This past month, one of my childhood idols died. He was my camp counselor during the late ‘70s at Camp Tel Noar (CTN) in Hampstead, NH. Steve Levy was everyone’s favorite: smart, funny, and oh-so-cool. I learned a lot from Steve. He brought his music collection to camp and played Led Zep, The Who, The Stones and music otherwise inaccessible to nine year-olds. He taught drama and was one of my first directors, witnessing my transformation into the role of “theater kid” that lasted through college. He would also sneak us leftover Chinese contraband, waking us at midnight for a bull session and cold noodles.
Steve wore a signature necklace. This was no Jewish Star of David or Chai symbol. It was a wrench. When I asked him about it, his four-word reply was a more profound insight into the human condition than any after school special was offering:
“We are all tools.”
Other counselors caught on, and naturally, started wearing wrench necklaces, too. Now they were all tools.
Steve Levy left CTN and began a professional career in standup comedy and acting. I followed his career with enthusiasm. It’s always a thrill to see someone you know on TV, and better still when it’s your childhood idol. When he had a cameo on “The West Wing,” I nearly lost it.
He was on “Ray Donavan” and “JAG,” too. And then, Steve died of a particularly vicious form of cancer that first took his nose (a legendary nose at that), when he was just 58. You should read his amazingly touching, funny account of his life with nose cancer.
Now. We’ll wait.
I’d been in touch with him, the way you can in the era of emails and social media. But in the past 40 years, I never saw him. Steve lived in LA, and I never made the time. I regret that.
There are many of us who share camp memories of him or were genuine fans outside of the world of CTN, and it made me start to wonder about our collective mourning on line. People may share sad news tragically close to home on Facebook, but more often you’ll see a nostalgia thread after their favorite pop star passes. Something about social media makes us share the fact that we saw David Bowie on the Glass Spider tour… and also that one time at Whole Foods. That’s not necessarily deliberate; social media asks, “What are you thinking?” If you’re upset about something, that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a new kind of grief: Social Mourning.
Steve’s death reminds me of another loss that still stings– the murder of my friend Stu Meltzer on 9/11. If you follow me on social media, you’ve seen my yearly tributes. I want to share the karaoke-style tapes we made in 1990. I want keep his memory alive. I still miss him. But every year I also wonder if I am making this about me. Am I benefitting from unwarranted sympathy every September 11th? It’s Stu’s family that mourns most deeply. Does my public display of bereavement, however genuine, take a piece of that? Who am I to write about loss when they lost so much more? I’m simply one of the hundreds of people who mourn for Stu. Or… maybe our Social Mourning allows all of us to feel that closeness in our grief, even for just a moment as we blow on our morning coffees and scroll through our screens.
I’m going to surprise the heck out of Churchy Girl Britt now and turn to Judaism for a moment. I do this because I genuinely appreciate the Jewish rules on mourning. Among the most important is the concept of Yahrtzeit. Literally, it means “time of year” but really it means “time of one year.” Jews are instructed to recognize these sad anniversaries. There is even a candle involved, though I have yet to light one outside of the rare blackout.
(My Jewish friends may fault my Yahrtzeit candle usage, but I figure the Almighty’s cool with it, since His first act was to create light.)
In addition to the candlelit remembrances, it’s also standard protocol to go to Sabbath services the week of the Yahrzeit. I have never done this with any frequency, and I really loved my grandparents. But I will post about Stu every year, and write a blog remembering my favorite camp counselor. Is social media the new Yahrzeit?
What are our intentions when we share our grief on line? What are we saying when we lament the loss of someone we only ever saw at Whole Foods? Or mourn someone we haven’t seen (in person) in more than 40 years? Are we pulling focus to ourselves to share our grief? Or are we compelled to tell the crowd “Look! I’m sad David Bowie’s dead, too!” for fear someone will take you to task for not posting “Heroes?”
I don’t know.
I’m a tool.