flag-waving U.S. citizen. Freedom and justice for all! Ben believed with every breath this was the finest country in the world, the promise of liberty and opportunity available to all. We
know, of course, especially in these days, that this notion is something of a fantasy, and was then, too, yet Ben’s unwavering belief in it would characterize all the remaining days of his life.

When I think of Ben I think of “stewardship.” Who, upon entering his home, could overlook his library of meticulously catalogued and arranged books and videos, his elaborate color-coded filing systems for all that needed to be filed, a place for everything and everything in its place?

He would happily show off his beautiful household appliances, washing machine, refrigerator, furniture—in as pristine condition as the day he bought it. Nearly 50 years later he would pull out his lifetime warranty if anything went wrong with it! His home, the car he drove, his garden and toolshed, all neat as a pin.

Physically, he took fine care of himself, which likely accounts for his extraordinary longevity. I doubt his weight varied so much as five pounds either way throughout his adult life.

Ben was an engineer by profession. I remember one time telling him about the optimist who says the glass is half full, while the pessimist says the glass is half empty. But the engineer—the engineer says, The glass is too big! Ben didn’t hear that as a gentle jibe about engineers: He smiled and said, That’s right!

If Ben was a good and honorable steward, it was certainly not only for material things. He was a careful steward of his family, especially his dear wife Ida, who was still with us, and attending Workmen’s Circle functions with him in the first years of my directorship there, from 1995 on. She was already rather sickly by then, and often crotchety, but Ben overlooked all that, cared for her lovingly, and remembered their youthful, sunny days.

Fortunately for him, later in life he met Annette Bloom, and he was able to transfer toward her all his open-hearted, lavishing attention that he had missed giving for a number of years. Although he complained to me about issues with her family, still, he appreciated once again being partnered with a lovely woman and enjoying her companionship.

Alas, his stewardship as a father was a troubled one—an excellent relationship with one daughter, and in the latter years, none at all with the other. We spoke often and intimately about this. I can share with you both his immense pride and joy over the one, and his deep pain and distress over the loss of the other. No one is perfect, he admitted, but for the life of him he never could figure out what it was that drove the other away from him with no
possibility of reconciliation. Probably even more so than the loss of Ida, this open wound in his life was a heavy yoke for him to bear. So constitutionally devoted to staying in control of the big things in life, in the end he had to sadly accept his powerlessness to change this one part of it.

I knew Ben best in his capacity as Chairmentsh of the Southern California Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. He chaired the District Committee in the mid-1990s that hired me on. How well I remember the lunch at Coco’s on Pico near Robertson, where we went after I was formally offered the job and enjoyed a celebratory, anticipatory meal together.

Ben was the last surviving member of that group of Southern California Workmen’s Circle leaders that I first encountered, so now I can speak a little more freely than ever before. The others, all formally educated in Yiddish schools as children, did not
regard Ben so highly. After all, he had only come to the organization in his 20s after meeting Ida, though once in its bosom he treated Workmen’s Circle as his true and only Jewish home. Before I arrived, that group of leaders hired one director after another and barely a one of them lasted more than a few months or a year. The truth is that though they wanted the Workmen’s Circle to continue thriving as it had in their own younger years, only in a single case did any of their children belong to it. The organization they cherished—as they certainly did in their own way—was stuck in the politics, the lifestyle, the values of the 1930s to the 1950s. Just last year, by the way, the national organization finally changed its name to Workers Circle. When I spoke up for fundraising for our current and expanding programs and for our future, I found deaf ears among all of them.
Not one of them left us any kind of legacy.

Except Ben. Maybe owing to his profession as an engineer, and not being so caught up in the lofty clouds of sentimental old memories, he realized what things cost, he could project costs into the future, and more important, he had hope and faith that we could succeed. The others pooh-poohed change, innovation and fresh ideas, smugly secure knowing that the organization, at least locally, would die off with their generation. But Ben welcomed new thinking, and our exponential membership growth proved that
there could be life in this tired old organization after all. Of that group Ben was the only one who made a significant legacy gift to our Second Century Endowment Fund.

I wound up, because of his leadership, staying in the director’s position for 15 years. I am so glad I have lived long enough—I’m 75 now—to say publicly here and now, as I often did to Ben privately, how life-changing for me personally, and for Workmen’s Circle, were his support and his confidence in me. To Ben—and I am being totally honest, almost exclusively to Ben—we owe the fact that we did not dissolve years ago as Workmen’s Circle branches in most parts of the country eventually did, and we are still functioning in our little building on Robertson Blvd., still sharing our Yiddish language and other programs with successive generations of students.

I speak of Ben’s sense of stewardship, and I do not mean to conclude with the Workmen’s Circle, but rather what the Workmen’s Circle itself, historically and still, stands for: A shenere un a besere velt far ale—Yiddish for “a better, more beautiful world for everyone.” In their youthful years together, Ben and Ida were frankly socialists, and that was the main tendency of the Workmen’s Circle. They believed, and I know that Ben believed to his dying day, in universal education, the best healthcare for all,
good housing, the dignity of labor, world peace, transparent business practices, common human decency and fairness. Maybe again it was his engineering background: How else, logically, are we to guarantee the best possible life outcomes for the most people unless we structure and organize society according to a conscious, workable plan?

I know that others have also expressed their gratitude, but I want to add my personal thanks, and the thanks of the entire Workers Circle family, to Connie, who took such good care of Ben in his twilight years. You were truly essential to his wellbeing, keeping
him invested in this mysterious journey of life until the ripe old age of 98 and a half.

Though Ben was a supremely rational and grounded person, he was a far-seeing visionary, with little patience for organized religion. He would not have wanted some clergy who never knew him to mumble prayers over his gravesite, nor oblige those here to mumble along obediently. But many deeply spiritual people turn at moments like this to Nature, such as poet Alison Hawthorne Deming looking not upward to the skies but rather to “This Ground Made of Trees,” which I’d like to share with you. The “giants” she refers to are the great trees, but when I read this poem I also think of all those people—the famous alongside the nameless and unsung—whose efforts to make a better world have built up the rich humus that has fertilized every succeeding generation. To me, Ben Froman is and will always be such a giant.

“The giants have fallen.
I think I can hear the echo
of their slow composition…
the centuries passing
as note by note
they fall into the forest’s
silent music. Moss has run
over their backs, mushrooms
have sprung from the moss,
mold has coated the fungal caps
and the heartwood
has given itself to
muffled percussion
of insect and microbe
that carpet of sound
that gives the forest its rhythm.
A nuthatch twits
or a vole cheeps.
The scent of decay rises
like steam from a stewpot.
Anywhere I set my foot
a million lives work
at metabolizing what has gone before them.
The day is shortening
and the winter wrens have
something to say about that.
I can almost give thanks
that the soil will claim me
but first allow me, dear life,
a few more words of praise
for this ground made of trees
where everything is an invitation
to lie down in the moss for good
and become finally really
useful, to pull closed
the drapery of lichen
and let the night birds
call me home.”