Remembering Arnie Pincus


Excerpted from Hesped for Arnold Pincus (May 31,1929-February 15, 2016) delivered by Rabbi Edwards on February 19, 2016 at Hillside Memorial Park. Others who spoke at the service were Arnie’s nephew David Dietz, BCC members Janet Meskin and Ray Eelsing, Arnie’s former neighbor Valerie Edwards, his caregiver Tess Bario, and his tenant Demitra Tsioulos. Rabbi Edwards also quoted from comments and remembrances she received from other individuals too numerous to list here, both within and outside the BCC community. As one of them said, Arnie “accumulated people.” This article first appeared in G’Vanim, March 2016 issue

This morning we come together to remember Arnie and to gently place his casket into a crypt near his beloved partner of 35 years, Benn Howard. Though Benn has been gone for over 21 years, he really never left Arnie’s side or his heart. Arnie’s house, the one he shared with Benn all those years, the house Benn helped to enlarge from a small bungalow into a lightfilled and airy two story home, remains filled with images of Benn as well as Benn’s stunning pottery and poetry. The house is still very much a home, not at all a memorial. Their papers and artifacts will be collected at ONE LGBT Archives.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Arnie was orphaned at a young age and raised largely by his older siblings, especially his sister Ida. After college and service in the Army, he went on the GI Bill to graduate school in history at the University of Iowa where he met the dancer and artist Benn Howard who would become his life partner. Arnie was a Fulbright Scholar in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1957-1959. Arnie and Benn moved to Los Angeles in 1961 where Arnie became a professor of history at Cal State LA, retiring in 1992.

Arnie and Benn got together before Arnie’s great niece and nephew Gail Green and David Dietz were born. From childhood on Arnie and Benn played a
huge role in Gail and David’s lives, and in the life of Gail’s husband Neal, who met them when he was still a teenager. The other night Neal told us what a profound effect Arnie had on him. “As a young man I wasn’t familiar with gay culture, I didn’t understand it at all. At age 18 I came to California with Gail, spending time with Benn and Arnie – It was the best thing for me. Not only did Benn influence me to learn to cook! Knowing
them changed me and my thinking and I grew to love them both and I had a better understanding of what it meant to be a human being and not be labeled this or that. From Arnie and Benn I learned it’s the person not the lifestyle or the color or the religion. It’s the person that matters. And I’ve taught that to my children.”

Nurturing BCC from its infancy, Arnie and Benn also provided one of our earliest homes at Benn’s dance studio, and years later helped move us into our first permanent building at 6000 W. Pico. Arnie loved to tell stories of the first services there with electric wires dangling from the ceiling, and plastic sheeting for the walls. Arnie and Benn both served as BCC’s president in the late 1970s.

When I started my rabbinate at BCC in August 1994, a newly ordained rabbi, AIDS was still raging through this congregation ironically called Beth Chayim Chadashim, “House of New Life.” BCC’s then Cantorial Soloist, Fran Chalin, was out on maternity leave with her new baby, Eli. Several congregants were on their deathbeds. I was scrambling to visit those who were ill, and still do everything else I needed to do. I received a
message that BCC member Benn Howard had died, and his partner Arnie Pincus wondered, since I hadn’t known Benn, if it would be okay to ask Rabbi Leah Kroll to officiate instead. I was so relieved!

Yesterday Rabbi Kroll sent me a sweet remembrance of Arnie. Newly back from a year of study in Israel, her first student pulpit was the very young BCC, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. Rabbi Kroll remembers, “Arnie, especially, was so encouraging and supportive of everything that I wanted to do at the congregation. Arnie had a great smile and he always made me feel welcome. In 1978 I was pregnant with my first child, and BCC had a baby shower for me. I looked at the invitation and photos yesterday and it read ‘Our Rabbi is Having a Baby.’ Arnie (and Benn) were both there (as they were for every important congregational event). I will always remember Arnie’s support for a young, inexperienced and pregnant (but eager and passionate) student rabbi. We spent many hours on the phone together talking about the congregation. His love for what he was helping to build for the gay community was contagious. I will always remember Arnie peeking through his glasses, his caring voice, and his ever willingness to lend a helping hand. He helped to shape the rabbi that I became. May his memory be for a blessing.”

