Avram Lazar ben Hershel v’Sima
January 16th 1947 – October 23rd 2011
I feel so privileged to have known Allan Guitar and, like all of us here, I am so sad about his loss, yet so grateful for the deeply real, open-hearted conversations that we had during his process of dying, which he did with such grace, honesty, wisdom and even humor. That is how Allan lived his life and how he died his death – with integrity, curiosity and openness. I know how much everyone here will miss his charm, his laughter and his generosity of spirit, yet I also know how grateful we are for all that he has given to us and modeled for us with his big, loving heart.
Allan was born on January 16th 1947 in Brooklyn, NY to Jewish socialist parents Sima and Harold Kaufman, growing up among union supporters and attending Workman’s Circle Summer Camps. Although raised in this secular, even anti-religious Jewish environment, Allan perhaps always had a sense of his own spirituality and this certainly intensified as he confronted his death and he and I had some amazing talks about God, angels and the soul and he always enjoyed hearing the prayers and songs chanted and sung in Hebrew.
Allan had undiagnosed dyslexia and ADD, so traditional learning environments were challenging in some ways for him, yet he graduated High School in Brooklyn, got a degree in Recreation Administration from CU here in Boulder and got his Masters in Social Work at DU in 1983. He had always wanted to be a social worker and clearly his tremendously compassionate listening skills and genuine interest in people made him so perfect for this caring profession. Allan worked for years at the Boulder Mental Health Center, but there is no doubt that Allan’s proudest achievement of his life was being the founding director of the Chinook Club House in 1990, which provides social and vocational rehabilitation for adults with chronic mental illness. So many of his co-workers and his clients continue to have such love and admiration for him.
From age 13, Allan was a bicycle tour camper and then a group leader, and by the time he was 19 he was leading for International Bicycle Tours for American Youth Hostels, with a couple of 4 week trips to Europe, a two week trip to China (1981) and a bunch of cross country rides in the US. Allan loved biking and he even biked to his first oncologist’s appointment after he was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that took his life. Allan had a spinal column bleed from a vascular malformation when he was 24, which caused paralysis from the chest down – some muscles never came back, others slowly. It never became a defining characteristic for him and he never complained about it. Perhaps one of the reasons he continued to love biking so much was because it was the one thing that he could do without being disabled and he was good at it. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to be in one of the groups that he led. Allan was somewhat of a fanatic about health and fitness in general, always concerned to keep his heart healthy and indeed it was, physically and emotionally. It was his heart that kept him going a few days longer than expected, but it is a source of sadness that his healthy lifestyle could not beat the cancer.
Allan first came to Boulder in 1971 and, apart from the year that the family spent in Tacoma, he has been here ever since. He loved Boulder and has developed so many incredibly strong friendships through the Juniper Street Collective, his work, his music, his men’s group, the havurah and the First Sunday Nighters, the play reading group that he and Rona joined the same year they were married. Real, honest, deep relationships were what, perhaps, most defined Allan and he was always such a loyal friend.
Rona and Allan met in Boulder, even though they were both from New York, and they had a very fun and very musical wedding in 1984, it was a second marriage for both of them. Twenty seven years of loving adventures, including three major foreign vacations, one of which was a European bike ride with 33 of their closest friends; a married life filled with dancing, music, theater and laughter. In 1992 Lizzie came into their lives at 12 days old and the adventures continued. Lizzie told me that not only was Allan a really cool guy, but he was the best daddy in the whole world. For Allan, the knowledge that he was going to be leaving you, Rona, and you Lizzie behind, was the most painful part of this final, unchosen journey of Allan’s physical life. He shared with me several times what a great source of pain and sadness that was for him. He loved you both very much.
Allan learned to play guitar when he was 8 years old and we all know how important music was to him (especially as he and his first wife legally changed their name all those years ago); folk music sitting by the camp fire or playing and singing in his various bands, including Hot Air and Strings who have played many times here at Bonai Shalom. During his illness, music was always a great source of comfort to him and I have a sweet memory of one of my visits when he was in hospital, interrupting a ukulele lesson that he was having. Another time Jackie Seltzer and I played and sung some healing music by his bed, which was moving for all of us. Although Allan loved to perform, his greatest talent was getting others to sing, even those who didn’t think they could. I have heard many such stories of the wonderful memories that so many people have of Allan getting those around him to lift their voices in song. He was very empowering in this way and that quality was not just evident in his music, but in all that he did, professionally and personally. He was a mensch with a great big heart and smile to match and an endless capacity for listening to the stories of others.
A rabbi in the Mishnah called Ben Zoma, asks a series of four questions at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Pirke Avot. Who is wise? Who is mighty? Who is rich? Who is honored? Hachcham – halomed mikol Adam – the wise one is the one who learns from all people. Hagibor – hacovesh et yitzro – the mighty one is the one is able to control his inclinations, or balance emotions. Haashir – hasameach b’chelko – the wealthy one is the one who is happy with what he has. Ham’chubad – ha’m’chabed et habriyut – the honored one is the one who honors all humanity. Can you think of anyone who fits this ancient wisdom more than Allan Guitar? Allan was always interested in everyone and open to learning something new from them; he had emotional integrity and worked on himself and did not allow his emotions to rule over him, always maintaining a positive outlook and a sense of gratitude, even as he faced his darkest days. He was a mighty warrior; Allan was never envious of anyone else for their wealth or their position and was truly rich in being happy with who he was; the honor that we all feel for Allan today comes from the deep truth that he honored all of us.
As Allan was in the transition of leaving his physical body last week, Jews all over the world were ending one cycle and immediately beginning another, as we completed the reading of the sacred Torah and started at the very beginning of Genesis the same day, on Friday morning as part of our celebration of the Holiday of Simchat Torah. In the Jewish tradition, a Torah scroll is compared to a sacred human life and I cannot help thinking that Allan’s end is also a transition into another beginning. I think he believed that too. Allan’s last couple of days were hard and distressing and we pray that his soul is at peace and in the next phase of its journey. Even those of us who may struggle to believe this must know that the impact of Allan’s love, generosity, honesty, integrity and humor live on in all of us who had the privilege of knowing this wonderful man.
Alav hashalom. Zichrono livracha. May his soul be at peace and may his memory be for a blessing.
To you Rona and Lizzie and Jim, we especially say, hamakom y’nachem etchem, may you be granted comfort in your mourning. Also Adam, Ellen and Buddy, Gail and Sam Rachel and Brian and Robert – the various family members from out of town and to all the many, many friends, may you all receive great strength and comfort in the knowledge that Allan’s legacy lives on in you, in us.