By Michael Bartolic
Hannah Biberstein, age 82, passed away at her home in Davis on the last Tuesday in April, and was buried here on Thursday, April 28. It is the end we all come to; that dark angel will not pass over us infinitely.
On some intellectual level, we accept that we all depart this life. Yet when somebody’s death truly reaches us, when we can’t ignore that a person of incredible warmth, light, grace and giving is gone from the reach of our sight, hearing, touch — gone except in memory from the paths of our days — then how do we encompass it? How do we turn our hurt to joy for Hannah having given and shared so very much with us?
In “Invisible Cities,” a 1972 novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Kahn asks.
“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco Polo answers, “but by the line of the arch that they formed.”
Kublai Kahn remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”
Marco Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”
Let us count the ways Hannah won our admiration, our gratitude and most all, her place in our hearts.
Hannah, with her husband Ernie Biberstein, was among the founders of Davis’ first synagogue, which grew to become Congregation Bet Haverim. This certainly evidences her strong faith, which carried her as a child through the Nazi terrors of Kristallnacht, and sustained her passage to a new life in the New World.
Yet as Rabbi Greg Wolfe so well phrased it at Hannah’s funeral, her commitment to her faith was most fully expressed not in doctrine but in her actions of compassion, mercy and social justice. Hannah’s whole life, in fact, can perhaps best be understood as an expression of her Jewish faith through her selfless practice of tikkun olam (“repairing of the world”).
And by the strength of her faith so expressed, Hannah found a key to engage others of like mind from all faiths to act together for the benefit of the hurt, infirm and needy, for the whole community — indeed, for the world.
From Hannah’s efforts sprang Davis Community Meals, which she served as board member and officer. Likewise, she served as a mediator in the original city of Davis mediation program, and chaired the city’s Social Services Commission, as well as serving on the Affordable Housing Task Force.
Somehow Hannah also found time, between raising a family and all which that involves, to be active in a variety of interfaith groups, including Care for God’s Creation and the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network. Her passion for social justice, combined with a quiet fervor for more than mere coexistence with other faiths and cultures, culminated with the creation of the Celebration of Abraham, which brings together Jews, Muslims and Christians in mutual endeavor to make the world more humane.
For these selfless acts, involving thousands of hours of volunteer effort, in 2002 the board of directors of Congregation Bet Haverim, the Jewish Fellowship of Davis, established the Biberstein Social Action Fund to honor Hannah and Ernie, a gentleman equally wonderful in his own right. The goal of the annual awards reflects the Bibersteins’ efforts to help support projects addressing poverty, discrimination, abuse and neglect in Yolo County.
Out of similar respect for her tireless devotion to community service and social justice, Hannah was a recipient of the city of Davis’ Brinley Award for community service in 1998 (again with her husband Ernie), the Thong Hy Huynh Memorial Humanitarian Award in 2005 and the Peace Force Award by Teach Peace in 2007.
I would only add that by her actions even more than her generous words it always seemed to me that Hannah had no enemies, only friends she hadn’t gotten a commitment from quite yet. But, that was tempered by an equal willingness to speak truth to power, and never was that more in evidence perhaps than on Oct. 11, 1998, when she visited Rome for the canonization of Ernie’s aunt Edith, murdered in the Shoa/Holocaust.
There, she had audience with Pope John Paul II, sharing her thoughts to him on how his effort to acknowledge Catholic complicity in failing to assist the Jews in their time of horror at the hands of Hitler as strongly as need demanded was doing so much to repair the good will between people of all creeds, which war had torn asunder. We can only smile in humble appreciation of small, white-haired Hannah sharing faith with the towering Pole!
But in all seriousness, recalling her own tireless work for the welfare of all, Hannah’s words to the pontiff on that occasion might well be said of herself: “You have changed the climate from one of residual fear, suspicion and confrontation to one inviting mutual acceptance and fruitful interaction.”
— Michael Bartolic is a Davis resident.