Eventually, of course, I too got to know Arnie as did my wife Tracy. We bonded first and forever around the fact that we had each lived in and met our life partners in Iowa City, Iowa, where all of us had gone to graduate school. It’s not often in Los Angeles that any of us found people who knew Iowa City at all, let alone as a romantic haven for gays and lesbians. It was one of those sweet secrets between us.

Though quite a few of us have been gathering around Arnie to help in the last few years and months of his life as his health deteriorated, no one knew him better at the end of his life than his stalwart caretaker Peter Pizarro and Peter’s wife Tess Borio, also a caretaker. Peter has worked for Arnie for four years; this past year he and Tess lived upstairs at Arnie’s house.

And these past couple of weeks in particular, Peter tended to Arnie’s every need almost 24/7, getting very little sleep as he watched over his friend Arnie, calling a few of us to Arnie’s side last Monday when he saw that the end was near. Peter and Tess, we can’t thank you enough for your good care of Arnie all these years.

Jews all over the world this week are studying the portion in the book of Exodus called Tetzaveh, in which God continues a forty day long instruction to Moses – the two of them alone together on the top of Mt. Sinai, while the Israelites wait nervously below, fearful they will never see Moses or God again. In those forty days, God instructs Moses in great detail how the Israelites shall create a portable sanctuary in the wilderness in which the priests will make offerings to God on behalf of the people. These are God’s instructions as to the elaborate costumes (the vestments) the priests shall wear, and who shall make those costumes:

“You shall tell all who are wise of heart (khakhmei lev), whom I have filled with wise spirit (ruach khokhmah), to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest” (Exodus 28:3).

Since Arnie was colorblind, he might not have made the best clothes designer (or even always a clothes wearer, according to some of you who knew Arnie and Benn back in the day!). Indeed some of his friends say only Benn could really dress him. So if he’s looked a bit shlumpy to you these last few years, that may be why.

But if you saw that photo of Arnie as you came in, or if you’ve talked with his friend Sylvia Dillon or been to any Halloween or Purim parties with Arnie over the years, you know he was game for a good costume. Sylvia shared a 48 year friendship with Arnie, one in which they could finish each other’s sentences – often in song.

Valerie Edwards recounted in great detail how in a recent outing she took Arnie and Sylvia, each using a walker, to a hip young restaurant where at a community table these two oldsters had the youngsters enthralled for three hours with stories of living and traveling in Europe and Japan, of their intellectual and art pursuits, and in general, of their long and interesting lives.

Over the past 21 years, I recall seeing Arnie Pincus at many events and places accompanied by many different people. We all do, I suspect. From Yiddish music concerts (his Yiddish was pretty good), to grief support groups, to visits with him in the hospital, or at home – looking with him at his art collection or photo albums or amazing library (so many stories to accompany each one) — to seeing him in synagogue at services and events including weddings or our festive annual awards brunch to dining with him at restaurants or in his home in celebration of birthdays, to traveling to Israel with a BCC group in 2007, to sitting with him as he took his last gentle breath – not eager to leave, but willing.

What will our lives be like without Arnie in them, without his wise heart and wise spirit? The truth is we won’t be without him. Look at the numbers of you who came today, or wrote, the numbers of you who easily recall his presence in your life, his influence. Consider the fact that our congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim, wouldn’t be what it is had Arnie Pincus not had a part in it; neither would his great niece and nephew and nephew-in-law or their children be who they are. Our lives and how we live them have been influenced by Arnie Pincus and his beloved Benn Howard, and that influence will continue making his life a blessing to us all.

Zikrono livracha. Rest in peace, Arnie Pincus, beloved uncle, cousin, neighbor, teacher, student, congregant, and so much more . . .rest in peace, wise hearted, wise spirited, dear, dear friend.

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